The “Sixers Six” is a series of top-six lists on a variety of Sixers topics, both past and present.
Today’s Sixers Six list ranks the top six unfortunate injuries in Sixers history. The Sixers have had their fair share of bad luck over its long history, especially in the injury department. Championships could have been won, careers could have been extended, and Hall of Famers could have been made. But fate had something else in mind. With that, here is the list.
6) Elton Brand (2008-2012, 2016)
The Sixers paid up big time when they signed two-time All-Star Elton Brand away from the Los Angeles Clippers in July 2008. They paid the 29-year old $79 million over five years to become its franchise player. Brand was also the team’s biggest free agency signing since they acquired Moses Malone in 1982. It was a lot to give up for an aging player who had just played eight games the previous season due to a ruptured Achilles tendon, but Sixers GM Ed Stefanski was convinced Brand was the guy that would bring the Sixers back to prominence.
Unfortunately for the Sixers, Brand never put up the production that he had in LA. Brand missed the final 53 games of the 2008-2009 season due to a dislocated shoulder. And while he was relatively healthy his final three seasons in Philadelphia, playing in 217 of a possible 246 games, Brand was just not the same player.
The Sixers used the amnesty provision on him in 2012, prior to the infamous Andrew Bynum trade. He played for the Mavericks and Hawks before ending his career with the Sixers in 2016. He now works for the team, but many fans still wonder about the 20 & 10 machine from Los Angeles that never showed up in Philadelphia.
5) Jeff Ruland (1986, 1992)
June 16, 1986. A day that will live in Sixers infamy.
The Sixers dramatically altered its franchise’s history by trading away the big man that led to them to the Promise Land just three years earlier, Moses Malone. Along with Terry Catledge and a future first round pick, the Sixers sent Moses to the Washington Bullets for Cliff Robinson and Jeff Ruland.
Ruland was a talented center (a two-time All-Star) for the Bullets, but had missed over 40% of the team’s games the previous two seasons because of a broken bone in his foot. But in Philadelphia, a chronic knee injury forced Ruland to retire from the NBA after playing just five games with the team. He briefly returned to the Sixers in 1992 for 13 games, but was later waived. The Sixers thought they were getting a young, talented center that could bring the Sixers more prosperity in the late ‘80s, but instead they were handed a broken-down plotting big man that was past his physical prime.
4) Billy Cunningham (1965-1972, 1974-1976)
“The Kangaroo Kid” was the sixth man off the bench for the juggernaut Sixers team that won the title in 1967 led by Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer. Cunningham soon became a starter and put together great seasons during much of the late-60s and early-70s for the Sixers. He joined the ABA for a few seasons with the Carolina Cougars, even winning the MVP award in 1973. Cunningham returned to the Sixers in 1974, averaging 20 points per game at age 31. The next season, however, he suffered a career-ending knee injury that forced him to retire at the age of 32 when he still had a lot left to give on the court.
The Sixers lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1976, then lost in the NBA Finals the next season. While Cunningham was no longer the bouncy Kangaroo Kid, he could still contribute and could have helped the Sixers beat the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1977 NBA Finals.
3) Luke Jackson (1964-1972)
Like Billy Cunningham, Jackson was a key player for the ‘67 championship team. He started in the frontcourt alongside Wilt Chamberlain, as the team set a then-NBA record with 68 wins in the regular season. Jackson, drafted as a center with the fourth pick of the 1964 NBA Draft out of Texas-Pan American, shifted to power forward once Chamberlain was brought aboard late in his rookie season. Once Chamberlain was traded in 1968, Jackson was asked to once again fill the void at center. Jackson was certainly capable, but an injury sustained early in the year forced him to miss the final 57 games of the regular season, as well as the postseason. His career was never the same.
In the ensuing three seasons, Jackson never averaged more than six points per game, while missing 67 total games in that span. The injuries proved too much, as Jackson retired at age 30 in 1972. The 1971-1972 season marked the first time the franchise (both 76ers and Nationals) had ever missed the playoffs. The team then proceeded to go 9-73 the following season, the worst record in NBA history. The Sixers would not return to the playoffs until 1976 and Jackson’s demise likely contributed to that downfall. Jackson seemed ready to fill the big shoes left once Wilt was traded, but his injuries never allowed him.
2) Doug Collins (1973-1981)
Long before he was roaming the Sixers’ sidelines, Doug Collins was one of the premier shooting guards in the NBA during the late-1970s. The former 1973 1st overall pick out of Illinois State was an All-Star in four of his eight seasons with the Sixers, but nagging foot and knee injuries hampered his NBA career.
Collins, along with Julius Erving, George McGinnis, and World B. Free, lit up scoreboards across the Association, helping the Sixers reach the 1977 NBA Finals. The Sixers were upset by the Blazers in six games after taking a 2-0 lead to start the series. The Sixers returned to the NBA Finals in 1980, but without Collins, who played just 36 games that season.
After playing just 12 games the following season, Collins called it a career, without ever winning a title in Philadelphia, but coming close on multiple occasions. While Andrew Toney became an adequate replacement for Collins by 1981, the Sixers desperately missed Doug in the 1980 NBA Finals. Collins’ replacement, Lionel Hollins, shot just 38% from the field as the Sixers lost to the Lakers in six games.
While the Sixers eventually got its championship in 1983, it makes you wonder if the Sixers could have won at least two titles if Collins was healthy.
1) Andrew Toney (1980-1988)
It’s the one that still hurts the most. Andrew Toney was well on his way to the Hall of Fame, but foot injuries stopped him dead in his tracks just six years into his NBA career.
Toney was the one player that struck fear into the hated rival Boston Celtics in the early ‘80s. He dawns one of the best nicknames in Philadelphia sports history, “The Boston Strangler,” because he tortured the Celtics for years. He had no greater performance as a Sixer than Game 7 of the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. The Sixers had won three of the first four games of the series, but the Celtics roared back to tie the series at 3-3 heading back to the Garden in Boston. It was Toney’s finest hour, finishing with 34 points and 6 assists as the Sixers prevailed to head back to the NBA Finals. After the game, Julius Erving said, “There is no legal way to stop Andrew Toney.”
Toney was key in the Sixers winning the title the next season, averaging 19.7 points as the Sixers exercised the championship demons. Toney had two All-Star nods in three seasons before the nagging foot injuries finally got to him in 1985. He played the first three games of the season before being sidelined for the next four months. He played another three games until he was shut down for the remainder of the season. Toney would play just 81 games over the next three seasons before his NBA career was over.
While Toney was starting to break down, a certain 6’6 power forward was beginning his ascension in Philadelphia. Charles Barkley was starting to come into his own, as many players from the ’83 championship team were starting to age (Erving, Malone, Cheeks, Jones). Toney would have been a great guard compliment to Barkley, helping bridge the gap between the two eras of Sixers basketball. But past 1985, we never saw the Andrew Toney that was an All-Star and the Celtics’ worst nightmare. He should have been a Hall of Famer and his #22 should be hanging in the rafters at Wells Fargo Center. But unfortunately, that never happened.
Photo: CBS Sports