DIBIASE: Sixers, savior now stand at crossroads

Justin Dibiase

When the Philadelphia 76ers signed forward Elton Brand on July 9, 2008, the team thought they had found that final piece that would get it over the hill of mediocrity. General Manager Ed Stefanski committed $80 million over five years to the former Duke Blue Devil.

Seven months later, as they continue to linger around the .500 mark the Sixers once again are struggling to find their game. To make things worse, Brand has been sidelined for the rest of the season due to a torn labrum. Some say that Brand never fit in with the Sixers’ high-tempo style of play. Others think that Brand was just starting to find his niche on his new team.

In any event, Brand is gone for the year and the Sixers are back where they started. But is where they started that terrible?

This was a team that won 22 of its final 34 games last season to advance to the playoffs. After nearly completing a major upset of the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the playoffs, Stefanski was ready to tinker.

Like any good general manager, he wanted to make his team better. So what did he do? He signed away $80 million and injected his fast-break Sixers with a half-court player.

This wasn’t enough for Stefanski. When his Brand experiment didn’t go as planned, he looked for easy targets to place blame. He found his target when he fired head coach Maurice Cheeks after a 9-14 start, despite Cheeks turning the franchise around just a few months prior. Call it what you will, but the Sixers are a winning team without Brand this season. Maybe the issue wasn’t as much about Cheeks as it was about Brand.

Nevertheless, Brand has been “branded” as the face of the Sixers. The two-time All Star can be seen on billboards spread across the Delaware Valley. He was supposed to be the identity of the team that had struggled to find a marketable star in its post-Iverson era.

Now with Brand sidelined, the Sixers will most likely regain their fast break identity in the second half of the season, with interim head coach Tony DiLeo getting an unwarranted pat on the back for the Sixers’ “turn-around.” Cheeks, a bright young mind in the NBA, will be forced to sit and watch the team he molded make a run into the playoffs.

Brand’s injury puts the Sixers in an unfortunate situation. Many teams would die to have a low-post presence like Brand in their rotations. However, when the Sixers were possibly ready to start shopping Brand to other NBA teams, he injured his shoulder. The opportunity to patch up a potential Stefanski boo-boo has all but vanished.

Brand was brought in to win playoff basketball games. When the tempo of postseason games and late-season nail-biters crawl to half-court battles, Brand ideally would be the star to carry the Sixers. With him gone, the Sixers will have no chance to prove if this assumption was true. The skeptics will have to wait until next season when the young, budding stars are a year older.

Brand will turn 30-years old in March and will be 34-years old by the time his contract expires. Will Brand still be a double-double guy during the final years of his contract? Maybe. Will he lead the Sixers to an NBA Championship? Probably not.

One has to wonder if Stefanski spent the money just to make a statement that he was going to be an active general manager. If Stefanski pocketed the money he spent on Brand, he could be looking at one of the best free agent off seasons in recent memory. Carlos Boozer, Shawn Marion, Lamar Odom, Mehmet Okur and Jermaine O’Neal will all be available at the end of the current season. Had he waited even longer than that, he would have a substantial amount of money for the 2010 free agent class that includes LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. While the jury is still out, any one of these players is looking like a better investment than Brand currently.

One can’t help but see the giant strides that rookie Marreese Speights has made at the power forward position. When Brand returns next season, will the Sixers be ready to hand him over 40 minutes a night at the four spot while Speights’ untapped potential warms the bench? The final few months of the season now will serve as Speights’ chance to solidfy where he stands with the Sixers organization.

Last week on Comcast SportsNet’s “Daily News Live,” Stefanski appeared and backed his signing. The Sixers GM believes that Brand is still the man that will take Philadelphia to that next level and back to the NBA Finals. It is a belief that could determine his entire legacy as the GM of the franchise.

The Sixers have a history of bringing in the wrong man. Their past mishaps include Matt Geiger, Toni Kukoc, Glenn Robinson and Chris Webber. It is a list of players that management is praying doesn’t include Brand at the end of his Sixers career.

If Brand is still the man, he will need his teammates to mesh with his low-post game next season. If this can’t happen, there will be 80 million reasons to wonder “What if?” over the next five years.

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Justin DiBiase is a senior civil engineering major from Franklinville, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected]