Thursday, September 25, 2008
Brand new start: 76ers feel ready to contend
PHILADELPHIA -- Elton Brand's face is plastered around Philadelphia, from print and Web ads to billboards to the side of busses where he smiles at drivers while they're stuck in rush hour traffic.
It's hard to travel around the city and not be struck by the welcoming image of the 76ers' $80 million blockbuster free-agent acquisition.
Much like the ads, Brand and the Philadelphia 76ers won't sneak up on the NBA this year.
"I think we did sneak up on some teams for a little stretch," coach Maurice Cheeks said. "But at a certain point, they knew we were coming."
The team that shook off an abysmal start last season thanks to a fun and fast-breaking style that propelled it into the postseason has a new roster, new star and new attitude. The Sixers expect to win.
"They want to have that taste again," Cheeks said Thursday. "They want to get back at it. They want to work a little bit harder to do that."
Nattily attired in a suit, Cheeks laughed at suggestions the 76ers could make a Boston-type turnaround and contend for a championship in just one season. The NBA champs are still the team to beat, but the Sixers are now a threat to at least become contenders in the East thanks to the acquisition of Brand, and free agents Kareem Rush, Donyell Marshall, and Theo Ratliff.
Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams earned contract extensions and Cheeks was rewarded with his second extension of the year for taking the Sixers from an 18-30 start to a 40-42 finish.
"I think the players that we've added, and the reason why some of them elected to come our team, are the things we did last year," Cheeks said. "The new players that we have coming on board recognized the way we played."
Cheeks should be an instant hit with the new additions when training camp opens next week in State College, Pa. The affable fourth-year coach wants the Sixers to scrimmage more with the hope of forging some early chemistry rather than always working on tedious drills.
"Each one of them can get accustomed to each other out on the floor," he said. "I'm going to try and play a little more and try and get our players on the same page early on and not try and wait until this game or that game."
The Sixers want to quickly work at weaving Brand into the game plan. They signed him away from the Los Angeles Clippers to a five-year deal worth more than $80 million to transform the emerging franchise into Eastern Conference contenders. He should immediately bolster the frontcourt, and his career numbers of 20.3 points and 10.2 rebounds over nine seasons make him one of only four active players to average a double-double.
Brand played in only eight games last season because of an Achilles' tendon injury, but he has proclaimed himself fit and ready to go.
Cheeks has no concerns about Brand's health or worries that he'll do anything but lift the offense.
"The way any team has any chance of winning is that they're a selfless basketball team," Cheeks said. "I thought that's what our basketball team was last year and I don't think it will be any different this year."
Cheeks also has no plans to abandon the uptempo style of basketball that worked so well in the last quarter of the season and helped the Sixers stretch their first-round playoff loss against Detroit to six games. Brand's arrival should make the 76ers more potent when Andre Miller and the fast break simply aren't clicking.
"You can take the ball to him, bring the ball to him down on the block and let him play," Cheeks said. "Of course, he's probably going to be double-teamed. So if he is double-teamed, it allows other players to have wide-open shots."
The 76ers will likely open camp with a lineup of Miller and Iguodala in the backcourt; Thaddeus Young, Brand and Samuel Dalembert in the frontcourt. Not bad, but not quite Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and the rest of the Celtics.
"To compare us with Boston? C'mon, we have a long way to go," Cheeks said. "We're still trying to reach and see where we can go. That's a long stretch to think we can be the Boston Celtics."