As soon as I walked in the Wachovia Center Monday, I could feel a different type of buzz. The buzz in this case was the unveiling of the 2008-09 Philadelphia 76ers to the media. In years past, this day was a ho hum event that made yet another abysmal Sixers season end a little quicker. Times have changed. You could feel the anticipation in the moment.
Visions of 76er plumbs and expectations abound in the City of Brotherly Love. From the second the Sixers lost to the veteran Pistons in last year’s playoffs, the town has been chomping at the bit because of a very exciting second half finish. Fans see the Sixers as team 3a (Flyers) behind the Eagles and the Phillies, so any upward movement is a definite plus.
Elton Brand was brought in to take this team to the next level. It’s as simple as that. There will be no excuses about Elton’s past injuries, and he will be expected to do what it takes. I might be in the minority in saying this, but I honestly consider Brand’s acquisition the second most important behind Moses Malone’s signing in 1983.
Ed Stefanski did the damn thing this offseason. He and the Sixers front office were as busy as any team in sports. They got Brand, they resigned (for more than market value) Andre Iguodala, and emerging fire starter Louis Williams, drafted promising forward Maurice Speights and brought in very capable veteran free agents Donyell Marshall, Kareem Rush, Theo Ratliff and Royal Ivey to strengthen the bench.
Stefanski is poised–barring injury–to become a true hometown hero of sorts because of his dedication and drive to ensure Philadelphia recaptures its elite status among the NBA pantheon. With Los Angeles and Boston on the get back, the time is now and it benefits the NBA and its fans if Philadelphia shows and proves in May and June. Philly has been slacking madly since the days of the Bubba Chuck Tyron Lue step over and Brand & Co. better understand it’s time to put up or shut up.
Yeah, I’m calling it earlsky, but I’m predicting the Sixers face the Boston Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy this June. The defending NBA champions provide a daunting challenge to the retooled Sixers but it obviously would be premature to say the Sixers are better outfit than Boston. Cleveland, Orlando and Toronto are on the upswing and of course an established Detroit Pistons squad remains omnipresent until an age-induced fall off.
Elton gave typical responses to media questions regarding his arrival, preparation and expectations. He looked like a kid who was savoring a moment that will be played back if the franchise is successful this season.
I wanted to see just how much Elton is in tune with a city rough and tough on its athletes so I asked how Elton has been received since his signing. He appeared a little nervous in his response because the pressroom was packed: “The city has been great. It’s been a great experience. You hear about Philadelphia fans and their passion. They want their local teams to win and that’s what they are about. Everybody is excited. The Phillies made the playoffs so the town is rooting for them and it’s on us (to keep it going).”
Next was the 80 million dollar man, Andre Iguodala. He turned down 55 million last November and resigning was never an issue. He’s an expected All-Star, and he needs to step up especially because Mo Cheeks is considering moving Andre to shooting guard. He spoke very highly of his new teammate Elton Brand and seemed hype to get on the floor asap. He says Elton is vocal just enough to elicit a positive response while playing with him in summer workouts. Tayshaun and Rasheed (at the rack) shut him down and left no doubt during the playoff lost and his production is the reason why the upstart Sixers didn’t upset a vulnerable Pistons team. I asked Andre what type of mental and physical process he went through after the Pistons stifled his offensive game: “It feels the same. Looking at film and seeing what you have to improve on. You want to stay sharp at every aspect of the game and add something new. I stayed in the gym and improved on what I could.”
I also wanted to see if Andre saw this moment in his early development as a basketball player: “Definitely, I’ve been in the position where we weren’t expected to do much. We had some success last year and got into the playoffs when people didn’t expect us to. This year it’s a little different. You have to really be on point. No one is really looking past us as they did in the past. People are going to bring their ‘A’ game.”
The highlight of the day was seeing a smile not usual on the face of Andre Miller. He recently switched from his long time agent and signed with Andy Miller but seems to be in no hurry to sign a contract extension. He’s one of the most matter-of-fact players I’ve come across and had good words to say about a feature I did with him in SLAM 120. I’ve never seen him so outgoing. If Andre Miller is comfortable around the press and cracking jokes, the league better watch out. He expects an All-Star berth and is cognizant of the right here and right now. “I didn’t know what to expect because I’d never been in this position. Coming to a team in transition, it normally takes three or four years before we are where we are. The end of the season turned out as a positive because the young guys got better and we competed. With Elton, I just want him to make it to the first game healthy (smiles jokingly).”
Andre are you a little more apt to let others use their leadership skills because of all the moves?
“Kind of, but as a point guard, the guys need me to speak up (wow, listen to this dude). I’ll probably back off a little bit just because they know where I’m coming from but I’ll remain consistent vocally on the court. Behind closed doors the older veterans will speak up more. I will set the stage for the team by the way I carry myself on the court.”
Dre…gimme something bruh…where do you see this team finishing?
“Man, I don’t see nothin’ but training camp right now, Mike (the press cracks up because Andre is trying not to laugh). I try not to look too far ahead and take one game at a time. I’m excited to see how this team develops. June is eight months away, man. What are you asking me? You trying to get me in trouble, Mike? I thought you was cool! (Everyone is laughing). We’ll worry about that when we get to May.”
Okay, how about this one? Was this offseason shorter than others?
“Yeah it was fast, man. Between you bugging me at the end of the season and all that happened, I really didn’t get a chance to chill like I normally do. Seriously though, I couldn’t wait to get here.”
Samuel Dalembert is another player I dealt with during a crazy and frustrating summer. He had to deal with all the negativity surrounding his expulsion from the Canadian Olympic team but seems to have learned a lot. He was a little heated because he wanted to do some stuff in Haiti, but understands everything will have to wait until this season is over.
MT: Sam, you gotta be glad to be here right after what transpired this summer right?
Samuel Dalembert: Mike, I’m good. I’m good. I couldn’t wait. You know what went down. I just wanted to learn from the whole experience. I feel at home. I expect to be an All-Star this year.
MT: I hear you man. Big words. You know I’m going to keep you to them.
SD: Oh, I know you are. It’s not all about stats. Look at Ben Wallace. He’s been an All-Star. Elton and I will feed off each other down low. I got a little taste with your boy (Chris Webber) but that didn’t work out because of a style clash I guess. I worked hard and I’m determined to give this team all I have deep deep down. I’m just happy to be here.
Last on the mic was Thaddeus “Baby Legs” Young. Thad was a major surprise last year and used his speed advantage to score some crucial buckets in the open floor as well as in the structured offense even though plays weren’t called for him. He was so excited after hearing about Brand’s signing that he bust his head on a Las Vegas hotel ceiling during NBA Summer League. Of all the players, you will never get the smile off his face. He’s still got that young boy look in his eye so I thought to get a response on Rodney Carney being traded away. Rodney was a friend and, when Cheeks put all the young boys on the floor at the same time, good things happened.
MT: Thad you’ve experienced the reality of business life in the NBA. What did you learn?
Thaddeus Young: Well, it definitely hurt. I’ve been playing with Rodney since the 8th grade. I played against him when was at Memphis when I was younger. Rodney is a good friend and still is. We talk all the time. We both realize it’s a business. (Smiling) Now I have to play against him when we play the Timberwolves. He can jump, he can shoot…he’s a hard guy to guard. I was glad he was on my team.
MT: So I guess you aren’t trying to be in SLAM getting banged on by your boy huh?
TY: That poster? Nah man.
MT: I know your Pop (former NBA player Felton Young who played 3 seasons with the Clippers) is talking to you all the time. Was he hard on you this offseason? Was he chill?
TY: He was basically chill and laid back. He told me that I know what I have to do. He let the guys that I’ve been working out with do their job. He knows they are the professionals. He knows also and gives me suggestions on what to work on. I go out there and try to capitalize on what I may have been doing wrong. He’s my Dad, so he’s gonna say what he wants to say.
MT: When did he finally back off from you?
TY: When I got to college. He was my AAU coach my last year. He was still trying to coach me. I told him (smiling) to let coach do what he has to do and he was like do this and do that. I told him we can talk about anything else but not basketball. He knew what I was saying after that point. We get on the phone and don’t talk about basketball. He just tells me good game and tells me that I know he has some stuff to say, but I’ll let you do what you have to do.”
MT: What are you learning from Cheeks?
TY: Man…a lot! He’s definitely a player’s coach. He speaks up for us from day one. He’s taught me a lot, and people see it in my game. You saw the progression throughout the year. I kept getting better and better and better. I got a long way to go, but I’m still getting better. I can’t wait for the season to show everybody what I can do.
Oh oh. There’s a lot of hype around here as the team heads up to Penn State for training camp. We’ll see if they are going to back it up or pack it in prematurely. Elton Brand is the key because if he and the rest of his mates can stay healthy the second coming of another Boston Tea Party might get real interesting. We shall see.