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 PHILADELPHIA (AP) -Maurice Cheeks was a fan favorite and won an NBA championship as an All-Star point guard in his first stint with the 76ers. In his next run, as an assistant coach, Philadelphia won the Eastern Conference.
Now Cheeks faces the prospect that some of the luster will come off his mystique. He's 0-for-2 in leading the Sixers to the postseason in his much ballyhooed return to the bench, and this season he might have his worst team yet. The third time around - he's in the last year of his contract - might be the last one for the affable Cheeks.
``I don't worry about contracts or anything like that,'' Cheeks said. ``I just get my joy out of coaching and teaching these guys and hoping they get better each time out. I just want them to work hard and not quit.''
There are no buzzwords or catchy slogans this season for the Sixers. There's also little hope outside the organization they'll match their 35-win total from a year ago, built in part by a 5-19 start. Philadelphia is picked by many to finish last in the East.
Team president Billy King, also entering the last year of his contract, refused to offer a guess as to where the Sixers will finish. Many of the players speak the party line that hard work and hustle will be enough to win a few games and offset a roster of role players.
``We have a team that's going to give this city something to cheer about with the effort and the team play,'' King said.
Adds rising star Andre Iguodala: ``I feel like we have a roster of guys who all deserve to be in the NBA. There's a core of guys like myself, Sam (Dalembert), Andre Miller, Kyle's a great shooter, and I think we're above-average NBA players.''
Above average. Not exactly a reason to rush out and buy those season tickets.
Since winning 56 games and reaching the finals in 2001, the Sixers haven't won more than 48 games in a season. They've missed the playoffs the last two seasons under Cheeks and three of the last four overall.
King has tried to buy some time by saying the Sixers are at the start of a three-year plan. He believes combining the developing group of players that include Iguodala, Dalembert, Rodney Carney and Kyle Korver with a veteran like Andre Miller and then smartly signing a free agent or two next summer when they have salary cap room will turn the Sixers into winners again.
For now they wait.
``We're not where we want to be,'' King said.
A good start would be reaching a new deal with Iguodala, who flourished last season once the Sixers shook up the franchise and traded Allen Iverson to Denver. Iguodala (18.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.0 steals) showed glimpses last year that he might be the kind of player the Sixers can build around.
King and the Sixers are trying to sign Iguodala to a contract extension before the Oct. 31 deadline. If the Sixers fail to reach an extension by the end of Wednesday, Iguodala will become a restricted free agent, leaving the Sixers with the right of first refusal next summer.
``This is where I want to be,'' Iguodala said. ``If it happens, then great. If it doesn't, I've still got to go out and play ball.''
If no deal is in place before the Sixers open the season Wednesday night at Toronto, the Sixers have to hope the situation won't be a distraction for Iguodala. The mellow 6-foot-6 forward understands more production and additional leadership will be expected of him this season no matter how much money he makes.
He spent this summer playing for the U.S. Select Team, which helped the U.S. national team prepare for the FIBA Americas tournament. Iguodala also refined his game, working on his mid-range jumper and driving to the left, which should make him a bit more unpredictable.
``I just simplified a lot of things in my game to make it easier for me so I won't be exerting as much energy on the offensive end,'' he said.
Miller provides an unselfish, steadying influence at point guard and Cheeks said this week that he's leaning toward starting Willie Green at shooting guard over Carney. The Sixers did pick up the option for the third year of Carney's contract Tuesday.
Dalembert has been slowed by a stress fracture in his left foot while playing for Canada in the Olympic qualifying tournament. He scrimmaged Tuesday and expects to start against the defending Atlantic Division champion Raptors.
While stars like Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Zach Randolph all joined the division, the Sixers' only notable acquisition was starting power forward Reggie Evans. He led the NBA last season in rebounds per 48 minutes played (19.7) a stat which didn't mean enough for Denver to start him or see what he could average if he did play close to a full game.
``He's brings all-out hustle play and that's what we're looking for,'' Cheeks said.
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