By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Jan 26 2009 6:16AM
PHILADELPHIA -- Elton Brand checked in with 1:26 to go in the first quarter of the Sixers' 116-110 win over the Knicks on Saturday night, and Andre Iguodala immediately missed a free throw.
Yes, it was just a coincidence, but it reminded those watching of the dilemma of the 2008-09 Philadelphia 76ers. With Iguodala's numbers and the standings as Exhibits A and B, the Sixers have been better without their high-priced power forward than they've been with him.
Saturday was Brand's first game action since dislocating his shoulder 5 1/2 weeks ago. Before he went down, the Sixers were 11-14 and fired head coach Maurice Cheeks just 23 games into the season. While Brand was injured, the Sixers were 10-7 and a much better offensive team. The simple conclusion is that Brand's post game is not a good match for his teammates who play more aggressive when hes not there taking up space in the paint. And 42 games into the season, it's hard to argue otherwise.
The Sixers led 34-22 when Brand entered the game Saturday, having connected on 15 of their first 23 shots. They weren't going to keep up that pace whether Brand played or not, but their offense did get noticeably stagnant with Brand on the floor. There was less penetration and less ball movement. Defense was even more of an issue, but that could be chalked up to the Knicks just getting hot from downtown.
Philly's offense was just not as efficient with Brand in the lineup. In 26 possessions with him on the floor, they scored 28 points (1.08 points per possession). In 65 possessions with Brand on the bench, they scored 88 points (1.35 points per possession). Iguodala and Thaddeus Young drove to the basket early and often on the defenseless Knicks, helping the Sixers rack up 54 points in the paint.
Brand made all three shots (all layups) he took in the first half, two of them off offensive rebounds. He finished with six points, three boards and two blocks in 13 minutes of action. But for the game, the Sixers were a -8 with him on the floor and a +14 with him on the bench.
Of course, we shouldn't read too much into that. It was just one game and the guy hasn't played in more than a month. Brand is not yet in basketball shape and the Knicks, with their bigs who play small, are not a great matchup.
"This was not the ideal game to bring him back," Sixers coach Tony DiLeo said, "but we thought this was a good time to just get him out there."
The Sixers didn't run many plays for Brand. The goal in re-integrating their prized free-agent pickup is to keep playing the way they have been while letting him get his wind and rhythm back. Brand doesn't want to knock his team off track. They had won seven of their last eight games (with the only loss coming on a Dirk Nowitzki buzzer-beater this past Monday) without him.
"This is a different ball club than earlier on," Brand said. "Guys are playing with a lot of confidence. The [offensive] wrinkles coach added really give guys the opportunity to use their tools, and we're playing good. I'm just happy to be a part of that."
Brand understands that in order for his team to be successful, they can't be deferring to him like they did earlier in the season. Those 5 1/2 weeks he spent on the sidelines were good for a lesson or two.
"The biggest thing I saw was just letting guys get comfortable and play their games," he said. "We watched some tape [from when he was healthy], and they'd throw it in the post or throw it to the elbow, and they'd watch. Or I would watch. No, we're playing ball. That's what I came here for and that's what we did tonight. We played ball."
It seems simple enough, but it will take some time. On this night, the Sixers were fortunate to be playing a team with a lot more issues than themselves. And Brand was fortunate his team was able to pull out a win in the closing minutes, helping ease the doubts about its ability to succeed with him in uniform.
"It's a relief just to play," he said, "and it's a relief to win."
But can the Sixers keep winning with Elton Brand? That's the $80 million question. And halfway through the season, we still don't know the answer.
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