The blueprint for what many 76ers fans want Billy King to do can be found about 100 miles north up the New Jersey Turnpike.
In a few short months since being given keys to the Knicks' executive washroom, Isiah Thomas has managed to completely revamp a franchise that appeared to be drifting toward the NBA lottery for the fourth straight year, and one without hope of sliding under the salary cap for generations to come.
But Thomas landed in an almost perfect situation for such a makeover. He has the backing of a franchise whose financial philosophy is ''We've never met a contract we don't like,'' since owner Jim Dolan seems perfectly happy to continue signing checks covering not only the team's nine-figure payroll, but also the huge luxury tax bill that comes with it.
Thomas also had a prime trade commodity, a broken-down Antonio McDyess in the final year of his huge contract. So all Thomas had to do was find another floundering team — one close enough to the cap that the right move could make them a player in the free-agent sweepstakes — with something of value to the Knicks, and the makings of a deal was in place.
Enter Phoenix, and native New Yorker Stephon Marbury.
Before Thomas' arrival, the best the Knicks could hope for was to maybe sneak into the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Now, with the arrival of Marbury and new coach Lenny Wilkens, Thomas has managed to transform the team into one that, after Friday's game, had moved up to seventh in the conference standings, just a game behind sixth-place Toronto and only four games out of the fourth seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, King, the Sixers' general manager, has none of those advantages. While the Sixers are also over the cap, Comcast-Spectacor and Ed Snider aren't about to sign any blank checks to cover an increased luxury tax bill.
The Sixers also have no McDyess-style contract about to expire to use as bait. The only players on the current roster unsigned for next season are Amal McCaskill, Zendon Hamilton, Kyle Korver and Willie Green. Between them, they don't even make as much as Greg Buckner.
There has been interest in rookies Korver and Green, along with third-year center Samuel Dalembert, but King has steadfastly maintained that he'd be extremely reluctant to deal the Sixers' young talent.
There have also been teams inquiring about Eric Snow, and the point guard is probably the most likely to go if the right deal comes along. Snow was the ideal floor general in former coach Larry Brown's system, which relied on half-court sets and taking care of the ball. But new coach Randy Ayers favors a more up-tempo offense, and it's obvious Snow doesn't fit well in that system.
There are teams in search of a point guard, including Houston, which reportedly would like to move Steve Francis off the point. But, again, Snow has a contract that escalates from $4.5 million this year to $7.3 million when it expires in 2008-09, when he will be 35.
It would also be tough to move Kenny Thomas, who signed a seven-year, $50.7-million extension over the summer that lasts until 2009-10. There probably is interest in the 6-7 forward, who is among the league's rebounding leaders at 9.6 per game, but since Thomas' salary rose more than 120 percent this season, he qualifies as a base-year player, which means in a trade the Sixers can take back just half of his reported $5.5-million contract while the team on the other end must have room under the cap for the entire amount. And Ayers has said that the 26-year-old Thomas, along with 28-year-old Marc Jackson, fits his definition of ''young talent'' he wants to develop.
And Sixer fans who yearn to see Allen Iverson dealt can forget it. Like him or not, Iverson is the reason the Sixers are among the league's top five in both home and road attendance, and among the league leaders in merchandise revenue, and Comcast-Spectacor would like to keep it that way. And even if they deal their marquee talent, past history says they don't do a very good job of it (see Wilt Chamberlain, 1968; Moses Malone, 1986; and Charles Barkley, 1992).
King is willing to deal, but he has also said he's not about to scrap the future in exchange for a few extra wins now. So, the Sixers approach the Feb. 19 trading deadline with one hand tied behind their back.
Can't get you out of my mind: Larry Brown's visit to the Sixers' practice facility on Wednesday might have been ''nothing out of the ordinary,'' as Ayers put it, but you have to question the timing, especially in the wake of Iverson's ''heart'' message the previous night.
Why give the fans, many of whom feel betrayed by Brown's abrupt departure last Memorial Day, more talk-show fodder?
Brown's visit, which coincided with a trip back to the city to see his family, didn't faze Joe Dumars, Brown's new boss in Detroit.
''I know Larry has a great relationship with a lot of people in the Philly organization,'' Dumars told the Detroit News. ''It's a nonissue for us.''
Seems Brown still has his former team on his mind. When a Detroit writer asked Brown earlier this week his reaction to No. 3 making the All-Star team, Brown responded, ''Allen?''
The writer was referring to the Pistons' Ben Wallace.
Got your back, Coach: Iverson threw his weight behind Ayers earlier this week.
''We have a lot of trust in Randy's ability,'' Iverson said. ''We believe he can get it done. I mean, I believe in him. I know he can coach.
''You can't put that on a coach,'' he added, referring to the Sixers' woes. ''He doesn't go out there and play — not one minute of the game. The guys go out and play. He gives assignments and tells them what to do. If he's not getting it done, what can he do? If he sits somebody down and the next person comes in and does the same thing, what can he do? A coach can only do so much.''
Don't push the plunger: Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson isn't a believer in the ''blow-it-up'' philosophy of rebuilding a team.
''The way the game is being played now in the NBA is, we have players who are reliable, night-in, night-out contributors, and there are a number of role players available every year to fit in,'' Jackson said. ''It's the job of your personnel people and general managers to find those kind of people to fit in and have the trades necessary to build a team that comes back to win.''
Of course, Jackson skipped out of Chicago before the Bulls went that route following Michael Jordan's second retirement, and chances are he will not be around in L.A. when that decision has to be made about the Lakers.
Heart-attack: Responding to questions about Iverson's complaint that the Sixers were playing without heart recently, Jackson said he's done the same thing at times within the walls of his locker room, but not publicly.
However, he said, he's not adverse to what Iverson did.
''A player challenging his teammates — that's an interesting concept I don't mind that,'' Jackson said, adding that Jordan did the same thing several times in Chicago.
Frank-ly speaking: OK, so maybe deposed New Jersey coach Byron Scott wasn't the same coach without Eddie Jordan at his side.
But just looking at the numbers, it's obvious that Jason Kidd also wasn't leaving it all on the floor for his ex-coach.
Over Scott's 42 games, Kidd shot 38.4 percent from the field, averaged 16.7 point and 9.4 assists a game. And over Scott's final six games (five of them losses) Kidd averaged 12.8 points on 31.5 percent shooting, and had a 2.2:1 assists-to-turnover ratio.
In six games (all wins) since Lawrence Frank took over for Scott, Kidd is shooting 48.5 percent while averaging 19.5 points and 10.8 assists a game, and his assists-to-turnover ratio has almost doubled to 4.3:1.
Overall, the Nets are scoring almost five more points a game under Frank (93.5 to 88.8) and are allowing six fewer (81.5 to 87.6).
A Garden party: An equal resurgence is taking place across the river under Wilkens.
The Knicks are 7-3 since Wilkins took over, 9-6 since Marbury came aboard. In those 15 games under Marbury, the Knicks have topped 90 points 11 times — after just 17 in their first 35 games — and are averaging 98.9 points a game, almost 10 more than they were averaging (89.0) pre-Marbury.
Marbury is averaging 18.4 points and 9.7 assists a game as Knick. He has also made Keith Van Horn the team's third offensive option, a role Van Horn seems to be comfortable in. In the 14 games he's played with Marbury, Van Horn, whose playing time in some games has been limited by a bruised right knee, is shooting 45.6 percent from the field and 48.2 percent from behind the 3-point arc, and has twice topped 30 points. Overall, Van Horn is averaging 16.7 points and shooting 44.3 percent from the field, 37.6 percent from behind the arc
Speaking of the Knicks, their reaction to an emotional 97-90 win Wednesday over Indiana got the Pacers' attention.
''We're going to remember those guys celebrating like they won the championship,'' Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal said. ''Hopefully, guys on our team have long memories.''
The backdrop to the game was the first meeting behind the teams run by Thomas and Larry Bird, who fired Thomas as the Pacers coach late last summer after Bird was named team president. The grudge between those two reportedly goes back to their playing days, when Thomas was quoted as saying that Bird would be ''just another player'' if he was black.
''There wasn't any talk, but I think we all had it in the back of our minds that this game was very important for him — especially with the circumstances that went down in Indiana,'' Van Horn said.
Do as I say … : Not long after the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal served a one-game suspension for swearing during a live TV interview when asked about the officiating last Sunday in Toronto, teammate Gary Payton talked about the situation with the Lakers' superstar.
''We had a chat,'' Payton said. ''We sat after the game … and I told him we need him on the floor. He said 'OK.' We can talk like that.''
A day later, Payton lasted just nine minutes in the Lakers' game at Philadelphia, ejected after first arguing a foul that was called on him, then swearing at official Joe Crawford after he was hit with the first technical.
Payton didn't talk to reporters after the game but did tell a TV reporter that ''All I know is … Joey has no business being in there,'' according to the Los Angeles Times.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said afterward that Payton's behavior ''did not warrant'' Crawford's reaction but did not plan to lodge a complaint with the league.
''I think Joey knew after he'd done it he put is in an extreme disadvantage to play the game,'' Jackson said. ''This is sports entertainment, after all. And that game wasn't entertaining.''