'New' 76ers on the march

Reminder: the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in the final game of last season's National Basketball Association playoffs without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and with a guard, Magic Johnson, playing center on offense and scoring 42 points.

On that basis you might want to question the widely held belief this year that Philadelphia, with 33 wins in its first 40 games, is the heir apparent to the Lakers' crown. Even the old Boston Celtics of Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, who won eight consecutive NBA titles, would tell you that things are never that easy in the playoffs.

What you have to understand, according to the Philadelphia coach Billy Cunningham, is that this is not the same team that lost last year's playoffs to the Lackers in six games. Although not many of the names have changed, new roles and new concepts have been found for old players with outstanding results.

The most noticeable of these involves guard Lionel Hollins, who became a starter with the 76ers last February, after being acquired from the Portland Trail Blazers for a future first-round draft pick. This year, rookie Andrew Toney is starting instead of Hollins, with Lionel providing a quick boost off the bench and nearly always being on court at the end of the game, when the pressure is greater and more experience is needed.

"During training camp we saw a lot of things about Toney that we liked," explained Cunningham. "He's not in Hollins's class as a ballplayer yet, in fact he still makes a lot of rookie mistakes, but at the same time he's been good for our fast break and he's been scoring in double figures.

"The usual thing, of course, would have been to sit Toney down for a while and try to find spots for him," Cunningham continued. "But because we wanted to build an exceptional bench, we decided to start him and let him learn the hard way. Now, when we bring in Hollins, we're a much better team, and Lionel probably has a lot more left physically late in the game than if he started."

Cunningham can also bring in two other veterans, forwards Bobby Jones and Steve Mix, who undoubtedly would be starting for many other teams and have been named to three NBA all-star squads between them.

Jones, who has made the league's all-defensive team for four consecutive years, plays as much with his lead as with his body. Mix, whose so-so speed only provides a cover for his quickness, had a four-game span early last season in which he scored 81 points in 81 minutes. During this stretch, he made 36 of 47 attempts from the field.

"I think our biggest improvement as a team this year has probably been on defense," said Cunningham, whose club is one of the stingiest in the league. "Since we haven't changed anything about the way we try to stop other teams, I can only explain this by saying that when most of your key players don't change, your defense is just naturally going to get better."

However, several NBA scouts claim this is only a Cunningham smokescreen -- that the 76ers are switching off more than they used to and that they are helping each other out a lot more on defense.

Physically, Philadelphia's starting front line is the envy of the National Football League. Center Darryl Dawkins, who is 6 ft. 11 in. and weighs 250 pounds, looks like the Eiffel Tower before taxes. Dawkins is considered a light eater. That is, as soon as it's light he starts to eat and at better hotels has reportedly spent as much as $90 for a single meal.

Forward Caldwell Jones, who stands seven feet and who was fourth last year in the NBA in rebounds, plays center when Dawkins is in foul trouble or requires a break. There are reports, totally unsubstantiated, that three Munchkins are living in one of Caldwell's old shoes.

If you have to be introduced to forward Dr. J (otherwise known as Julius Erving) then you have either been trying to find the focal point of one of Salvador Dali's paintings for the past five years or else you have been living on Gilligan's Island.

Dr. J. is thunder without the lightning, Superman without the cape, and Atlas without the world on his shoulders. So far this season Erving has been a 50 percent shooter, who has been averaging nearly 25 points a game, and who leads the 76ers in offensive rebounds. Stopping him is like trying to pick up water with a fork.

With these kind of team credentials, no wonder there has been a rush to jump on Philadelphia's bandwagon this season. The problem is that the 76ers have been to the playoffs before and been handed their heads.

However, the feeling here is that things this season could be substantially different.

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