Sluggish Sixers preach patience
The 76ers are trying to find their identity after signing Elton Brand in the offseason
Philadelphia hasn't found instant success with Brand like many observers predicted
The offense has been subpar and the defense hasn't been opportunistic enough
CHICAGO -- Too soon to panic.
That's the mantra for the Sixers these days.
Picked by many to be a top-tier team in the Eastern Conference, thanks to the offseason signing of power forward Elton Brand, Philadelphia (8-11 after Wednesday's loss to the Lakers) instead has been one of the NBA's early disappointments.
"We're still trying to find ourselves," Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks admitted Tuesday, before his team snapped a four-game losing streak with a 103-95 overtime victory against the Bulls.
"We're a work in progress," Brand added.
"It's going to take some time," Andre Iguodala echoed.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, of course. When the Sixers lured Brand away from the Clippers with a five-year, $82 million deal, many expected Philadelphia to make an immediate jump in the standings. Maybe even challenge the Celtics for the Eastern crown.
After all, the Sixers already had the look of an up-and-coming team. Led by Iguodala, Andre Miller, Samuel Dalembert and promising rookie Thaddeus Young, they won 22 of their final 34 games last season before taking the Pistons to six games in the first round of the playoffs. Brand seemed to fill their glaring need for a scoring power forward who could work the post and draw double teams on offense while also providing some beef down low on the defensive end.
But, alas, it has not been as easy as Philadelphia hoped.
Brand has done his part, averaging 17.4 points and 10.3 rebounds entering Wednesday's game. But the Sixers as a team have looked oddly passive and not at all like themselves. Unable to play a small lineup as often, they seem to have lost their identity as a fast, athletic, defensive-minded hurricane that forces turnovers and gets up court for easy baskets.
Through Tuesday, Philadelphia ranked in the bottom seven in scoring (94.4), field goal percentage (43.4), free throw percentage (74.0) and turnovers (16.4). Meanwhile, its defense has not been creating offense like it did so well in 2007-08. One of the league's top steals teams a year ago, the Sixers have slipped to 17th in that category (7.3) this season.
The Sixers clearly are still trying to figure out how to play with Brand. (It is hardly uncommon for an NBA team to need 20-25 games to incorporate a major player into its rotation). Cheeks and the coaching staff have had to make adjustments in X's and O's as they try to determine everything from where Brand best operates on the court (not so much in the low block anymore, but more on the elbow) to how best to deploy him on pick-and-roll defense.
The players, meanwhile, have had to learn how to get their new $82 million man the ball without deferring too much. Perhaps no player epitomizes the struggles more than Iguodala. The 6-foot-6 swingman, signed to his own $80 million contract extension in the offseason, is averaging just 13.7 points on 41.4 percent shooting. He has looked almost tentative on the court at times, and his shot attempts have fallen from 15.6 to 11.9 per game.
"I just haven't been able to get to that comfort zone yet," he said. "Once I get there, I'll be all right."
Cheeks has made it a priority in recent games to get Iguodala more chances to initiate the offense, and it seems to be working. He racked up a season-high 25 points (on 11-of-19 shooting) to go with nine rebounds and five assists in Tuesday's victory in Chicago. But Cheeks also doesn't want Iguodala to get too hung up on scoring.
"I don't want him to think he has to go out and score 30 points," he said. "We want to put the ball in his hands lot more, get him more opportunities to get to the rim [but] also to distribute the ball."
The other area of focus for the Sixers is getting back to being an aggressive, ball-hawking team on defense. Philadelphia has done it in spurts, such as Tuesday when it had five steals in a six-minute span of the first quarter to fuel a 14-3 run. But then just as quickly, the Sixers give it back with a bunch of turnovers of their own (as they did in the second quarter against Chicago when they committed nine turnovers to help the Bulls rally.)
"We'll see it for a quarter, then it will go away," Iguodala said about his team's defensive identity. "We can still get back to playing that way. We've just got to put it together for a full game and be consistent."
Another issue has been the schedule. Philadelphia already has had two stretches of five games in seven nights, leaving little room for practice time during those weeks. As the schedule evens out, Cheeks should have more of a chance to make adjustments.
The question is, How long will those notoriously tough Philadelphia fans stay patient? The Sixers rank 27th in the NBA in home attendance (13,263). Already there have been boos at home games this season.
"I wouldn't call them impatient. Just passionate," Brand said of Philadelphia fans. "They've been waiting 26 years [for an NBA title]. My message [to them] would be to keep supporting us. We're going to come around for sure."
In other words, it's too soon to panic.