Julius Erving

The 10 best defenders in Sixers history

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The 10 best defenders in Sixers history

To the casual basketball observer, it’s generally much easier to recognize offensive success than defensive brilliance.

As the NBA’s hiatus continues, with a plan to resume the season at Disney World in late July, we figured we’d appreciate the 10 best defenders in Sixers history.

We mostly tried to answer a basic question: “How good were they (or are they) at defense?” Factors like career accomplishments and time spent with the Sixers are part of the equation but not considered as important as with previous rankings we’ve done. Our ranking looks at players who have worn a Sixers uniform since the franchise adopted that name in 1963.

10. Joel Embiid 
As we’ve been doing these superlatives during the NBA’s hiatus, figuring out how to assess active players has been one of the main challenges. We want to properly respect those who had long, accomplished careers and not give too much weight to potential. With that said, Embiid has already made two All-Defensive Teams, meaning he’s one of five players in franchise history with multiple All-Defensive Team honors as a Sixer.  

9. Ben Simmons 
An agile, versatile defender with tremendous skills on and off the ball, Simmons is in the Defensive Player of the Year mix for this season. 

8. Billy Cunningham 
Cunningham was known for his tenacity and relentless effort, and he was a great defensive rebounder, as well. After leaving the Sixers for the Carolina Cougars for the 1972-73 season (where he was coached by Larry Brown), Cunningham led the ABA in steals. 

7. Andre Iguodala
During his prime, Iguodala was one of the NBA’s best wing defenders. His talents received a much larger spotlight in Golden State, but he did rack up the fourth-most steals in franchise history and make an All-Defensive Team with the Sixers in the 2010-11 season. 

6. Hal Greer 
The team’s all-time leader in games played and points scored has to be on this list. While we don’t have the same defensive statistics available with Greer as we do with modern players, Marc Zumoff remembered the Hall of Fame guard as a “diligent defender” and stellar all-around player.

5. Julius Erving 
Erving is second in franchise history in defensive win shares, behind only Dolph Schayes. His defense was artistic — apparently effortless strides that evaporated space so he could chase down blocks and come up with steals. In the 1983 NBA Finals, Erving led all players with 11 blocks at 33 years old, including five in an incredible Game 1 performance

4. Maurice Cheeks 
Cheeks has the most steals (and highest steal percentage) in Sixers history and was consistently strong on defense over his 11 seasons with the team as a player. He was a five-time All-Defensive Team selection. 

3. Dikembe Mutombo 
Seemingly every player who blocks a shot and is feeling good about themselves now wags their finger in the way Mutombo made famous. Though he only spent a season and a half in Philadelphia, Mutombo is clearly deserving of a high spot on our list, with four Defensive Player of the Year awards, tied for the most ever. He’s the only Sixer to ever win the award, though Embiid and Simmons might be able to change that. 

2. Bobby Jones 
For eight seasons in a row, Jones was named to the All-Defensive First Team. He didn’t play quite as many minutes as the other players in our ranking, but Jones earned a reputation as one of the top defenders in the sport, and the nickname “The Secretary of Defense.” The humble Hall of Famer was a tremendous sixth man for the 1982-83 champions and averaged 1.7 steals and 1.9 blocks over the Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals that year. 

1. Wilt Chamberlain 
If only we knew just how many shots Chamberlain blocked over his NBA career. Like most parts of his game, Chamberlain’s shot blocking was mythical. While we don’t have the exact statistics the same way we do with his scoring and rebounding, we do know he was an exceptional athlete and fearsome presence around the rim. With all due respect to Jones, “The Big Dipper” needs to be No. 1. 

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Julius Erving, Billy Cunningham and members of 1982-83 Sixers share lessons from path to championship

Julius Erving, Billy Cunningham and members of 1982-83 Sixers share lessons from path to championship

Outside of immense talent, there are nuances of championship teams which might be challenging for an outsider to grasp.

Staying awake and alert for film sessions is not one of them.

In recalling how the Sixers’ NBA Finals defeats in 1977, 1980 and 1982 helped the 1983 team overcome the Lakers, Julius Erving had this to say in a recent interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff: 

Well, you couldn’t take anything for granted. I remember in ’77, we had a two-game lead over Portland. … After some of the video sessions, I look around and see some guys yawning and rubbing their eyes and whatever. I say, ‘Oh no. This is not good. This is not good.’ I think the group that we had (in 1982-83) and me being the leader, just encouraged guys to stay with it all the way — 3-0 doesn’t mean anything, 2-0 doesn’t mean anything, 1-0 doesn’t mean anything — four. Four wins. And Moses (Malone) said it best, ‘Fo’, Fo’, Fo.’

Clint Richardson, a key reserve guard on the 1982-83 champions who Erving called his “little brother,” wasn’t one of those dozing off, since he was playing at Seattle University when the Sixers were squandering their 2-0 series edge to Bill Walton and the Trail Blazers. He’d experienced disappointment twice in the Finals before the Sixers’ sweep of the Lakers, though, and came away believing there’s nothing wrong with being loose — to a certain point, of course.

“They just need to relax,” he told Zumoff of what the current Sixers can learn from the champions 37 years ago. “I think they need to trust each other a little bit more and have more confidence in each other. But that happens … I think sometimes there’s a tendency to panic and second-guess. I think they just need to relax and play and enjoy what they’re doing. And enjoy Philadelphia. Because the people of Philadelphia, they’re patient enough to wait. They waited for us and we finally came through for them. They just need to embrace that.”

It would be a stretch to draw direct parallels between the last Sixers team to win a title and the current roster. Erving played alongside future Hall of Famers Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones and Malone. Andrew Toney may have been on a Hall of Fame trajectory if not for injuries. One tempting comparison, however, is between the late Malone, a three-time MVP, and Joel Embiid. 

Billy Cunningham, the winningest head coach in Sixers history, thinks there’s one trait Malone had that Embiid should emulate. 

The ingredient I would love to see (Embiid) have … Moses’ philosophy,” he said. “He just believed he’d wear people down. And when he got to the fourth quarter, he was relentless on the offensive boards. I’m sure if you go to statistics, nobody had more offensive rebounds. And Moses couldn’t jump over a piece of paper. It wasn’t like he was someone that’s going to be touching the top of the square or anything like that. 

“If Embiid took that little quality of just being relentless, he is gifted, there’s nothing in the game that he cannot do. He should dominate at the defensive end of the court. No one should even think of going to the lane. When I say that, it’s just admiration for his skill level. I don’t know if there’s many players playing that position that have ever had more skill than he has. And now he needs to say, ‘OK, I’m taking control of this. This is my team, and I’m going to dominate, No. 1, on the defensive end of the court.’ 

One of Malone’s backups, Earl Cureton, admired his diligent, no-nonsense approach. Unlike Embiid, Malone was not an active trash talker. 

“His work ethic, the way he approached the game,” Cureton said. “Moses didn’t do a whole lot of talking; he showed with his actions out on the basketball court. Moses didn’t have to say much. He went out and approached it, every single game, every single practice was relentless. It was incredible the way he played, the consistency. … And also being able to sacrifice, putting everything else aside to be a great teammate. 

“You talk about him being an MVP and a superstar, but Moses was just one of the guys. You would see Moses hanging out with anybody on the team ... treated everyone the same way. A lot of times, things that you do off the court mean as much as what you do on the court, in terms of team.”

After missing his first two seasons because of injury, Embiid has played 202 games in the regular season and 19 in the playoffs. Malone had 544 NBA regular-season games and 45 playoff games under his belt before the Sixers tore through the Knicks, Bucks and Lakers in 1983. He’s one of many examples in NBA history of great players needing to be surrounded by the right complementary pieces to win. And, though it might be a dreary reality to acknowledge, sometimes other teams are simply better.

All those factors contribute to Richardson’s stance that the Sixers should try to savor the journey, whatever form it takes. 

“I think they have a lot of potential,” he said. “I think they may have a little too much added pressure on them, just because it’s been long and because there are some unrealistic expectations. I think they just need to relax and be comfortable, and let everything fall into place the way it’s supposed to fall into place.

"Sometimes I see some things being forced … I think when the whole organization relaxes and enjoys what they’ve got, I think that’s when things will happen.”

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How high-flying 1983 Sixers beat Lakers at their own game in NBA Finals

How high-flying 1983 Sixers beat Lakers at their own game in NBA Finals

It’s no great revelation to say that the NBA was much different the last time the Sixers won a championship. The shorts were shorter and the three-point shot was more of a novelty than an emphasis.

We watched Game 1 of the 1983 NBA Finals, a 113-107 Sixers win over the Lakers, to get a better sense of both what’s changed about the sport and the characters on that championship team. Game 2 will air Saturday night on NBC Sports Philadelphia, while Games 3 and 4 will air Sunday.

The Sixers managed to sweep the Lakers despite attempting two three-pointers all series and making none. In the 2019 NBA Finals, the Raptors made 72 threes. 

We’ll start off by looking at a Moses Malone post-up that is almost nothing like a Joel Embiid post-up. 

The first noticeable difference is there are no players outside of the three-point arc. And instead of cutting away from the action after making the entry pass, as a player usually would in the modern NBA, Clint Richardson sprints right through the middle of the lane. That invites an all-out double team, something Malone saw plenty of in this game. In this era of more stringent illegal defense rules, teams had to send double teams decisively because shading help in the direction of the man posting up often wasn’t legal. With the paint full of bodies and no teammates open, Malone simply powers through Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper. 

This next play features Andrew Toney running the point after Maurice Cheeks encountered early foul trouble. He curls around a pin down screen from Clemon Johnson and scores.

In 2020, Toney would probably be running a long loop around Johnson’s screen and catching the ball behind the arc. While such an action would obviously give Toney the chance to add an extra point, it’s interesting to see how the tighter spacing allows for these kind of sharp shifts in direction to be more effective.

Against a scorer of Toney’s caliber, Norm Nixon has no room for error in how he guards the pin down. When he falls behind the play and has to chase Toney, “The Boston Strangler” can create an easy jumper with a quick fake and dribble toward the baseline. 

While the ’82-83 Sixers could score at a high rate working around Malone in the half court, they were very successful this game in the open floor. Malone was the NBA’s leading rebounder and always ready to start a fast break, and Julius Erving required attention from opposing defenses. They beat the “Showtime” Lakers at their own game.

There were a few stretches of lax defense in Game 1, but the Sixers’ ability to guard the paint jumped out. The concept of a single “rim protector” is fashionable today, but this Sixers team had a handful of players who deterred and blocked shots. Malone picks up two blocks here after the Sixers make a mistake in covering the Nixon-Mark Landsberger pick-and-roll on the right wing, but Erving and Bobby Jones are also ready to joust at the rim. They were overeager on this sequence, leaping in the air on pump fakes, but you can see how many weapons the Sixers had with their interior defense. 

Erving was especially excellent as a shot blocker in this series. He rejected five shots in Game 1 and 11 across the four games, the most of any player. With ease and grace, he chewed up ground — Magic Johnson thought he had an open layup here.

In contrast, Kurt Rambis seemed aware that Erving was around, but Dr. J gobbled up his attempt anyway.  

As is often the case in a playoff series between two rivals, the Lakers frequently appeared to know the Sixers’ plan on offense. The Sixers’ fluid improvisations in response were impressive. 

In the first clip below, Erving slides back door when Johnson fronts him. On the next play, the initial action of Richardson coming up from the left block to the elbow to screen for Malone is rebuffed. The Sixers stay patient, find a good passing angle and let the MVP seal off Landsberger. 

We’ll end with a play that’s a ton of fun to watch, however many times you rewind it.

On first viewing, it’s a high-flying dunk by Erving. Watch it again, though, and you’ll appreciate Cheeks bringing the ball forward with a purpose, constantly looking for a free teammate. You’ll see Abdul-Jabbar lumber out toward Erving, clearly hopeless as the Hall of Fame forward accelerates toward the rim and glides into his dunk over Johnson. And as the referee puts his hands out in a gesture of “Nothing wrong with that,” you’ll notice Erving drop down to the floor from Johnson’s grasp and give the Lakers point guard a quiet pat before running back down the floor. He didn’t need to say anything. 

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