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NBA - Eastern Champs Limping Into New Season

By George Gouvas
Sunday, October 21st, 2001

Following a 56-win season, the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers, head into the 2001-2002 season with stack of injuries and very little respect. But the lack of respect has nothing to do with what the Sixers haven't done, it's what the teams behind have done.

Philly began last year's magical season with ten consecutive wins, cruising to the number-one seed in the Eastern Conference. Offseason surgeries to Allen Iverson, Aaron McKie, George Lynch, and Eric Snow, nicks and bruises to Matt Harping, rookie Damone Brown, and the oft-injured Matt Geiger, will have the team barely keeping their heads above water, at least in the early going. Speaking of Snow, things have gone from bad to worse on the injury. Finally healed from his fractured foot, Snow fractured his left thumb in several places in a preseason game against the Spurs Tuesday night and will miss anywhere from six weeks to three months.

So when the Sixers open the season against the T-Wolves, Speedy Claxton will be the starter at the point. Even though Claxton has impressed in the preseason, he is less than a year removed from knee surgery and has never played a regular season game in the NBA. Sixth-man of the Year Aaron McKie will miss the first few games of the season, coming off shoulder surgery.

With the trade of Tyrone Hill and the injury to Lynch, Matt Geiger, journeyman Michael Smith and Robert "Tractor" Traylor will share time at power forward. Raja Bell will see plenty of time and the one and two spots, and Matt Harping will have look upon to score more than expected. And that's not all. Let's not forget about the team's loss, though not injury related may hurt just as much. Seven-footer Todd MacCullouch was signed away by the Nets and the most enthusiastic, energetic, positive man to ever step foot into Sixers headquarters, Pat Croce, left the team when he wasn't given the promotion he most certainly deserved.

And if the deck wasn't stacked against the 76ers enough, several of the Eastern Conference rivals has made major moves in hopes of dethroning "The Answer" and company.

Orlando, not Philly, was supposed to be the team on the rise last season. With the signings of Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, the Magic were ones to overtake the aging Knicks and take hold the East. Hill played in just four games, but McGrady was everything Orlando expected, and more. Doc Rivers, desperate for frontcourt help, sought the services of two chiseled veterans, Patrick Ewing and Horace Grant. Along with sweet-shooting Darrell Armstrong, and with the likelihood of a slow start by the Sixers, the Magic have a chance put themselves where Philly was last season, which was way out in front by the All-Star Break.

Vince Carter's Toronto Raptors gave Philadelphia everything they could handle in their seven-game series, going down to the final seconds. The most important moves the Raptors made were keeping their team intact. Re-signing big-man Antonio Davis, rebounding specialists and head cheerleader Jerome Williams, and the very underrated guard Alvin Williams were even more important than bringing in Hakeem Olajuwon. Although not even close to his prime years, "The Dream" will provide leadership and a terrific locker room presence. The Raptors and Bucks will battle tooth and nail for the Central.

The Milwaukee Bucks did very little tinkering to their team this offseason are falling one-game short of the NBA Finals last year, but if you ask most NBA experts, they are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. George Karl still has his scoring machine intact, lead by guards Allen and Cassell. Glenn Robinson and a much-improved Tim Thomas can light it up with anybody. But the man who might have the biggest impact in Milwaukee this season is a guy who at this very moment, isn't even in their camp.

Free agent forward Anthony Mason has turned down the 10-year veteran's minimum contract of $1 million, from both the Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers in hopes of obtaining more money than he rightly deserves. Mason averaged 16 points and nearly 9 rebounds per night for the Miami Heat last, but teams are unwilling to pay Mason any serious money, wanting to avoid paying the luxury tax. Mason is thought to be seeking around $20 million, over four years.

Somehow, some way, the Bucks desperately want Mason. Their offer will come, his will come down, he will be on George Karl's roster, even if it takes until Thanksgiving. And with him, the Bucks are the favorites to represent the East, and lose to the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

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