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Seeking answers to puzzling season

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Among the multitude of tattoos that cover his scrawny body, the one burned into the back of his left shoulder speaks volumes about where Allen Iverson seems to be in his NBA career, and perhaps his life.

"The Realist," it reads.

The reality of Iverson's situation is that he is stuck with a mediocre team that one night looks as if it's headed for the NBA playoffs and the next looks as if it could be free-falling toward the draft lottery.

Yesterday's meeting with the Washington Wizards was certainly a case for the latter, as the Philadelphia 76ers lived up to their nickname in a lackluster 104-76 loss.

The defeat, coming three days after a rousing triple-overtime win over the Boston Celtics at home, was the worst of the season for Philadelphia (18-19). It typified what has been a problem for the 76ers when they lose.

No defense.

No effort.

No heart.

It was enough to have Iverson share publicly his growing frustration.

"This probably is my most frustrating season, honestly," Iverson, in his 10th year in the NBA, said after the game. "We're kind of in a struggle in how I need to play, how we need to play as a team, what we need from me, what we don't need from me."

For now, the player known as "The Answer" doesn't have any. He might be leading the NBA in minutes played and be second in scoring behind Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, but Iverson is admittedly way down the list in solutions.

"I always know my identity on a team. Since I've been here in Philadelphia, I've always knew what I had to do to make us a better team. Right now I really don't know what I need to do to make us better," Iverson said.

"I'm playing the way I always play. When I start thinking, trying to play a certain way, then I struggle. I'm used to playing one way, and that's just basketball - whatever the defense gives me, I take it. I'm struggling, and if I struggle, we're going to struggle as a team."

Iverson hit two of his first three shots against the Wizards, but finished just six of 20 overall, his 17 points about half his season's average. Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas, fourth in the league in scoring, scored 22 points but also had a season-high 12 assists.

What seemed evident yesterday, as during the course of what has been an up-and-down season, is that the 76ers have not jelled the way many, including Iverson, thought they would. As well as he is playing - some say as well as he did when he was the league's Most Valuable Player in 2000-01, the season he led the 76ers to the Finals - the 76ers are not.

As next month's one-year anniversary of Chris Webber's trade to Philadelphia approaches, the two All-Stars haven't jelled. The infusion of young talent such as second-year guard Andre Iguodala and third-year forward Kyle Korver has brought some highlights but not consistency.

Webber is playing better than he did after struggling with the 76ers over the last two months of last season. But he admits that the system of first-year coach Maurice Cheeks isn't that much of an improvement over that of former coach Jim O'Brien when it comes to fitting the contrasting styles of the team's two stars.

"I can't say it's that much better; it's producing better," Webber said before yesterday's game.

In the past, Iverson would have pointed the blame elsewhere. Finally acting his age, Iverson, 30, puts the responsibility of his team's erratic play, particularly at the defensive end, on his own bony shoulders.

"I have to play better defense, and the team has to play better defense as well," Iverson said. "I don't think offense is our problem."

Iverson came into the game ranked seventh in the league in assists. He had eight against the Wizards with no turnovers, and seems to be trying to get teammates more involved than he did in the past. Yet some question whether he is doing that.

Asked yesterday if he is having a problem getting his teammates into the offense, Iverson said: "No, I'm not having a problem. That's a copout in basketball, when people say players can't get involved in games.

"In our offense and what we do, everybody touches the ball. "

Cheeks wasn't happy with any of his players yesterday, questioning their effort level in the aftermath of such an uplifting win over a division rival. That's not to say Cheeks hasn't been happy with Iverson this season.

Cheeks, who spent the first five years of Iverson's career as a 76ers assistant coach before coaching Portland for four seasons, has seen a dramatic turnaround in this former NBA problem child since their first stretch together.

"He's matured on and off the floor," Cheeks said. "You can take, for example, the three overtime games we've had. The latter part of those games he realizes that the teams are trying to take the ball out of his hands, and he's making his teammates a little bit better."

But not yesterday. With six minutes left, Iverson was on the bench. Long before that, the game, if not the ball, was out of his hands. The frustration was apparent on his face, and later, in his words.

"We didn't get anything from our starters, or from our bench. We got whupped in every aspect of the game," Iverson said.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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