To be truthful, the 76ers are a difficult organization to root against these days. They have a president who is class personified, and a coach exuding similar qualities who happens to be the last remnant of any championship experienced in this town. There are enough quality human beings on their roster to make a momma proud and, of course, an owner in chairman Ed Snider who is hardly shy about cutting the checks. So despite their actions, which undeniably have vacillated from questionable to unthinkable in recent memory, there's nothing wrong with looking for a sliver of hope from time to time, even where there appears to be so little.

So imagine the shock as the NBA postseason took flight, with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade set to elevate their games and that of their teams, that the Sixers are actually able to find themselves in the enviable position of selling their franchise as one on the upswing.

By default, as much as anything else.

From the moment the playoffs began, there was one simple question few, if anyone, had thought of: If the Sixers, indeed, are a team on the rise, at whose expense would this miraculous occurrence transpire?

As it turns out, the answer could easily be Orlando, New Jersey, Washington or even Miami. At least for the time being.

"You can dismiss the Sixers all you want," one Eastern Conference scout told me yesterday. "A lot of people do that. I liked what I saw the second half of the season, so I'm not one of them. But I'll tell you, it's one thing to look at them and wonder what they will do, but it's another thing entirely to take the entire East into consideration.

"The Sixers have got some pieces. I'd say they're two pieces away from something special. And they also have the luxury of knowing Miami's not about to get better, Cleveland won't, either, unless they get some help, and we don't even know what Gilbert Arenas is going to be like when he comes back [from his knee injury]. If you're a team with young talent, you want two things: a high draft pick, and knowing everything's up for grabs."

Scratch the first part because the Sixers ruined their chance at the draft pick everyone wants (Greg Oden) a long time ago when they decided to start winning basketball games. It was said in this space all they were doing was prolonging their own mediocrity. As of today, nothing has changed.

That's still the case, as far as I'm concerned. But, as we've learned watching this season unfold, mediocrity doesn't omit teams from postseason participation. It just prolongs their inevitable departure, as is being proven right now.

The Orlando Magic not only are en route to heading home in their playoff series vs. Detroit, but they've got to hope they will be able to land Vince Carter in the off-season. The only chance of that happening is if Carter, who will opt out of his contract this summer with the Nets, accepts less from Orlando than the $16 million he would have received in New Jersey. Or if the Nets somehow work out a sign-and-trade deal with him, which will probably make the Sixers' Atlantic-Division nemesis weaker, anyway.

Then there's Cleveland with James, a team still devoid of a point guard or the kind of perimeter play that would help solidify the Cavs as title contenders for years to come.

Shaquille O'Neal isn't getting any younger in Miami, and the rest of the Heat squad, outside of Wade, already looks old. The Wizards are a shell without Arenas, plus a good draft and summer of free agency should propel the Sixers near their level, anyway.

The Sixers' architect, president Billy King, keeps saying, "I don't believe we're that far away." He never elaborated as to why, which makes sense.

Why denigrate the opposition around you when the Sixers are such an easy target these days themselves? Even in the interest of optimism, there are still issues, like Samuel Dalembert's dedication and work ethic, Andre Iguodala's development, and Philadelphia's youth to take into consideration.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to leave the cynicism at the door in favor of an enthusiasm earned by youngsters who refused to fold in the face of adversity and serious doubt. At least momentarily. But there's no way to avoid wondering what, if anything, King will have up his sleeve this off-season after looking at the these playoffs, knowing most of the superior teams are just as desperate for some championship champagne as the Sixers.

Only time will tell what the future holds. That . . . and the decisions the Sixers make along the way.

Hopefully, they will make it worth our while. It's the least they can do for the brotherly love they will likely receive in return.

Contact staff columnist Stephen A. Smith at 215-854-5846