By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
PHILADELPHIA -- Elton Brand went up strong for a two-handed dunk against the Los Angeles Lakers last week, but there was a problem.
The rim got in the way.
Brand missed what should've been an easy putback, which led to a few boos and continued his least productive night since he joined the Philadelphia 76ers as a free agent this summer.
Shortly thereafter, Brand went to the bench and watched the final 17 minutes of yet another home loss at Wachovia Center. It was revealed after the game that Brand had a strained right hamstring, explaining why he missed six of his seven shot attempts while scoring a season-low three points -- and why he lacked the proper lift on that jam.
The reasons why Brand's acquisition has yet to help the 76ers (9-12) elevate in the Eastern Conference are more complicated.
Philadelphia wasn't necessarily expected to contend for an NBA title immediately after signing the 6-foot-8 Brand away from the Los Angeles Clippers with a five-year $82 million contract. But after 21 games, the team also didn't plan on being 10th in the conference and just one game better than it was last season, when it finished 40-42 and rallied to make the playoffs as the seventh seed.
"We're not happy, obviously," Ed Stefanski, the 76ers general manager, said last week of this season's slow start, "but I'm not going to say I'm shocked that we're taking just a little time to get this all figured out."
The 76ers made their late-season surge into the postseason by becoming a running, high-octane team, but they have struggled to maintain that identity with Brand's presence forcing them to rely more on his skills in the half court. His arrival also forced some key players to change their roles.
Thaddeus Young moved from power forward to small forward, where he has improved on his production from his rookie year. Andre Iguodala excelled as a slashing, multifaceted small forward, but he has been less effective at shooting guard, where he hasn't been able to consistently knock down jumpers. Center Samuel Dalembert and reserve guard Lou Williams have also struggled to adjust playing with Brand.
"Elite teams don't just happen overnight," Brand said recently. "Boston, they did it last year, but they had savvy vets, all-star, all-world caliber players coming in [with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joining Paul Pierce]. I expected, just from the youth factor, that we'd have to grow into it. We're mediocre now, but we're going to get better. We can't do nothing but get better."
Brand's move to Philadelphia from Los Angeles worked out well for him on a personal level. It brought him closer to his family in his native Peekskill, N.Y. Brand said he often goes home on off days to visit his mother. His wife, Shahara, is from New Jersey. So when they had their first son, Elton Peace, in late October, it meant that both grandmothers were close enough to see him often. "In California, I couldn't do that," Brand said. "This has been great."
But he is still waiting for the payoff on the court. He leads Philadelphia with 16.7 points and 10 rebounds; numbers that aren't far off from his career averages of 20.2 points and 10.2 rebounds. Brand, however, is shooting a career-low 44.9 percent, compared to his career average of 50.3 percent. He also is dealing with a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the past two games. He plans to return to the lineup on Wednesday against Cleveland. (The 76ers play the Wizards on Saturday in Philadelphia.) Brand didn't rule out that the injury may have been caused by trying to compensate for the ruptured left Achilles' tendon that limited him to just eight games last season.
"We thought that he hadn't fully recovered [last season] and may not until the middle of the season, until he recovers his physical stature again," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said of Brand. "I'm sure he worked hard at it. He's a proven NBA player. All that being said, it's still an adjustment and there's still a change going on. I think the team has young talent and is going to improve as the season goes on."
December has been the month of upheaval in Philadelphia the past two years. The 76ers traded the former face of the franchise, Allen Iverson, six days before Christmas 2006. Last year, Stefanski replaced Billy King as general manager after a 5-12 start. Stefanski hasn't hinted that he will do anything drastic soon, but he isn't one for patience -- especially with his team losing four in a row at home and six of eight overall.
"You'll never hear 'patience' come out of my mouth," Stefanski, a Philadelphia native, said with a laugh. "I'm one of the fans. I know how they are. We have to start putting it more consistently together. We've had stretches of good basketball. We've got to make them longer stretches."
Stefanski said he has no regrets about giving all of his available cap space to Brand last summer. "I would do it again in a New York second," he said. But he added that it left the team with no money to sign the necessary shooter to open the floor up for Brand. "We threw all our eggs in one basket," he said. "We're not perfect yet, but that's where we're going. But getting a guy like Elton, there is no question it's helped us. We have to keep tinkering with this."