LeBron James was going through the motions - another city, another bunch of reporters wanting pregame quotes - until Charles Barkley's name came up.

James' blandly pleasant expression disappeared for a moment. Barkley, the erstwhile Sixer and present-day provocateur, said on Dan Patrick's radio show that James should "shut the hell up" about where he might sign when he becomes a free agent in 2010.

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In recounting the comment, James inserted an F bomb.

"I've got kids at home wondering why someone would say something like that to their father," James said.

With all the issues facing the average American - paying the mortgage, sweating layoffs, trying to put together a nice holiday season for the kids - it's hard to get excited about where James will earn his tens of millions of dollars two seasons from now.

The way things are going, the NBA might be downsized - games of three-on-three on public playgrounds - by 2010.

No, the reason to think about James last night wasn't because he can be a free agent halfway through Barack Obama's first term. It was because there's something to learn about winning in the NBA, and the Sixers in particular, from James' career.

If LeBron isn't the best all-around player in the world, he's certainly one of the top three. He is in his sixth season now since being drafted by Cleveland right out of high school. It is the essence of LeBron James that he has always been just as good as the hype that surrounded him from the beginning, maybe even a little bit better.

And yet it is only now that the Cavaliers are a truly elite NBA team. Yes, they went to the NBA Finals a couple of years ago, getting swept by San Antonio, but they were merely a good team then. Now the Cavs, who came into the Wachovia Center last night with a record of 18-3, are an elite team.

Meanwhile, Sixers fans are wondering why the acquisition of Elton Brand hasn't translated into a markedly better team than the one that squeaked into the playoffs last season.

The Eltonian Sixers played their 22d game last night, and Brand had missed the previous two with a hamstring injury.

Before it started, coach Maurice Cheeks explained his decision to start Willie Green at shooting guard, with Andre Iguodala at small forward and Thaddeus Young coming off the bench. Cheeks talked about "the matchups," but really he's simply trying to find a combination that works.

He could have been any of his predecessors talking about moving the pieces around Allen Iverson in an effort to create an effective lineup and rotation. The difference is that Brand is a more traditional centerpiece player, and it shouldn't take 10 years of frustration.

Barkley, like Iverson, was a unique, square-peg talent who proved impossible to build a championship team around.

James is the opposite. If you can't build a champion around LeBron James, you can't build one. The Cavs finally seem to have the right supporting cast: Ben Wallace, Delonte West, Mo Williams, Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Even then, it isn't that simple.

To hear James tell it, this is the best stretch of basketball the Cavs have played on his watch. The reason: defense.

"We have a killer instinct now," James said. "We're taking responsibility defensively. We have a chip on our shoulder about not letting our guy score. Guys get mad when they are scored on."

James said he learned a thing or two from spending the summer with the rest of the superstars on the U.S. Olympic team.

"We all know it's a long NBA season," James said. "It's a long season, and you can take a game off because it is so long. But the best teams don't take games off. We want to be playing into June."

The Sixers would be happy to see May again this year. They are not a team capable of competing with the Cavaliers and Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference. That's obvious. But with Brand and Iguodala, Young and Andre Miller, the Sixers should be better than they have been so far.

It is that time of year when underachieving teams begin to get a little itchy. There were two trades in the NBA yesterday. It is safe to assume that Sixers general manager Ed Stefanski is making calls and poring over rosters, looking for ways to improve his team.

The least exciting option is time, but it's also Stefanski's smartest play (well, unless someone offers him a couple of first-round picks for Samuel Dalembert). Time is the only way for Brand to get comfortable and for young supporting players like Young, Lou Williams and Marreese Speights to grow around him.

The Sixers don't have LeBron James. Even if they did, it takes years, not weeks, to build an elite team around an elite player.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.
Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.