WHEN THEPhiladelphia 76ers signed Elton Brand to a five-year, $80 million contract inthe off-season, they believed they had acquired the ideal low-post complementfor their up-tempo attack. Instead the Sixers stumbled early, with Brand eitherineffective (averaging a career-low 13.8 points per game) or injured (he missed20 games before shoulder surgery ended his season on Feb. 9). After a 9--14start, the team fired coach Maurice Cheeks on Dec. 13 and replaced him withassistant G.M. Tony DiLeo. Sounds like the makings of a lost season, no? But afunny thing happened on the way to the draft lottery: The 76ers got better.Much better. In fact, since Jan. 6 the team has the league's best record,14--4, and at week's end Philadelphia (27--24) was just 3 ½ games behindAtlanta in the race to host a first-round playoff series. "This seasondefinitely hasn't gone the way we expected," says Philly's G.M. EdStefanski.
How have theSixers turned it around? It's simple, really: They started running again. Inthe first month of the season Philadelphia's players often stood around andwatched Brand. Their body language, according to one rival coach, was"horrible." "We weren't getting any movement," DiLeo says."We were trying so hard to fit Elton in that it took away from what weshould have been doing." With Brand in the lineup the Sixers had shiftedthe athletic Thaddeus Young, who started at power forward toward the end oflast season, down to the three spot, with Andre Iguodala moving to the two andshooting guard Willie Green going to the bench. When Brand started missinggames, though, Young and the others reverted back to their old slots, and theSixers rediscovered their running game; they are averaging a league-best 18.3fast-break points per game. "When they run, look out," says Cavalierscoach Mike Brown. "There is not a whole lot you can do to prepare forit."
Another factor hasbeen the contributions off the bench of rookie power forward Marreese Speights,whose skills fit a fast-paced system. Selected 16th overall out of Florida, the6'10" Speights has speed and also the ability to score around the basketwith either hand. In a Feb. 9 win against Phoenix, he had a season-best 24points in 24 minutes. "He's a beast," says Young. "He's justscratching the surface of his talent."
While the Sixers'recent surge has been cause for optimism in Philadelphia, it raises long-termquestions. One is whether the team can succeed in the postseason with itscurrent style. In last year's first-round playoff loss to Detroit, the Sixersstruggled when the Pistons slowed the pace to a crawl. Mindful of that, DiLeohas devoted most of Philadelphia's practice time to improving the team'sdefense and half-court execution. "We can't run if we don't get stops,"says DiLeo. "And we don't want anyone standing around offensively. Movingwithout the ball is what creates opportunities for us when we can'tfast-break." The work has paid off: In the 28 games since he took over ascoach, Philadelphia is holding opponents to 44.7% shooting (compared with 46.1%last season with a similar rotation) while connecting on 48.0% of their fieldgoal attempts (46.0% last season). "We all remember what happened lastyear," says Young. "If we are going to do better this time, we have toexecute perfectly."
Then there's thelonger-term question: what the Sixers should do with Brand, given the team'ssuccess without him and the play of Speights. "It's an issue, but it's anice issue to have," says Stefanski. "We want Elton back. There is noreason Marreese can't complement him and we can't be even better nextseason."
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An Eastern Conference coach on center Jermaine O'Neal,30, whom Miami acquired from Toronto last Friday, along with forward JamarioMoon, in exchange for forward Shawn Marion and guard Marcus Banks.
I think Jermaine still has a lot left in the tank. He'shad some tough injuries over the last few years, but when he's healthy—which Ibelieve he is right now—he can still be an overpowering low-post presence.What's going to help him out most is Dwyane Wade. Jermaine has never playedwith a guy like that. Wade's offense will take a lot of pressure off him, andthe frequency with which Wade gets to the basket will create a lot of easyopportunities for him. If Miami can avoid Boston or Cleveland in the firstround, I think they will win a series. They are probably too young andinexperienced to do much more than that.
GARY DINEEN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (YOUNG)
JUMP-START When DiLeo (below) put Young back at the four, the offense took off.
NOAH GRAHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (DILEO)
[See caption above]
RON TURENNE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (O'NEAL)