WHEN THE Philadelphia 76ers signed Elton Brand to a five-year, $80 million contract in the off-season, they believed they had acquired the ideal low-post complement for their up-tempo attack. Instead the Sixers stumbled early, with Brand either ineffective (averaging a career-low 13.8 points per game) or injured (he missed 20 games before shoulder surgery ended his season on Feb. 9). After a 9--14 start, the team fired coach Maurice Cheeks on Dec. 13 and replaced him with assistant G.M. Tony DiLeo. Sounds like the makings of a lost season, no? But a funny 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 � games behind Atlanta in the race to host a first-round playoff series. "This season definitely hasn't gone the way we expected," says Philly's G.M. Ed Stefanski.
How have the Sixers turned it around? It's simple, really: They started running again. In the first month of the season Philadelphia's players often stood around and watched 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 we should have been doing." With Brand in the lineup the Sixers had shifted the athletic Thaddeus Young, who started at power forward toward the end of last season, down to the three spot, with Andre Iguodala moving to the two and shooting guard Willie Green going to the bench. When Brand started missing games, though, Young and the others reverted back to their old slots, and the Sixers rediscovered their running game; they are averaging a league-best 18.3 fast-break points per game. "When they run, look out," says Cavaliers coach Mike Brown. "There is not a whole lot you can do to prepare for it."
Another factor has been the contributions off the bench of rookie power forward Marreese Speights, whose skills fit a fast-paced system. Selected 16th overall out of Florida, the 6'10" Speights has speed and also the ability to score around the basket with either hand. In a Feb. 9 win against Phoenix, he had a season-best 24 points in 24 minutes. "He's a beast," says Young. "He's just scratching the surface of his talent."
While the Sixers' recent surge has been cause for optimism in Philadelphia, it raises long-term questions. One is whether the team can succeed in the postseason with its current style. In last year's first-round playoff loss to Detroit, the Sixers struggled when the Pistons slowed the pace to a crawl. Mindful of that, DiLeo has devoted most of Philadelphia's practice time to improving the team's defense 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. Moving without the ball is what creates opportunities for us when we can't fast-break." The work has paid off: In the 28 games since he took over as coach, 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 field goal attempts (46.0% last season). "We all remember what happened last year," says Young. "If we are going to do better this time, we have to execute perfectly."
Then there's the longer-term question: what the Sixers should do with Brand, given the team's success without him and the play of Speights. "It's an issue, but it's a nice issue to have," says Stefanski. "We want Elton back. There is no reason Marreese can't complement him and we can't be even better next season."
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