CAMDEN, N.J. — The day before a season begins, you expect plenty of optimism, excitement and sunny clichés. That’s not what general manager Elton Brand provided on Monday, ahead of the Sixers' season opener Tuesday night in Boston.
“Our expectations are to grow the team,” Brand said. “Gearing towards the playoffs, we’re just a better team than we were last year. Honestly, I say we have a lot of work to do. We’re not where I want to be right now. I’m not sure what the players feel about that. I know coach wants to see more growth and improvement. We have a lot to work on.”
On the surface, Brand’s assessment would appear to be a stark contrast from the mindset of his head coach. From Day 1 of training camp, Brett Brown has said this team’s goal is to play in the NBA Finals.
But since Day 1 of camp, Brown has also acknowledged the improvements the Sixers still need to make and anticipated the issues his team will face, especially as Markelle Fultz is integrated into the starting lineup.
“I’m not saying we’re going to win 42 games, 56 games, I’m not saying any of that,” Brown said Monday. “I want to be better when it matters most. And that may take a little bit of time and we may experience some pain along the way.”
Brand is on the same page: Regular-season bumps are inevitable. After all, the Sixers likely won’t have either of their two non-rookie offseason acquisitions, Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala, Tuesday against the Celtics. Chandler is out with a left hamstring strain suffered in the first preseason game and is still “a ways away” from returning. Muscala is doubtful with a right ankle sprain.
That should result in more minutes for players like Amir Johnson, Landry Shamet and T.J. McConnell as Brown adjusts to life without Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova and two of the main players he thought would replace them off the bench.
“I’m most curious about seeing how we gel," Brand said. "We lost Marco, we lost Ilyasova. That’s what I’m looking forward to seeing because the goal is to be ready for the playoffs.”
Brown is steadfast that an Eastern Conference title is the right goal for his team to have.
“I’ve said from the start, I want to play in the NBA Finals,” Brown said. "And somebody asked, ‘if you don’t, would that make it a failure?’ No. But how can that not be our goal this year? In my mind and in my head, I don’t feel comfortable not owning that as a goal.”
Brand, when asked if that goal was realistic, had a tempered answer.
“My goal is to get deeper in the playoffs. I’m not going to say it’s not realistic,” he said, “but that is a goal.”
It makes perfect sense for any general manager (expect, perhaps, Bob Myers in Golden State) to see the flaws in his team and have an eye toward solving those issues. And again, it’s not as if Brand’s expectations are a world away from those of his head coach, who acknowledged again Monday that the Fultz and Simmons pairing “is not a perfect world fit.”
But Brand’s admission that his team “is not where I want to be right now” just before the start of the season is unusual. It’s a telling sign of the Sixers’ rapid growth that Brand isn’t content with a team fresh off a 52-win season with two young, budding stars. He wants more, and he's realistic in admitting that the early-season version of the Sixers probably won’t look like a team ready to play in the NBA Finals.
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