Webber's knee is the key

NEW YORK -- Chris Webber will either be the answer to The Answer's prayers, or the poster-boy for how the Sixers screwed up the end of the Allen Iverson Era.

On the surface, Webber's mega-deal to the Sixers this week to join Iverson looks as compatible as Cheez Whiz on a nice hot Philly steak sandwich. For one thing, Webber won't cramp Iverson's style. When there's a big shot to take, Iverson will still be the one to launch it.

In a way, Iverson did. In an twist of fate Saturday, he deliberately missed a free throw with 3.4 seconds left and the Sixers down by two. Webber grabbed the rebound and found himself with the game in his hands. But his short hook fell short off the rim, and the Kings held on for a 101-99 victory.

"Let's face it, Chris liked it in Sacramento when Mike Bibby took the big shots in crunch time,'' said one Western Conference GM after the Kings shipped Webber to Philly in the six-player blockbuster that opened the trading deadline floodgates. "Chris' mentality is different than when he first came in the league. He likes being the No. 2 guy.''

In that respect, Webber can relate to another former No. 1 guy who has accepted a No. 2 role with his new Atlantic Division team. Since coming to the Meadowlands in December, Vince Carter has embraced his role as second-in-command to Jason Kidd. And like Carter, Webber reports to his new team tonight with questions surrounding his health.

"The Sixers took a big risk getting Chris,'' said New York Knicks president Isiah Thomas, who has seen his two Atlantic Division rivals come away with All-Star frontcourt performers he openly pined for. "It's not a big risk in terms of talent. We all know Chris is talented. But it's a big risk in terms of his injury.''

Actually, if you just looked at Webber's stats, you'd say, he's injured? But as he's put up 21 points, 10 rebounds and five assists a night, he's done it on one sound knee. His other, surgically repaired knee has limited his mobility and prevented him from getting on the practice floor.

Saturday, Webber put up a double-double of 16 points and 11 rebounds.

But, hey, since when do the superstars in Philly put any stock in practice? It's just practice, as Iverson will gladly remind you.

The trade will be a big winner in Philly as long as Webber can answer the bell. They didn't exactly give up the ranch, sending three role-type players in Corliss Williamson, Kenny Thomas and Brian Skinner to the Kings. But if Webber's knee takes a turn for the worse, well, you think the fans in Philly know how to boo?

The man who rolled the dice, Philly GM Billy King, probably did the right thing. He had to keep Iverson happy, and clearly A.I. was not in recent weeks because he saw that the team was going nowhere. And, as long as Iverson is an impact player, the Sixers owe it to him and themselves to try to get back to the Finals. The move, at the least, should make them the favorites to win the ankle-deep Atlantic.

Still, King faced the expected questions about taking on a player with such a big contract and a knee issue.

"People said the same thing about Vince Carter, questioning his health,'' King said. "But he goes to New Jersey and he's getting 40 and 45 [points]. Sometimes players, when they get older, lose that athletic ability, but they become a lot smarter.''

Smarter, yes. Cheaper, no. The whole thing could blow up in King's face because Webber still has three years to run at $63 million. If he can't get on the court because of his knee, they'll still be saddled with his contract. That would be the worst possible scenario, since Iverson turns 30 in June and already has logged lots of miles in nine seasons. This could be his final shot at winning a championship.

"With Chris,'' Iverson said, "the sky's the limit for what this team can do.''

The Kings obviously stopped thinking that way. They didn't like their chemistry and had to break up Webber and Peja Stojakovic, but they also knew that it was only a matter of time before Webber's knee becomes a real issue. So they jumped at the chance to get out from under his deal, even if it rubbed vets like Bibby and Bobby Jackson the wrong way.

"You can just tell that the knee is not very good,'' said one Pacific Division exec. "He's really laboring on the court. Now, he can still get you a triple double in the short term. But long-term, it could be a problem.''

As long as Webber can play, the Sixers should challenge in the East. He'll command double-teams, something the Sixers haven't seen for one of the big men since the days of Charles Barkley. He'll also take pressure off Iverson, who had been pestering King for the past four years to go out and make a deal for Webber. And if you ask his former teammates, they say the Sixers will get a hard-nosed guy who comes to play.

It's not only Iverson who believes that Webber will make an impact.

"Webber's an All-Star and he's been a great player in the game for a long time,'' said Kyle Korver, who should be the recipient of some of Webber's assists, especially on spot-ups for 3-point shots. "Talk about a guy that does it all. He loves to pass and he has a very high basketball IQ. We haven't had a physical, intimidating low-post presence like him for a while.''

But Webber doesn't do his damage inside. He's more apt to stand outside for elbow jumpers. How he gets used in Jim O'Brien's offense is something that bears watching. With the Kings' Princeton-style attack, Webber was perfect at the high post, finding open cutters with his passes and hitting 15-foot shots. Philly doesn't play that open, freewheeling style that made him one of the NBA's premier power forwards.

Defensively, well, Webber never was a threat to make the All-Defense team and he comes from a team that emphasized offense. He can be a defensive liability with his limited range. That will put more pressure on Philly's other players. But defense isn't why they got him.

"At the beginning of the season, people in Philadelphia weren't talking about our team,'' Iverson said "Now, they'll all be talking about us.''

One way or the other.

Mitch Lawrence, who covers the NBA for the New York Daily News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.