When the Philadelphia 76ers added Julius (Dr. J.) Erving to their lineup this year, they were generally thought to have put together the best team in the National Basketball Association.
But as the playoffs draw near, it is clear that the Doctor and his staff are operating with less than surgical precision.
"We aren't ready to be a great team yet," said Erving, the man who was supposed to administer the final dose of brilliance that would make the Sixers great. "We have to improve on things. We just don't play intelligent basketball sometimes."
Intelligence may not be the only problem. There's also been a lack of harmony.
At least two members of the team have complained that they aren't playing enough and have asked to be traded if they don't get game time. And the coach, Gene Shue, has a nervous owner looking over his shoulder.
Even Erving's wife, Turquoise, is criticizing Shue and the team. In a recent newspaper article, she wrote that she doubte the Sixers will win the NBA championship, despite their glut of talent.
". . . I don't think they're playing much like a team," she said. "No one here respects Shue. How many guys wants to win one for Shue? Not one. And sometimes not even for themselves."
The Sixers, of course, do win. They are coasting ahead of second-place Boston in the Atlantic Division and are sure to be in the playoffs. But although the 76ers are the league's highest-paid team - the annual payroll is about $2.5 million, compared with about $2 million for the Washington Bullets - three other teams have better records.
The 76ers win with talent, not teamwork.
"Being unhappy sometimes is a state of life," says Shue."Not everyone is happy all of the time - except me."
But Shue is not very happy, either. He has aged this season, despite having signed a four-year contract said to be worth as much as $200,000 a year - if the 76ers accomplish certain feats.
Shue seldom sits on the bench, preferring to patrol the sidelines and mumble obscenities at his team's errors. He often looks frustrated.
"I hope we come together more as a team both offensively and defensively," he says.
The 76ers have more bona fide stars and one-on-one, do-it-yourself experts than any other team, and therein lies the source of most of their problems. They have not learned how to play together.
"It's just that so much is expected from this team," Shue said. "That makes it difficult to please some people."
after an early season game against Golden State, Shue was talking to reporters, trying to explain why the 76ers fell apart in the final five minutes of the game.
All of a sudden, a voice said, "I'm waiting to hear your excuses."
The voice was that of 76ers owner Fitz Dixon.
The startled Shue turned to him and said," I have no excuses."
The Philadelphia 76ers were a good team last year, with George McGinnis in the key role. When Dixon paid the New York Nets $3 million for Erving and then signed him to a six-year contract for $600,000 a year, the 76ers became, on paper, a great team.
One problem is that there isn't much rapport between the players and Shue, and not much more among some of the players.
McGinnis had played the part of the Pips to Erving's Gladys Knight act in the ABA, and the word was that he wouldn't take second billing again.
There has been no problem with McGinnis and Erving. They have both changed their games to accomodate one another. The other 76ers, perhaps, have not.
"Our guards have to take charge and run this team," Erving said. "Dough (Collins) and Lloyd (Free) do it at times, but they have to do it more often. They have to be consistent. It would improve our team a lot if they would run the team instead of it being run from the sidelines or from the front court. The forwards shouldn't have to worry about that."
McGinnis, in his unspectacular manner, has in some ways overshadowed Erving. He leads the 76ers in scoring (21.4 average). He has also taken more shots and made more of them than anybody else on the team. He has also shot more free throws and grabbed more rebounds (11.6 average) than anyone else. He is also first on the team in steals (2.1) and second in assists (3.9).
Erving is right behind McGinnis in all of those categories. He is averaging 20.8, 8.8 rebounds.
Then there's Free, a great shooter, superb penetrator and, at 6-foot-1, a magnificent leaper.
But Free often forgets that he has two of the best forwards in the game playing with him.
Erving finally called a team meeting a couple of weeks ago and told Free it was time to change.
Free volunteered to shoot less and pass more. "If it works, fine," Free said. "If it doesn't, I'm gonna go back to doing my thing."
Last weekend, Free was unhappy again. After playing just 13 minutes against the Chicago Bulls Sunday, he was saying play me or trade me.
Free, in only his second year, wants his contract renegotiated despite making more than $100,000 a year.
The Doctor just shakes his head.
The 76ers' talent goes far beyond Erving, McGinnis and Free.
Darryl Dawkins, 20, 6-11 1/2 and 250 pounds, is mobile and agile. At one time this season, he said, "Play me or trade me."
The 76ers played him. "I just thought I'd try it," Dawkins said.
"If Darryl does the things I think necessary to win, he plays," Shue said. If he doesn't do them, he doesn't play."
Steve Mix, the third forward, was an all-star before McGinnis came and a starter before Erving. He is still as steady and as gutsy a performer as the 76ers have.
Henry Bibby is an average playmaker. Doug Collins is perhaps the best guard in the league when it comes to moving without the ball. The trouble with that on the Philadelphia team is that often means you aren't going to get the ball.
But the 76ers are the Doctor. He's the one the sellout crowds come to see.
"As far as pressure from my teammates, there's not amount of pressure they could possibly put on me that would equal the pressure I put on myself," he said. "They have to understand that I'm here to help this team, not myself. I've never given anyone reason to criticize me," he said.