Elton Brand wasn’t going to show his hand as far as potential acquisitions, but in a pregame news conference before the 76ers’ game Wednesday against the Milwaukee Bucks, the second-year general manager spoke with supreme confidence that his team is among the NBA’s elite.
And then, the Sixers played like championship contenders in their Christmas victory at the Wells Fargo Center, winning by 121-109.
Despite the impressive win over a Bucks team that owns the NBA’s best record at 27-5, the Sixers (23-10) still have some questions. Brand believes that this team, with two new starters, just needs time.
“You look at the daily standings — teams higher in the standings than us we have beaten, some of them twice already, so I feel once we get more continuity and get some more chemistry, we will be fine and where we need to be,” Brand said, exuding confidence throughout the 14-minute news conference.
To Brand’s point, the Sixers are 4-1 against the three teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference — 1-0 against Milwaukee, 2-0 vs. Boston, and 1-1 against Miami.
Still, it was the initial expectation of Brand and the team that they would compete for the top spot in the East. While that could happen, the Sixers remain 4.5 games behind the Bucks. And Brand’s views have changed a bit since the season started.
“If you were talking to me, [I thought] it would be a work in progress, we are going to get there,” he said of his initial expectations. “Home-court advantage is important, but having Joel [Embiid] healthy in the playoff in May, June, that is important to us. We could still grow into a team that could be a No. 1 seed, but that wasn’t my words.”
Entering the season, though, Brand wasn’t talking much about a work in progress.
“We know what the expectations are, and we embrace it. It’s not just [coach] Brett [Brown], it’s all of us,” he said in a preseason interview with the Associated Press. “We’re in that position now where just getting to the first round, getting to the second round, those expectations are gone. We’re expected to win big, and we embrace it.”
So, back to Wednesday’s news conference. Asked if he would look to bring a scorer off the bench, Brand was noncommittal.
“As GM, I always look at that," he said, "any way I can make the team better, I will, but again, I am encouraged about where we are, and I look forward to having this team grow and compete against upper-level teams like tonight.”
The biggest question with the Sixers is whether Ben Simmons will be a perimeter threat. Especially in the playoffs, teams pack defenses in and will dare him to shoot.
“We talk about Ben, we believe in his shot and his progression,” Brand said. “He is a point guard, 17 assists the other night" in Monday’s win over Detroit. "He wants to make the highest percentage play every time.”
Brand later was pressed on whether Simmons’ lack of a perimeter game will allow teams to collapse even more down low on Embiid in the playoffs.
Simmons "will unlock another level of our team once he starts doing that more,” Brand said. “And he knows that, Coach knows that, and we are working toward that. He wants to feel he is making the best play. When he feels that is the best play, he is going to do it more and more.”
Brown, always under scrutiny, not surprisingly received high praise from his GM.
“Brett has done a good job,” Brand said. “It‘s tough with Josh [Richardson] missing eight games, Joel with the early suspension, Ben missing 2½ to three games. Al Horford missed some games. Teams have run defenses that haven’t been seen in the league, the amount of it, in years, like a zone and things like that.”
Brand was referring to last week’s home losses to Miami and Dallas, where both opponents played a majority of zone defense. He then talked about his relationship with Brown.
“We have great communication. Brett and I have a great relationship, we talk all the time,” Brand said. “We are transparent and honest with each other. We know there are things we need to get better at. He is working on it. And I believe in his staff and his group.”
He also said he believes that Embiid has been as dominant as ever, that Tobias Harris should be an all-star, and that it will still take time for Embiid and Horford to work things out offensively, but that they are a dominant defensive duo.
Most of all, Brand never wavered before the game in his belief in this team’s ability to compete for a championship. And then the Sixers played the way he envisioned.