In 1985-86, the Sixers finished the season 54-28 and took the Milwaukee Bucks to seven games in the second round. Moses Malone, who missed the playoffs because of an orbital fracture, made his ninth straight All-Star team, posting 23.8 points and 11.8 rebounds a game.
Yet, a year removed from making it to the Eastern Conference Finals and only a couple years removed from winning a title, the Sixers dealt Malone — along with Terry Catledge and two first-round picks — to the Washington Bullets. In return, they got Cliff Robinson and Jeff Ruland.
The Sixers also traded the No. 1 overall pick — that wound up being North Carolina big man Brad Daugherty — to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Roy Hinson.
''It's the most dramatic day of trading in the history of this organization,'' GM Pat Williams said at the time. ''We're far better equipped to deal at a championship level than 24 hours ago.''
Well, Williams was correct on the first part. The second part … not so much.
Williams was the architect of the 1982-83 title team and made plenty of outstanding moves during his tenure. But on June 16, 1986, he made two of the worst trades in franchise history on the same day.
But what if the Sixers never traded Malone? What if they simply held on to the No. 1 pick and selected Daugherty?
The Sixers were getting older. Julius Erving was 36. Maurice Cheeks was 30. Andrew Toney’s foot issues were severely hindering him. With the Malone trade, the Sixers believed they were getting younger and faster.
Robinson (131 games) and Hinson (105 games) weren’t Sixers for very long and didn’t have much impact. Ruland, who already had knee and shoulder issues, played five games with the team before retiring. He had a brief comeback with the Sixers in 1991 that didn’t last very long.
Malone, on the other hand, went on to make three more All-Star teams while Daugherty made five for the Cavs.
Instead of giving Dr. J a last dance of his own with Malone, Erving’s career ended after a first-round playoff exit in 1987. The 1987-88 season was disastrous as the Sixers finished 36-46 and missed the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. Toney played just 29 games that year and was forced to retire.
With a young Barkley leading the way and under coach Jim Lynam, the Sixers bounced back in 1988-89. They were swept by the Knicks in the first round, but there was hope in building around a budding star in Barkley.
While the team had varying degrees of success, Barkley was carrying far too much of the load in the early 90s, prompting him to eventually ask for a trade. There’s a thought that maybe it didn’t have to get to that point.
“I remember getting a phone call at about 6 in the morning — this is the day of the draft, I might add," Barkley said on the Lowe Post podcast. "It was from [Daily News writer] Phil Jasner in Philadelphia. And Phil calls me, he says, ‘Charles, can you talk?’ I said, ‘Phil, it’s like 6 in the morning.’ He says, ‘The Sixers made a trade. You need to talk about it. I need your opinion.’ I said, ‘Well, what’d they do?’ He said, ‘Traded the No. 1 pick in the draft. ... I said, ‘What? That’s all we got for the No. 1 pick, was Roy Hinson?' And then he says, ‘Oh, and they traded Moses to Washington.’”
“Moses was gonna be a great mentor [for Daugherty], because Moses was like a dad to me. ... That was the beginning of the end, where I could have actually had a really good team. ... That wrecked my entire Philadelphia career. ... That was the biggest disaster of my career, plain and simple.”
It’s fair to wonder what could’ve been if Malone was around for Erving’s final season. Perhaps you get a hyper-motivated version of Malone — miffed that he missed the playoffs the prior season and wanting to allow Dr. J to ride off into the sunset. Maybe he has one more prolific playoff run in him.
This would’ve also allowed Malone to keep mentoring Barkley and also a young Daugherty. As Malone declined, Daugherty’s role could’ve increased. Going into the 1990s, you would’ve been armed with two young All-Stars and arguably the best frontcourt in the NBA at that time.
Maybe that’s not enough to overcome Michael Jordan and the Bulls during that time. Daugherty was also forced into early retirement because of back issues.
But perhaps it’s enough to convince Barkley to stay. Maybe with Barkley and Daugherty in the fold you could attract better talent and maybe make a trade for the right guard to complement them.
Instead, Barkley was traded to the Suns and the Sixers embarked on one of the worst stretches in franchise history. After losing to Jordan in the second round in 1991, the Sixers wouldn’t make the playoffs again until Allen Iverson and Larry Brown led them there in 1998-99.
Could they have avoided that swoon if they held on to Malone a little bit longer? Could Daugherty’s presence have made the team formidable enough for Barkley to never want to leave?
We’ll never know the answers, but it’s fair to wonder.
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