On paper at least, the Philadelphia 76ers appear to be the only team capable of preventing the Boston Celtics from repeating as National Basketball Association champions. So it was surprising to hear Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham say in late January: ``We are not anywhere near as good a team as I expected us to be at this point in the season.''
This is a little hard to accept considering that the 76ers have been playing at around an .800 clip all season; have the best road record of any NBA team; and have improved an already potent club this year via the addition of a rookie good enough to start at forward in Charles Barkley.
Man for man, the top six players on each team appear about even. The Celtics have Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell, Danny Ainge, and Kevin McHale, while the 76ers can counter with Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, and Barkley.
If Boston has an edge it may lie in the special talents of McHale, whose ability to come off the bench and produce points and rebounds instantly has made him indispensible. While Barkley has made a tremendous contribution to the 76ers for a first-year player, he may never do the things offensively that McHale can do.
Cunningham's reluctance to talk further and more openly about his club may well reflect his personal wariness of the unseen forces that have dogged the 76ers in the playoffs four of the last five seasons.
During that stretch the 76ers have snagged just one NBA title; lost twice in the Eastern Conference playoffs (including last year's shocking first-round upset by the New Jersey Nets); and been eliminated twice in the championship round by the Los Angeles Lakers, each time in six games.
Considering the acknowledged talent the team has possessed during this period, Cunningham must accept at least part of the blame for these results.
What probably hurt Philadelphia most was losing at home in the decisive sixth game of the 1980 championship final to a Laker team shorn of injured center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who remained in Los Angeles to watch the game on TV. The man who took his place most of the time at center, forward Magic Johnson, poured in 42 points.
Whenever outsiders discuss the 76ers, there are references to Philadelphia's lack of sacrifice and cohesiveness at playoff time. Instead of trying to learn the meaning of togetherness in terms of its relation to winning, the starters often seem to go off in different directions.
Had the 76ers worked to their potential in last year's playoffs, there is no way a team like the Nets, who finished only four games over the .500 mark during the regular season, could have upset them.
One player who will talk candidly about the team is Julius Erving, the renowned Dr. J., who is still operating as the team's No. 1 skywalker as well as one of its leading scorers and rebounders.
``I think we have a better starting team and a better bench than we had last season and that we're also a better team than the Celtics,'' Erving said. ``We go with more people than Boston, and for that reason we should be more rested for the playoffs. What we can't do with balance we should be able to do by working harder on both backboards.
``Barkley rebounds the offensive board almost as well as Malone and he'll get better,'' Julius added. ``I think the United States coaching staff made a mistake in not putting Charles on our 1984 Olympic team. Alhough Barkley and I are opposites as far as the way we play, I've been able to help him adjust to the NBA by teaching him how to read the defenses of opposing teams.''
Erving says he thinks maybe the best way to compare Philadelphia and Boston at this point is to remind everyone that they are 2-2 this season, with the home team winning every game so far.
``I think the playoffs could be like that -- the team with the extra home game having the edge,'' Erving explained. ``But I don't think either of us can simply assume that we'll be playing each other in the Eastern Conference finals.
``Whichever one of us gets the Milwaukee Bucks first is going to have to be careful. The Bucks are playing extremely well in what everybody thought would be a transition period for them after Bob Lanier retired and they traded Marques Johnson. But Terry Cummings has been sensational for them, and by rotating their centers they have taken what could have been a minus and turned it into a plus. While there is no basic reason why either of us [Philadelphia or Boston] can't beat Milwaukee in the playoffs, it would be a mistake to think that it will be easy.''