Ed Stefanski and the Philadelphia Cure to Conference Imbalance

July, 9, 2008
7/09/08
10:55
AM ET

More than a year ago, I was on a media bus from the hotel to Quicken Loans Arena for the NBA Finals, where the San Antonio Spurs were due to smack around the Cleveland Cavaliers for a fourth straight game.

We were talking, not surprisingly, about the imbalance between conferences.

Was it just a case of luck? Certainly, that was a big part of it. For instance, if some East team had won the Tim Duncan sweepstakes, we might think very differently about the conferences in recent years. Yao Ming and Greg Oden could also enter that conversation. While the East has had the top overall pick in LeBron James and Dwight Howard years, the conference has also been there for drafts led by the likes of Kwame Brown, Andrea Bargnani, and Andrew Bogut. All can play, but none in a way that shifts the balance of power.

There are some small built-in injustices. For instance, it's an oddity that the stronger conference ends up getting more than its fair share of lottery picks. (If conference were not a factor in making the playoffs, Philadelphia and Atlanta would have had the lottery picks that ended up in the hands of Golden State and Portland. Repeated year after year, that makes a difference.)

But the best explanation we media fold on the bus could come up with, to explain the persistent imbalance, was that the West had more than its fair share of top front office management.

For instance:

  • Jerry West used every trick in the book to unite Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
  • The Spurs were ahead of their time in appreciating international players, and made visionary draft picks in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
  • The Suns made the right gamble on Steve Nash.
  • Mitck Kupchak is now considered great again.
  • Jeff Bower has pushed the right buttons in New Orleans.
  • Everyone in the League seems to think Kevin Pritchard has some kind of mad voodoo.

But there are flickers of life in the East. Danny Ainge brought the league's best defensive big man East and won a title. Donnie Walsh has people optimistic in New York.

And how about that Ed Stefanski in Philadelphia?

The Sixers hired Stefanski on December 4, 2007. He talked to the staff, made some changes to how the team was run, and swapped around some personnel.

But look what happened! A team that had gone 40-59 from the beginning of the 2006 season until Stefanski's hire finished the year 35-30, even while gaining cap flexibility.

A lot of that was on the backs of players previous GM Billy King had drafted, like Thaddeus Young and Jason Smith. But Stefanski was a key factor in getting those young guys playing time.

The Sixers even managed to beat the mighty Pistons twice in the playoffs.

They could have won even more, it seemed, but for the fact that their most reliable scorer, Andre Iguodala, was stymied against Detroit's defense. Virtually all of Philadelphia's scorers are pretty opportunistic, and when Detroit's good defense took the opportunities away, as good teams do in the playoffs ... things got monumentally stagnant.

This was a promising team, in need of a real, big-time, adult scorer.

And against just about everyone's expectations, and thanks to some fancy footwork to trade for even more cap space, Stefanski has reportedly hauled in the absolute cream of the free agent crop, Elton Brand.

Now I look at the Philadelphia roster and say, hey ... not bad. Everybody in the NBA is excited to see the futures of Thaddeus Young and Louis Williams unfold. So there will be improvement there, and likely from Jason Smith too. But now that happens in a context with a rock-solid starting five of Andre Miller, Andre Iguodala, Young, Elton Brand, and Samuel Dalembert, backed up by Williams, Willie Green, Reggie Evans, Smith, and rookie big man Marreese Speights.

John Hollinger likes the mix, and who wouldn't?

What's more, the team clearly needs to add some reliable outside shooting, and Brand could be a free agent magnet. (Remember last month when he did that for the Clippers?) Some free agents really want to win. With Brand, Philadelphia might be in the running for people who have other options.

That would be the icing on the "Welcome Back to Relevancy" cake they should be serving this morning at Sixers headquarters.

So, call the doctor! How do you solve the imbalance between the conferences? There are no miracles. There is no way to immunize a whole conference against incompetence. But there are sometimes successful local operations. One by one, sick franchises can be rehabilitated. In Philadelphia, Ed Stefanski has his scrubs on and is proving to be a skilled surgeon indeed.

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