IT WAS TWO SEASONS ago when I took a flight from Portland to Seattle that circled the airport, then went all the way back to Portland to land. A season, as it were, of wrong turns for the 76ers.

It was this season that I got in a taxi at Copley Place in Boston and asked to be taken to the Garden, only to have the driver pull up at - what else? - a garden.

But, as things developed, this was the season the Sixers finally pulled out a compass. This was the season they resolutely decided to go forward, finally accepted the reality that it was time to end the spectacular but rocky Allen Iverson era, that it was necessary to cut their ties with Chris Webber.

For once, ownership, management and the coaching staff had a singular voice. They all knew - again, finally - that it was time to change, time to shed themselves of Iverson and Webber, time to streamline the payroll and make it financially feasible to rebuild.

This was a sensitive time. The Sixers clearly wanted to develop Andre Iguodala, Kyle Korver and rookie Rodney Carney, wanted to see how the young core would react to the veteran quarterbacking of Andre Miller, wanted to put as entertaining a product as possible on the court.

The lottery be damned.

The philosophy was: If they somehow reached the NBA playoffs, they would revel in the progress and go from there. If they totally unraveled, tumbled into what was rapidly becoming the Greg Oden/Kevin Durant sweepstakes, they would simply have a different starting point.

Initially, the fans recoiled. They had had enough of changing coaches and changing players. They wanted the Sixers to lose, lose, lose, to improve their mathematical chances of acquiring either Oden, the 7-foot freshman center from Ohio State, or Durant, the 6-9 freshman wunderkind from Texas.

And then . . .

It suddenly became clear that coach Maurice Cheeks had a far firmer grasp of the situation than he had had the previous year. He was tougher, sterner, more demanding, and the players were responding.

With Iverson traded to Denver, Iguodala blossomed, not just as a go-to guy on the court, but as a voice in the locker room. Korver, the team's best shooter, began to play with more confidence. Miller, acquired from the Nuggets, began finding ways to incorporate Samuel Dalembert and Steven Hunter into the offense. Even Louis Williams, heretofore little more than a raw backcourt talent, began playing limited stretches in the rotation. Joe Smith, included in the trade for Iverson because he has an expiring contract, began contributing more than anyone could have hoped. A group that had endured the controversy of Iverson and Webber, that had been drained by a 12-game losing streak, began to find its niche.

These Sixers remained in the playoff hunt until the final Saturday of the season. The minions who had wanted them to tank, to give their regulars fewer minutes and responsibilities, had grown less and less. The ones who remained stayed staunch, but others have told me in courtside comments and e-mails that they enjoyed seeing the competitive spirit and the overall growth.

Here's where the Sixers' decisions have taken them: They hold Nos. 11, 20 and 30 in the first round of the draft, plus a second-round pick from New York. Barring a mathematical miracle in the lottery, they're not in the sweepstakes for Oden or Durant, the two prospects most scouts and personnel specialists believe are the only true franchise-changers in the draft. But they are in position to select a very good player, one who should be able to start next season, and possibly another who could figure in the rotation. They're also in a position to get creative, possibly packaging a pick and a player for veteran, or putting together the latter two picks to move up. The possibilities are endless.

I know there are lots of you who still would have preferred having a clear shot at Oden or Durant. But that's not happening. And history proves there are no guarantees.

"We could have lost a bunch of games and still not gotten the first or second pick," president/general manager Billy King said. "If that had happened, then we wouldn't have had the top pick and wouldn't have known whether this group can play.

"Portland tried [going for the No. 1 pick] and didn't get it. Boston had the worst record one year and had its own pick and one from Vancouver and didn't get Tim Duncan. The year Cleveland got LeBron James No. 1, Miami ended up with Dwyane Wade and won a championship. Toronto's pretty happy with Chris Bosh. Dallas got Josh Howard with the last pick in the first round."

King has made more mistakes than a shortstop with a hole in his glove. But give him this: At least he went out and got a new glove, or in this case, a better plan. He's the one who handed out a series of bloated contracts, then had to wheel and deal to bring the payroll back below the luxury tax trigger point. He's the one who coddled Iverson, who took a risk with Webber, then finally did what he should have done much earlier.

"You learn," King said. "Once we got to the Finals [in 2001], I kept trying to get back there by making trades, trying to see if this guy fit, if that guy fit, rather than slowing down, maybe taking a step back in order to go two steps forward."

The litany went from Derrick Coleman to Toni Kukoc to Keith Van Horn to Glenn Robinson to Webber, somebody, anybody, to complement Iverson and his magnificent scoring skills. Somehow, everyone, including the defense-educated King, forgot that the only time the Sixers got to the championship series was with grinders - Aaron McKie, Eric Snow, George Lynch, Tyrone Hill and company.

"You never know the right time [to start over]," King said. "We did it when we did it, and the franchise is better for it."

If Oden lands in, say, Memphis, or Durant ends up in, say, Boston, maybe the Sixers come away with Florida's Al Horford or Kansas' Julian Wright. Neither the Grizzlies nor the Celtics are going to exactly be overnight successes, because neither of those teams has a core of young talent that has experienced a taste of even modest success.

"We lost badly to Memphis, then lost badly to Milwaukee and Maurice let the guys have it, talked about the importance of playing hard and executing, doing what's right," King said. "He told them they had a responsibility to the organization and to themselves. If, after that, we just started sitting guys, they'd have said, 'Where's the responsibility to us?' If we had said, 'We're going to lose now, but we'll be really good next year,' they'd have said, 'You don't believe in us.'

"I think you have to learn how to win. Ten years ago, we had Snow, McKie and Ratliff, but we weren't a good team. We taught them how to win; as we went further, they knew what it took."

Here's what it will take now:

* The addition of a rebounder, preferably a muscular power forward, hopefully one who can command a double team in the post, creating more options for Iguodala and Korver. Hunter, despite playing better than at any time in his career, is never going to be a consistent rebounder. Dalembert did a nice job rebounding. But neither is particularly adept at blocking out or avoiding foolish mistakes.

* A wing player with perimeter skills, allowing the Sixers to be able to do to opponents what opponents have regularly done to them: spread the floor with shooters, in turn opening up the lane for cutters, slashers and drive-and-kick options. Could that turn out to be Carney, who has displayed glimpses of those skills?

* Patience. "We can't think, because we had a great run at the end of this season, that it's going to happen again," King said. "There are no shortcuts. Since we went to the Finals, we have been trying to do that."

This, ultimately, was the season in which the Sixers discovered the only direction left for them to turn. That would be facing reality. For the first time in too many years, they have something other than false hope. *

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