IF THIS WERE a theater production, you could almost hear an off-stage voice telling the audience, "The role of Samuel Dalembert is being portrayed by Marreese Speights and Theo Ratliff."

At the same time, the 76ers' 21-game reviews are in, and that is essentially what is happening.

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It's not a matter of this being anyone's fault. It has been more about the evolving of a team that has added six new players from the end of last season. Some of the players are playing with a post player (Elton Brand) for the first time. Collectively, they seem to be searching for a comfortable blend of fastbreak and halfcourt offense, and they are clearly much better at the former. They also are searching for a defense that can become their forte.

So far, no one is really happy. No one should be. They're 9-12 going into tonight's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, knowing that Brand is returning from a two-game absence because of a strained right hamstring and hopeful that Dalembert can find his way out of a personal quagmire.

In the season's original blueprint, Dalembert seemed to fit nicely as the big man sharing the defensive load in the paint with Brand and remaining a factor on offense, especially via dunks off backdoor lobs and a reasonably good 12- to 15-foot jump shot. Instead, Dalembert's role has diminished with the steady improvement of Speights, a rookie, and the recent defensive contributions of the 35-year-old Ratliff.

Dalembert, who started all 82 games each of the last two seasons and has a streak of 211 straight games, achieved substantial averages of 10.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.34 blocks last season. He has the third-most blocks of anyone in the NBA since 2003-04, behind Marcus Camby and Ben Wallace; he had nine blocks against the Minnesota Timberwolves last December and came up with back-to-back 20-rebound performances against the Chicago Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs.

For whatever reasons, he hasn't come close to that level this season. He has been scoreless in three of his previous six games and was 0-for-6 from the floor in Saturday night's home loss to the New Jersey Nets; last season, the Sixers were 15-6 when he scored at least 15 points.

"Different matchups . . . haven't allowed him to play his customary 30 to 35 minutes, and that hasn't allowed him to play his way out of certain things," coach Maurice Cheeks said. "For me, his effort is always there; it's not like he doesn't go out there and try. He doesn't always get it done. No one does it always, all the time."

Complicating matters, Dalembert has struggled with an ongoing knee problem.

"Sam's a lateral movement guy, so it's going to affect him getting up and down the floor," Cheeks said. "I know it's bothering him."

The usually sunny Dalembert has played the role of the good teammate. He's been a positive influence on the bench; he has cheered for the players on the court. That, however, doesn't mean he's happy.

"I've been in some [difficult] stretches over my career," he said. "This one is nothing new. You know that. It's just a situation I have to accept, work with the organization. I mean, I wish . . . I'm not blaming nobody. Everybody's just figuring things out right now.

"I've been feeling a little bit on the outside . . . People look and say, 'Sam's minutes are diminished, or maybe Sam's doing something wrong.' I don't think it's the case. If it was the case, somebody would come to me, talk to me and tell me something.

"I've been in this situation before, where they're trying to reduce my minutes and give them to somebody else and kind of see if things work. Obviously, so far, things haven't been working . . . I'm not even thinking about the offense; that's not what they ask me to do. They ask me to rebound and block shots ever since I've been here. My defense has always been there."

He has been supportive of Speights, who started the last two games at power forward in the absence of Brand (strained right hamstring), but also has reminded him, "Don't take it for granted." He respects Ratliff, who is in his second stint as a Sixer, this time an 11th-hour signee after Jason Smith was lost for the season because of knee surgery.

"Overall, it looks bad for me," Dalembert said. "It seems like I'm the guy. I'm not afraid to take any decision, any blame. If anybody wants to blame Sam, go ahead. It's nothing worse for me. Where I come from [born in Haiti], I deal with bigger issues than that. I'm going to continue to fight. If the coach puts me out there for 10 to 15 minutes, whatever the case, I'm going to play hard for this team."

If more minutes go to Speights, Dalembert said, "If that's what's going to help us win and coach feels like that's what needs to be done, I'm going to cheer for him."

And, even as he said, "I feel like there are times I should be on the floor," he also said, "I'm always going to be supportive of my teammates and give my advice, because at the end of the day then it's going to be tougher for the other team." *

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