With the Celtics already sailing far ahead in the Atlantic Division, Elton Brand blames himself for not making the divisional race more competitive.
The Philadelphia 76ers signed the two-time All-Star away from the Clippers with a five-year, $82 million deal in the offseason. With an intriguing roster that includes two talented guards named Andre (Miller and Iguodala), budding star forward Thaddeus Young, and swatting center Samuel Dalembert, the Sixers expected that the addition of Brand in the post would make them a formidable team that could challenge Boston.
But as of yesterday morning, the Celtics (12-2) already owned a five-game lead in the Atlantic over Philadelphia, Toronto, and New York, who were all a mere 6-6.
"A lot is on me," said Brand. "We started off pretty bad and it was all on me. Other guys got deals and stuff. But I don't look at it that way. I look at it as it's all on me.
"I might not have the biggest contract. But I just felt that's what my job was, to come to this team and stabilize it and definitely make it a high-level contender."
Brand is fully recovered from a ruptured left Achilles' tendon that limited him to eight games last season with the Clippers. Even so, the 6-foot-9-inch, 254-pounder is averaging career worsts of 15.9 points, 3.1 turnovers, and a .428 shooting percentage thus far.
While Brand is very familiar with Miller, an ex-teammate in Los Angeles, he is slowly getting used to the other Sixers. So his numbers should improve, as he and his teammates get more comfortable with one another.
"We just came together," Brand said. "I just came to this team. These guys are young. It's going to take a while."
Said Miller, "He's fine. He brings a lot to the table. Defense, rebounding, blocked shots. We're just trying to adjust to him right now."
Like Brand, the Sixers as a whole are trying to figure things out. Philadelphia has beaten Sacramento by 34 points and won tough games at Toronto and Indiana. But they also lost to a doormat, Minnesota, were beaten by 23 points by Miami, and defeated the struggling Clippers by a slim 89-88 score at home Friday thanks to a game-winning Brand jumper.
"The pieces seem there, we just have to get it going," Brand said. "You can't say, 'Oh, two weeks.' It's a growth period we have to go through. We're improving every day and we're working at it. But we really can't give a timetable. I'm pretty sure it will come; I'm positive it will come eventually."
There is a lot of basketball still to be played. But with Jermaine O'Neal ailing in Toronto, the Sixers trying to find their identity, the Knicks caring more about salary-cap space than wins, and the Nets too young to make a run, the Celtics could finish the season with a lead similar to the 25-game cushion they had at the end of last season in the Atlantic.
Brand conceded that catching the Celtics is a task likely too difficult. So he thinks the best thing for his team to do is learn from the champs.
"They're just that good and that battle-tested right now," said Brand, whose Sixers play at Boston Friday. "That's what we aspire to get to.
"We're much younger than those guys. That's the measuring stick right now for us. I think eventually we can compete with them. But right now, they just got it going.
"They got the intensity. They got the hunger. They got the knowledge because they've been to the Finals all the way as a team. They have the unity."
Watching and waiting
Ex-NBA coach Flip Saunders is staying close to the game.
Saunders has attended college practices at Minnesota, Michigan State, Illinois, and Villanova. The former TNT analyst could return to doing games again this season.
But for now, having been fired by the Pistons four days after they were eliminated by the Celtics in last spring's playoffs, he seems to be enjoying his time off from coaching while living in Minneapolis.
"I'm an expert now," joked Saunders. "I sit back, watch some games. I'm trying to figure everything out. I'm going to watch a lot of college games and practices, speak at clinics. I'm watching some NBA games. I'm a basketball junkie. I have no agenda about who wins. It is unique."
While Saunders says he'd prefer to sit out this season, his name and that of ex-Mavericks coach Avery Johnson will surely come up if any jobs become open.
In nine-plus seasons with Minnesota, Saunders posted a 411-326 record, became the winningest coach in franchise history, and led the team to its first Western Conference finals in 2004. The Pistons averaged nearly 59 victories and compiled a 30-21 playoff record in three seasons under Saunders.
"I'm going to want to wait this season out, but you never say never," Saunders said. "If the right situation presents itself, fine. But I'm looking at waiting at the same time.
"I've been keeping myself busy by staying involved in the game. There is that inclination that you want to have a team. But I don't want to right now."
State of frustration
Al Harrington wasn't the only Warrior who wanted out of Golden State. Former University of Connecticut point guard Marcus Williams feels that way, too. Following two decent seasons in New Jersey, Williams was hoping for a fresh start and much more playing time after being dealt to the Warriors July 22 for a conditional first-round draft pick. With Monta Ellis out with an ankle injury and Baron Davis gone to the Clippers, Williams seemed in good position to get his wish. But through 11 games, he was scoreless with seven assists in 23 minutes and was behind undrafted rookies C.J. Watson and DeMarcus Nelson in the point guard rotation. Williams's agent, Bill Duffy, said he asked the Warriors to trade his client. "It appeared to be an ideal fit for him over the summer after Baron Davis's absence," Duffy said. "Marcus has not had sustained opportunities. It's not his intention to leave, but it's important that he plays." Harrington got his wish Friday when he was dealt to New York for guard Jamal Crawford. With Crawford expected to start, playing time should be even harder for Williams to get. Duffy acknowledged that the Warriors have been talking to teams about Williams. Golden State executive vice president Chris Mullin believes Williams can still make an impact this season. "To me, he just needs a chance," said Mullin. "We're going to put another scorer [Crawford], sooner or later, on the floor. So we'll need another passer. It's still early. We're just 10 games in. I understand his frustration. There is a lot of situations where it can click." The Warriors can play some interesting small ball with Crawford, Stephen Jackson, and Corey Maggette. Crawford was averaging 19.6 points and 4.4 assists in 35.6 minutes with New York and scored 25-plus five times. Imagine how intimidating Golden State will be offensively after the return of Ellis, who averaged 20.2 points last season. Mullin said Ellis is progressing, but he wasn't certain when he would play again. Crawford "is a good fit for us," Mullin said. "We like to play small anyways. He's an established NBA scorer. We really didn't have a third scorer."
Shake up the Thunder
Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti will give interim head coach Scott Brooks the job for the remainder of the season, with a chance to win it permanently. Presti fired P.J. Carlesimo following Friday's loss to New Orleans, which dropped the Thunder to 1-12. If things don't work out with Brooks, keep an eye on ex-Dallas coach Avery Johnson, who has Spurs ties with Presti and played juco ball in Oklahoma. With young standouts Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook, plus $25 million available in free agency and two first-round picks, the Thunder job will be an attractive one next summer. "Our focus is on the immediate, and [Brooks] has my full support," said Presti, a Boston native.
Changing of the guard
As soon as the Nuggets moved point guard Andre Miller to the 76ers in the blockbuster Allen Iverson trade on Dec. 19, 2006, Miller felt it would be just a matter of time before his old team would try to acquire a true point guard again. Miller was right as the Nuggets acquired Chauncey Billups in another Iverson trade this month. "I knew that was going to happen when I got traded," Miller said. "Probably the only difference between me and Chauncey Billups is he's a better 3-point shooter, he has more playoff games under him. I knew that was going to happen. [The Nuggets] need that stability at point guard to get the guys the ball and get Carmelo [Anthony] the ball when he wants it. The [Iverson] experiment didn't work. I think both sides are happy with the trade." When asked about being a point guard, Iverson said: "I've played 2-guard the majority of my career and I've played a lot of point guard as well when I needed to. I'm a basketball player. I'm not a true point guard so I can't tell you what a true point guard is. All I can do is play like Allen Iverson and play with the talent that God gave me."
The last word
Hey Celtics, Nuggets coach George Karl told the Denver Post last week, "Cleveland and LA have proven to be the best teams in the first 10 games."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com