On Nov. 3, the Philadelphia 76ers' headline was:
A Team That Can Take It AllOn Feb. 3, the 76ers' headline could be:
A Team That Can't Take Any More
The last three months have seen franchise-rattling upheaval.
Beset by calamitous injury and by dire circumstance, some of its own making, the Sixers have been a team trying frantically to stay afloat. And they were doing remarkably well until Charles Barkley collapsed with a fracture of the left ankle. Without their life preserver, the Sixers were unable to even tread water.
So after watching his team drop five of the seven games they played without him, Barkley simply could take no more. And Friday night he did something simultaneously heroic and foolish. He played even though he himself admitted that he wasn't fully recovered.
He played magnificently, of course.
He played 32 minutes, husbanded his energy, throttled back until the finish, took a pit stop each quarter, and then beat the Phoenix Suns at the end with a decisive steal and two crushing baskets. He very nearly had a triple double - 24 points, a dozen rebounds, eight assists. And, oh yes, five steals. After not having played in almost three weeks, he made a lie out of the theory that one man can't win a game by himself.
Jim Lynam summed it up succinctly: "That's what being a super is all about."
And having said all that, it should also be said that, from the perspective of the long-term future, it seemed an unwise and unnecessary risk.
It was not the seventh game of the NBA Finals, although Barkley played like it was because he cannot help himself. But why even chance jeopardizing a career at this juncture?
The short-term benefit in no way justifies the long-term peril, to the Sixers and even more so to Barkley himself.
The Sixers are not going to win the NBA championship this season. Not with Barkley, and most emphatically not without him.
What they have been forced into this season is a holding action.
Three months ago, they talked about how as many as 10 teams had a reasonable chance at a championship and they were on the fringes of that group. But when they lost their point guard, Johnny Dawkins, their expectations were drastically lowered. Now they must muddle through as best they can.
They could still finish with between 45 and 50 wins. That would be well below the 60 that was mentioned in the preseason, but it would keep them among the top dozen teams in the league, which is where they are now, and would be a considerable accomplishment in view of all the turmoil.
There have been, after all, 10 new players already filtering in and out of the lineup this season. You don't need a scorecard to tell the Sixers, you need a whole phone book. Bodies come through here like luggage off the airport carousel.
Depending upon whom they draw as an opponent in the playoffs, they could be one-and-done, or they could duplicate last spring's effort of advancing to the second round. But the road ends there.
Still, if they accomplish that, they would have survived the sort of season that has shattered other franchises and would have posted a winning, successful year. And if Dawkins is mended by next season, then suddenly they have a backcourt of Dawkins and Hersey Hawkins, with Barkley and Armon Gilliam on the blocks. Just like that, they are a center away from title contention.
Given that scenario, then, the question becomes even more urgent: Why allow Charles Barkley to jeopardize all of that? Without him for the rest of this season, the Sixers become a lottery participant. Without him forever, the Sixers become, oh say, Sacramento.
As Tony Harris, the trainer whose herbal hands affected some sort of miraculous restorative to Barkley, said: "This is professional sports, and he's the franchise."
Yes, and you don't gamble the franchise when the stakes aren't worth it.