Sixers forward Elton Brand is out for the rest of the season, and this leads to a number of interesting questions, not the least of which is, "How will we be able to tell?"

Brand, who was supposed to be a major impact player when he was signed to a five-year, $80 million contract, made his biggest impact against the floor of the Wachovia Center on Dec. 17. He cartwheeled over an opponent, landed on his right shoulder, and missed a month before attempting an aborted comeback that ended Tuesday night.

The Sixers' organization has applauded Brand for trying to resume play this season, even though it seems obvious now the torn labrum would eventually require the surgery that will take place Monday. Whether the initial injury was misdiagnosed or treated too optimistically really doesn't matter. It could be either, or it could be the way the organization is spinning it. Hey, it's not our money.

The fact is that not only wasn't Elton Brand himself when he came back from the recent rehabilitation process, he wasn't himself before the shoulder injury. Since the Achilles' tendon surgery that caused him to miss nearly all of last season, Brand appeared to be slower, less aggressive in going to the basket, and more willing to settle for short jump shots than for the collisions that come with the power forward position.

Brand didn't fit in very well with the rest of the roster, which plays best in the open floor and at a fast tempo. Making the pieces fit was a conundrum that coach Maurice Cheeks couldn't solve and that his replacement, Tony DiLeo, never really got a chance to address.

So, it's off until September for Brand, and the Sixers will have to muddle through the final 35 games of the season without him. If their past performance is any gauge, they'll be competitive in nearly all of them, win about half, finish with somewhere around 40 wins, and exit the playoffs quickly.

During that process, however, some good things could happen and yesterday's news concerning Brand is a classic half-full, half-empty proposition.

If you choose to look at things pessimistically, then the loss of Brand marks this as a wasted season. It means the Sixers are still shackled in the same spot they were a year ago. They don't have an established low-post presence, they don't have an effective three-point shooting threat. They have a team that is entertaining during the regular season but too one-dimensional to last very long in the playoffs.

That is the pessimistic view, and it has some validity, particularly when you consider how much of their future salary-cap room has been promised to Brand, who might never be the player they hoped he would be and who appears laughably untradable. Like any good china shop, the NBA is a you-break-it-you-bought-it kind of place. No team would take on a liability like Brand, at least until he proved himself both sound and useful next season.

The optimistic view isn't as likely but is a good deal more pleasant to consider. Unshackled from the need to find playing time for Brand, the Sixers will continue to see development and improvement from Thaddeus Young (20 years old), Marreese Speights (21), Lou Williams (22) and even Andre Iguodala (just turned 25).

That's an amazingly young and talented core. They struggled during the long annual road trip that spans the holidays but came home to win seven of eight games before Brand's short-lived return. It is a group that can operate with Sammy Dalembert at the center or on the dead-run with Speights in the middle. And it is a fun team to watch.

It could be that, in the long run, additional minutes for Speights, Young and - with Iguodala playing small forward almost exclusively - Williams will pay off when Brand does finally return. If Brand comes back fully healthy next season and with some of his old mobility back as well, that added maturity for the kids will allow them to complement the power forward's play rather than merely contrast with it.

Everything might still work out for the Sixers in the Elton Brand era, which, after all, still has four seasons left to go.

One thing is certain. The era can't get much worse.

Bob Ford:

In Sports

For Brand, disappointing end, long recovery.

C1.

76ers beat Pacers, 99-94,

to even record at 24-24. C1.