ED STEFANSKI has never really seen the 76ers team he envisioned for this season. He has never seen a healthy Elton Brand, surrounded by Andre Miller, Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Samuel Dalembert, playing at near-breakneck speed on offense, digging in relentlessly on defense.

That team, stifled by injury and circumstance, has yet to exist. And it won't have an opportunity to show itself until next season, when Brand returns from surgery to repair the dislocated right shoulder he suffered Dec. 17.

It is interesting that the grand Brand experiment went up in smoke but the team did not. As the Sixers come out of the NBA All-Star Weekend break to face the Indiana Pacers tonight in Conseco Fieldhouse, they have managed to build a 27-24 record with 14 victories in their last 18 games. After a 9-14 start under Maurice Cheeks, they are 18-10 under Tony DiLeo, lead the league in fastbreak scoring and have all but forced their way back into the playoff-seeding picture.

Given their struggling start, things could obviously be better. But, with a coaching change and a season-ending injury to Brand, they could also be much, much worse. Stefanski invested $185 million in Brand, Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams during the summer, found a gem in Marreese Speights in the first round of the draft and added a handful of role players to a team that has had a penchant for strong finishes; the Sixers closed out last season at 22-12, reaching the playoffs for the first time in 4 years after completing the 2006-07 season with 18 victories in their final 29 games.

This team, though, seems to have turned up the volume a little sooner.

"I like our execution at both ends of the floor, and our offense in the halfcourt is getting better," Stefanski said during a conversation just before the break. "We're finishing out plays, using the shot clock and seeming better at the end of the clock, getting a better shot.

"I'm encouraged by our young players. Thaddeus Young has been real solid . . . no, better than that, showing that his future is ahead of him. The rookie [Speights] has been better than any of us expected this soon. And Iguodala doesn't get the credit he deserves, probably due to a slow start. If you're into statistics, a numbers guy, he's off the charts. Lou Williams isn't shooting like I know he can, but he's still giving us that spark off the bench."

For all that has been good about the Sixers, though, Brand remains the elephant in the room.

"We haven't been able to see what we envisioned, and we won't be able to see it until next season," Stefanski said. "I know everyone has an opinion [about whether Brand fits with this group], but I believe he can help this team. We've got to prove it. We've got to get him on the court. It's easy once something doesn't happen right away [to take a negative view]; people want to just write it off. That's who we are as Americans.

"I'm prejudiced. I think we haven't implemented him properly. I'm still confident it can work. Fans come up all the time and say it hasn't worked because we haven't had time to make it work. I just know Elton has been terrific about everything; when he came back [for six games after the injury], he deferred to everybody, tried to be a human screen, rebounding, blocking shots, boxing out. You can't tell me that, when he was healthy, he didn't help this team."

Brand's situation can wait. Other situations are more imminent.

There is the case of point guard Andre Miller, in the final season of his contract. With the in-season trading deadline arriving Thursday, the Sixers have to decide whether to retain Miller for the rest of the season or use him in a deal. His skill and expiring contract would make him attractive to several teams; whether they would offer anything resembling equal value is another question.

Beyond that, the Sixers have to decide whether to try to re-sign Miller or allow him to leave in free agency; they do not have a full-blown young point guard in waiting on the roster.

"Time, and a number of factors, play into this," Stefanski said. "As time progresses, there will be factors, factors, factors."

But, as of now, Stefanski sees Miller being with the team through the season. He has had "numerous" conversations with Andy Miller, Andre Miller's agent, but would not say how specific those talks have been.

Then there has been the unusual coaching change, replacing Cheeks with DiLeo, who had never been a head coach in the league and who hadn't been a head coach anywhere in two decades, having built a series of successful seasons directing men and women in what was then West Germany.

"The timing has worked," Stefanski said. "Will it continue? We hope so."

But DiLeo, who remains the senior vice president of basketball operations and assistant general manager, has reveled in the job. Even though both Stefanski and DiLeo have said they will discuss the future after the conclusion of the season, it has become obvious that DiLeo very much wants to remain the coach.

"When I first mentioned the possibility of coaching to him, I suggested that he take a day to think about it, but he said, 'No, I want to do it,' " Stefanski recalled. "Even the next day, I suggested he take another day and he again said he wanted to do it. One thing I know: Tony knows basketball, knows personnel. And these players knew him, because he was the one scouting them, drafting them, acquiring them. If he had been brand-new or coming from the outside, I would never have done that." *

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