IT'S EIGHT GAMES into the season, hardly enough time to have a full grasp on this 76ers team. We all know it has a new coach, a general manager about to celebrate only his second anniversary with the team, and a roster devoid of an upper-echelon player.
Yet, the first subject that pops up through e-mails, phone calls and text messages is the same: Elton Brand.
The generously listed 6-9 forward was brought in here, courtesy of an $80 million, 5-year contract, as the biggest free-agent signee in the summer of 2008. He wasn't thought to be the missing piece that, say, Moses Malone was to the 1982-83 team that won 65 games and strolled to the NBA championship. But it was assumed that Brand would provide substantially more than he has.
This is where it gets a little dicey in the arguments concerning his signing.
The other free agent the Sixers coveted was Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith. He was a restricted free agent, though, so whatever money the Sixers threw at him ultimately could have been matched by the Hawks.
The Sixers and general manager Ed Stefanski did their best to lure Smith - wining and dining him much as the Phillies did for Jim Thome before the 2003 season. But the fact that they ultimately could not lock him in hung like a black cloud.
So there was Brand, who was offered huge money from his previous employer, the Los Angeles Clippers, and from the Golden State Warriors.
This is where the poker thinking started. With the Hawks capable of matching what Stefanski could offer Smith, had he not offered a contract to Brand, he would have been left empty-handed.
Many might say that would have worked out best, as the Sixers then could have been patient, maybe suffered a year or 2 through poor seasons, and built the team with drafts and the money they had saved.
Of course, they didn't. They signed Brand, who was coming off a ruptured Achilles' injury. Matters were further complicated when Brand had season-ending shoulder surgery after playing in only 29 games while averaging 13.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in his first season with the Sixers .
Now, the situation has been thrown fully into a blender, as new coach Eddie Jordan doesn't appear to have enough confidence in Brand to have him on the floor in key situations. Brand has not played in the fourth quarter in four of the past five games. In those games, he has averaged only 24 minutes, 7 points and 5.2 rebounds.
A bad move by Stefanski to sign the Duke product? Perhaps.
Too early to tell? Again, perhaps.
This much is obvious: Brand is not the player who came to the Sixers with an average of 20.3 points and 10.2 rebounds in nine NBA seasons. He probably isn't as unproductive as the player who has averaged only 9.5 points and 6.5 rebounds a game this season. But he is now 30. And maybe finding his old form after the injuries and at his age just isn't possible.
Brand is the ultimate professional. For weeks, he's been questioned by the media about what appears to be a deteriorating game, and for weeks he has answered every question. He is a workhorse on the practice floor. He is the ultimate teammate.
He also is a player going to battle without a full arsenal of ammunition.
"Elton is trying to find his way, no question about it," Stefanski said yesterday. "Basically he's had 2 years off from playing games. I think the more games he plays, the better he'll progress. [Wednesday night against the Nets], he was much more lively rebounding the ball early in the game. So I think it's a matter of a process here. And then of him not playing at the end of games - well, what's happening is a lot of teams that we've played so far are playing one 'big' and four 'smalls,' and the other thing is Marreese Speights is playing great Basketball."
Which is another bone of contention among Sixers fans - a second-year player making minimum money taking minutes from the star free agent.
It doesn't sit well with Brand, either.
"I'm a realist, I understand," Brand said of the fans' frustration. "You get a good contract, and you're expected to produce numbers. But I just feel that in practice, I'm getting better. It's a long season. I have total faith that I'll be fine and that the team will be fine. That's the most important thing."
Jordan looks at the situation as nothing more than a coach trying to play his better players at the best times during a game.
"Elton Brand is a leader on our team," Jordan said. "He is a solid veteran. He works hard. I respect him as a professional, and I respect him for his effort. He is a guy who is in the rotation after he starts. I'm looking at other guys who are playing well. Elton Brand is not as big in my mind as he is with you guys [media]. It's not a big issue to me.
"He's certainly one of our core scorers in the post, he and Marreese Speights and Thad [Young]. He's identified already as a core scorer for us. Now some of that, he has to get on his own, like any good player. We understand that he's struggling, maybe because of the 2-year layoff. But again, when I come into the office and I look at the game and I look at preparing for the game, when 48 minutes go, Elton Brand is not as big in my mind as he is to you guys. I get Elton Brand questions and I'm respectful to answering them, but I'm concerned about Andre [Iguodala], I'm concerned about Lou [Williams], I'm concerned about everyone else equally."
To most following or cheering for the team, the main concern is Brand. He knows it and doesn't hide from the scrutiny. And he works harder than many know at becoming the player he was. Perhaps it just can't happen. But Brand isn't ready to relegate himself as a fourth-quarter cheerleader.
"It's all about getting into a flow in the offense, especially in this offense, you get some touches, you get in the flow, and I'm kind of a flow player," he said. "You hit a few shots in a row, and you get a feel for it and just go from there."
Said Stefanski: "I don't see that [diminishing strength from Brand]. I see he's had some wide-open shots that he would normally make, and he's working at it. I don't know if he's feeling some pressure, too. He's a great guy. He works extremely hard and he wants it, but it may not come as quick as he'd like it to come."
Forward Thaddeus Young missed yesterday's practice with a muscle spasm in his right shouder. The team said he did not get hit during Wednesday's win in New Jersey, but woke up with the problem yesterday morning. He will be a game-time decision tonight against Utah.
Tonight vs. Utah: The Jazz (3-5) has not won back-to-back games yet this season and the team is coming off a loss at Boston on Wednesday. Now in his 22nd season with the team, coach Jerry Sloan has amassed 1,139 wins, fourth in NBA history. Despite a sore back and bruised shin, point guard Deron Williams should be in the lineup.
Tomorrow at Chicago: A night after facing Williams, the Sixers get an up-close look at one of the league's other premier point guards in Derrick Rose.
Wednesday vs. Charlotte: Larry Brown returns to the place as the hated, loved, hated and loved former coach. What will the reaction be? Well, here's hoping there's a big enough crowd so that, whatever the reaction, it will be heard.
Next Friday: Perhaps the return of Allen Iverson, with Memphis Grizzlies visiting. If we were betting, we'd say the Grizzlies will be without A.I.
BY THE NUMBERS:
* 18.6, 6.8, 4.9, 48.7, 2.0: Those are the impressive numbers Andre Iguodala has put up thus far in points, rebounds, assists, shooting percentage and steals per game this season.
* 2: That's where second-year forward Marreese Speights ranks on the team in scoring, at 15 a game. He has become the most lethal threat the team has down low, and has shown no hesitation to take big shots late in the game.
* 41-10: Assists and turnovers so far from Lou Williams. Sure, this offense doesn't ask him to be a true playmaking point guard, but Williams is doing a nice job of getting the ball where it needs to go at the right time.
* 114: That's how many points Sixers' opponents have outscored them by from beyond the arc. That's quite a substantial number this early in the season.
FROM THE MOUTH:
Asked what he thought about not being credited with a blocked shot when he denied Brook Lopez toward the end of Wednesday's 82-79 win over the Nets, Sam Dalmebert said: "It's all about the W. That's all that matters. It's all about the W." It would have been his fifth block of the game.
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