The final verdict on Elton Brand’s aptitude as a personnel man has yet to be written, but his news conference timing is impeccable. An hour before the 76ers tipped off what many figured would be the latest example of the limitations of one of the more curious collections of talent in recent NBA history, their general manager made himself available for his first question-and-answer session since the regular-season opener.
For 10 minutes on Wednesday, Brand smiled and deflected and redirected his way through an evangelical defense of the legitimacy of the roster he had assembled, refusing to so much as acknowledge the validity of the premises underlying the skepticism he confronted.
Joel Embiid? A dominant force. Tobias Harris? Exactly the player the Sixers had envisioned when they signed him to a max contract extension. Josh Richardson? A go-to scorer. Ben Simmons? He would eventually expand his offensive game. Not that the Sixers needed him to do so. All they needed was growth. And chemistry. And all they needed to realize both was time.
“As GM ... any way I can make the team better, I will,” Brand said, “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.”
Three hours later, as the Sixers’ victory song hit a crescendo on the sound system with 45 seconds remaining, and nearly everyone inside a sold-out Wells Fargo Center was clapping and stomping, you wondered if Brand might let it be known that he was available to entertain follow-up questions.
Nobody who has followed this team on a daily basis since the start of the season will be fooled into thinking that the Sixers’ 121-109 dispatching of the first-place Bucks will serve as the final word on any lingering doubts. But, man, was it a heck of a Christmas for anybody in that locker room who began it with some questions to answer.
While Giannis Antetokounmpo entered the afternoon as the consensus NBA favorite, Embiid looked like the best player at both ends of the court, scoring 31 points on 11-of-21 shooting while teaming with Al Horford to harass Antetokounmpo into an 8-for-27 shooting performance. Richardson scored 16 first-half points, hitting four of his seven attempts from three-point range while playing a pivotal role in leading the Sixers to a 21-point halftime lead. Simmons tallied 14 assists and three steals while scoring 15 points and running an offense that finished with just seven turnovers, all without making a shot outside of the restricted area.
“This was a big game for us,” said Harris, who shot 5-of-7 from three-point range and finished with 22 points. “Even early in the season, this was the game everybody had marked on their calendar.”
It’s not that the questions about this team aren’t grounded in reason. They are as legitimate as the good feelings the Sixers instill with victories such as this. None of the other contenders in the East have been as wildly variable as the Sixers this season. All of the rest — with the possible exception of Toronto — feature the sort of downhill scorer who can win a playoff series on his own.
Maybe the next few months will show that the Sixers have one in Embiid, who has looked the part in his last two outings against those contenders. But it is not a slight to say that he is cut from a different offensive mold than the Kemba Walkers and Jimmy Butlers and Giannises (Giannisi?) of the world.
At the same time, the Sixers are now 5-2 against those contenders, 6-2 if you include Indiana. Neither Milwaukee nor Miami, neither Toronto nor Boston or the Pacers, can boast anything close to that mark in the East’s nascent internecine campaign. Against a team that entered the afternoon boasting an NBA-best 27-4 record, which had earned them the near-consensus designation as Eastern Conference favorites, the Sixers dominated at both ends of the court, the way they did in their first game against the Celtics and their first game against the Heat.
From the beginning, Brand and head coach Brett Brown have acknowledged that while things might look funky for stretches of the 82-game regular season slog, theirs is a roster that is constructed first and foremost to compete once the flowers bloom and the leaves start to bud. Whatever vulnerabilities the first 33 games have revealed, the only thing that will end up mattering to the history books is whether those vulnerabilities will outweigh their strengths enough to keep them from winning four out of seven games against the Bucks, Celtics, Raptors, or Heat.
That might feel a bit anticlimactic when you consider that we have to maintain some sort of narrative tension to fully enjoy these next three-plus months of professional basketball. But the success of Brand’s high-stakes experiment was always going to come down to whether the Sixers could win eight of 14 against two of those four teams.
Perhaps more than any of those teams, the Sixers are tailored to match up against the formerly 27-4 Bucks. There isn’t another team in the NBA that can force Antetokounmpo to play 48 minutes with an elite defensive center standing at the business end of his ferocious wing-to-low-block drives. On multiple occasions on Christmas, the Bucks star looked to be uncomfortable with that proposition, losing the ball before takeoff as Horford and Embiid stood square in his path.
Brown said after the game that Horford’s ability to match up against Antetokounmpo was not lost on the Sixers when they contemplated signing him this offseason. And while Horford’s presence was most valuable in the minutes that Embiid was on the bench, it also showed itself plenty of times when they played as a duo.
“I just think, match-up wise, we fit well with them because of our size,” Harris said.
It probably should not have been a revelation, given the promise the Sixers showed against the Bucks last season. But while the theory of this roster has always made sense, it was encouraging to see it in practice.