Million-dollar Malone could solve Philadelphia's playoff frustrations

Money always talks. But when the figure is $13.2 million over six years to acquire one professional basketball player who can get you the ball (it's called rebounding), you also have to make room for the thunder and the lightning.

At $26,829.77 per game, that's about what the Philadelphia 76ers expect out of 6 ft. 11 in. center Moses Malone, acquired in an off-season trade with Houston.

Anyway, the 76ers, the NBA team with the best won-lost record (331-161) over the last six seasons but with no world championship to show for it, have now put all of their eggs into two gigantic baskets.

By adding the multi-faceted talents of Malone to those of the fabulous Dr. J. (Julius Erving), Philadelphia owner and diet king Harold Katz figures he can now safely place an order for 12 championship rings. Katz may be right, for no one else in pro basketball controls both backboards with the finality of Malone, last year's Most Valuable Player.

Even so, success is a fickle thing in the NBA, and no team knows this better than the Sixers, particularly when it comes to playoff time.

This explains the cautious manner of Philadelphia coach Billy Cunningham, who doesn't jump to conclusions just because of his team's fast start. In fact, he holds his judgments as tight to the vest as King Kong held Fay Wray.

''I don't even want to talk about the playoffs,'' Cunningham told me in the visitors' ocker room at the Los Angeles Forum, only minutes after his team had crushed the defending NBA champion Lakers. ''Why rush things? The playoffs start in May and this is December. With Malone and Erving and the others, we've got a good mix for whatever happens down the road. But if we were to go into the playoffs injured at a key position - well, that's what you always worry about if you're a coach.''

If you're wondering what makes Malone so special, it's his ability to dominate a game in areas like rebounding, blocked shots, and offense while still remaining part of a team concept. Moses isn't just physical. He's also smart, durable, and steady.

If one were to chart Malone's performance over an entire season, he would find little in the way of peaks and valleys. The man's just your average, everyday superstar.

Asked what he feels his role should be with the 76ers, Malone replied: ''I think my job is to hit the boards and play the best defense I can. Basically I'm doing the same things I did when I was with the Rockets, with one exception. Because of the people I have around me now, like Doc and Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks, there isn't as much individual pressure on me here as I got in Houston.''

As to early speculation in the press that the Moses Malone Show might push Dr. J. off the main stage and into some back room, it hasn't happened. In fact, what seems to have taken place is the formation of a mutual admiration society.

''I didn't come to Philadelphia to take over for Doc,'' Malone said. ''I just came here to join a winning team. I know it's Doc's show and I'm happy to be part of the cast. Anyway, Philadelphia was winning 55 to 60 games every season before I got here. Maybe I can add something extra in the playoffs, but I only regard myself as one more member of the team.''

Erving, whose maturity is greater than that of most NBA players, is also quick to shoot down any suggestions of conflict of interest between himself and Moses.

''You won't see any petty jealousies on this team, because nobody here is going to let that happen,'' Dr. J. explained. ''Both Moses and I are willing to sacrifice some personal stats for the good of the general situation. Anyway, it's not what we can do apart, but what we can do together.''

Still, it's interesting to note what Boston General Manager Red Auerbach told Sports Illustrated about the Malone-Erving situation in Philadelphia.

''It might be good for Philly for a year,'' Red said, ''but then it will start to eat their team up. What are they going to do when all their other great players want to renegotiate in comparison to what Malone got? That's when the fun will start.''

Is this just sour grapes, one wonders, or the astute observation of a man who , over the years, has been able to read most pro basketball players like a comic book?

The one question remaining about Philadelphia this season concerns its depth, which became an issue when Caldwell Jones, Darryl Dawkins, Mike Bantom, Steve Mix, and Lionel Hollins were all subtracted from last year's roster.

''We have good balance, we play good defense, and we're capable of beating any of the league's best teams consistently on the road,'' Cunningham said. '' We have enough veterans on this club so that we can carry several rookies and still play well.''

One Philadelphia newcomer who has exceeded expectations is 6-10 starting forward Mark Iavaroni. Originally drafted by the New York Knicks after a college career at Virginia, Mark played parts of the last three years in Italy before signing with Philadelphia as a free agent.

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