Now, the 76ers are one of the hottest teams in the league. No major changes have been made (after the trade involving shooter Kyle Korver), and coach Maurice Cheeks -- in the final weeks of his lame-duck contract -- recently was awarded a one-year extension.
"I wish I could tell you I saw this coming,'' Cheeks said of Philadelphia's 18-5 record since Feb. 5 heading into Wednesday's game against the Bulls. "I didn't know we were going to win like that.''
But he didn't give up, either. Buoyancy is a signature quality of the undervalued Cheeks, who kept his young team together despite the mounting losses that followed the cap-clearing trade of Korver to Utah (the Dec. 29 move netted the 76ers a future first-round pick and Gordan Giricek, who has since been waived).
"Korver can shoot the heck out of the ball and he was good for our team, so when he left it was a downer,'' Cheeks said. "I got our guys together and I explained to them about the league and how things happen, and how we've got to move on. And then we got a lot of input from guys like Kevin Ollie and Willie Green, and it was amazing how that helped our players along. You've got some young guys here who don't understand about trades and about guys being here one day and gone the next.''
The Sixers have eight players who are 25 and younger. As helpful as it was for Ollie and Green to relate how each player needed to seize opportunities for himself and for the team after the departure of Korver, the Sixers nonetheless lost eight of their next nine games, including blowouts at Portland, Denver, the Lakers and Toronto.
"I remember going to San Antonio -- that was our seventh straight loss -- and I told them before the game, 'It's going to end,' " Cheeks said. "I told them, 'I don't know where I got this from, but I know something good is going to happen, it's going to end and it's going to turn.' "
They lost a tight game to the Spurs, then overcame a 16-point second-half deficit the following night in Houston for the 111-107 win that rescued their season. Since early last month, the Sixers have risen from an 18-30 loser bound for the lottery to become the No. 6 team in the East at 36-35, leaving them a half game behind the fifth-seeded Wizards.
The Sixers are running for 100.5 points over their last 33 games (22-11), they're sharing the ball via Miller, and they're realizing the full-court versatility of Andre Iguodala, who at 24 is turning into a strong leader.
"That's one of the reasons why he have played the way we have,'' Cheeks said of Iguodala. "He shows it not in a yelling type of way. He was learning to be that leader, and it wasn't easy when we were losing.''
Increasing the pressure on Iguodala was his decision last summer to turn down a five-year, $57 million extension from the 76ers. Of all the fourth-year players to make similar decisions -- including Charlotte's Emeka Okafor and the Bulls' Luol Deng and Ben Gordon -- one of the few to respond in a positive way has been Iguodala, who is averaging 19.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.1 steals.
"I think some other guys, they got caught up in the trade talks, and I think the trade talk can affect you more than anything,'' Iguodala said in sympathy for Deng and Gordon, who in the early season were material in a rumored trade for Kobe Bryant (and doesn't that seem a long time ago). "They [the preseason predictors who unanimously believed the 76ers would return to the lottery] said we weren't good, so we pretty much had nothing to lose, while the other guys [Deng and Gordon] had some expectations.''
Iguodala looks more like a winner at both ends of the floor, whether serving as Philadelphia's most aggressive defender or its best finisher with improving skills for creating his own shot. Yet he acknowledges trying to make too many flashy plays early in the season.
"At the beginning of the year I was first or second [in the league] in turnovers, and I really wanted to correct that,'' he said. "Part of it was me trying to do too much and trying to adjust to new guys on the team. But then I was learning that the teams that do the ordinary things better are usually the winning teams.''
A big assist here goes to Miller. While others in his position might have demanded a trade out of Philadelphia to a winning franchise, Miller has taken pride in his leadership of one of the league's youngest teams.
"Some people don't want to be judged like that, but I take it as a challenge,'' Miller said. "You've got to be careful what you ask for. You've got to stay professional, and that's one thing I talked to Andre about. Don't worry about what's going on off the court. At the end of the season there's only going to be one NBA champion, and you can always find a way to help your teammates get better.''
After coming to Philadelphia in December from New Jersey, where he had been general manager under Nets president Rod Thorn, Stefanski would have been derelict if he hadn't explored potential trades for Miller.
"We're more of a collegiate team right now,'' Stefanski said, "because we do a lot of drills at practice because we have so many young kids. He [Miller] jumps right in there as a 32-year-old veteran who's been successful -- he's in the middle of every drill. When I saw that, I said, 'This kid's the glue of the team, and unless somebody makes us a crazy offer, we're holding onto him because he's too important.' "
The more they've been running over the last two months -- the result of an up-tempo request from Stefanski that Cheeks was happy to employ -- the better the performances for Miller and Iguodala as well as the improving Lou Williams, Rodney Carney and 6-foot-8 rookie Thaddeus Young, who is averaging 7.7 points and 4.3 rebounds in 19.9 minutes and benefiting from increased time after the Korver trade.
"When we worked him out at New Jersey -- he was in our mix at No. 17 -- Rod said that's the best interview we've had in our nine years together,'' Stefanski said of the 19-year-old Young, the No. 12 pick in the 2007 draft. "We saw quiet confidence and a kid who was really sure of himself, who knew what he wanted. We don't run a play for him; he scores on his own. He's extremely quick to the ball and he has a big upside.''
The Sixers could have $11 million in cap space this summer to sign or trade for a back-to-the-basket power forward or another versatile athlete to fit in with the up-tempo style. They've also moved from viewing Miller as a potential trade asset to a team leader who can remain productive years after he becomes a free agent in 2009, because he plays close to the floor and doesn't rely on athleticism now in his prime. Meanwhile, Samuel Dalembert is finding his niche by demonstrating that he can cover centers without need for a double team, and he's averaging a double-double of 10.7 points and 10.2 rebounds. And Cheeks looks like a long-term answer to their coaching needs.
"We were trying to take little steps to get better,'' Stefanski said. "Now people are talking playoffs. We'd like to get in the playoffs, but we're not there yet -- and people are saying, 'What can they do in the playoffs?' The expectations keep going up.''