“We want to play in the NBA Finals,” Brown said. “We feel we could have played in the NBA Finals [last season]. I understand the magnitude of that statement, but I stand by it. And I own it.”
Last season Brown’s team made a significant jump going from 28 wins in 2017 to 52 a year later and making it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals where they lost in five games to their arch-rival, the Boston Celtics.
The roster that competed against the Celtics last spring and the one that is currently battling to secure home court for at least the first round of the 2019 playoffs is drastically different. Moreover, Sixers fans can thank first-year general manager Elton Brand for being an active executive who had a plan and, with a little luck, made those plans a reality.
“We believe we are in a position to contend now, and our moves reflect that belief,” Brand said after adding five new faces to the roster at the February 8th trade deadline, the most significant being 26-year old Tobias Harris.
“Tobias is a prolific three-point shooter at 43 percent,” Brand said. “He is a matchup problem, tough to guard. He defends. He is a high-character person in the locker room, so he is an excellent fit for us.” When the Sixers acquired Harris in a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers, the 6’9” forward had Western Conference Player of the Month on his resume along with averaging 21 points and seven rebounds. Harris has lived up to his resume. He is everything that the Sixers had hoped to land this past summer when they went “star hunting” but failed. Brand pursued a different avenue to make the “hunting” trip a success once this season got underway.
“It was an arms race,” Brand said of the trade deadline activity around the league. “Teams were trying to get better. Four of the best teams are in the Eastern Conference, and I am glad we took a shot to get better early, and we will be prepared.”
By the time Brand was working the phones at the trade deadline, he had already learned the ropes of how to acquire a top-tier NBA talent. Back in November Brand struck a deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves for four-time all-star Jimmy Butler. It required him parting ways with young assets in Robert Covington and Dario Saric, but it was clear the former 17-year NBA veteran knew from experience that upgrading the roster was necessary if Brett Brown was going to make good on his opening day statement—NBA Finals or bust.
“Coach Brown is committed to making this work, and I believe in him,” Brand said. “I think he can do a great job at making this core work. It is built for the future as well as built for now.”
Tobias Harris is on an expiring contract and will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Jimmy Butler has a player option for the 2019-20 season, but the belief is he too will test free agency. The Sixers cannot extend the contract of either player right now, but they will have an opportunity, if they choose, to offer each more money than any other team in the league.
“I have gotten all assurances from the managing partners that we can bring them back and sign them for what we need to sign them for,” Brand disclosed. “Many things have to happen before that, but we are all on board to keep this core together long-term.”
Long-term took on new meaning in Philadelphia when the Phillies signed free agent Bryce Harper to a 13-year $330 million contract. The NBA does not allow for teams to spend “stupid” money, as Phillies owner John Middleton called it, but the pressure to produce a winner and keep the stars in place is mounting for all the professional teams in the City of Brotherly Love. Elton Brand is cognizant of his situation.
“Seeing the growth of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, they rapidly improved over the last season making the window now,” Brand said of his aggressive approach to surrounding his two all-stars with greater experience and talent than a year ago. “When I saw an opportunity in that window we discussed it, because who knows how long this window is going to be open.”
After trusting the process for five years, Brand and company have assembled a group that they hope you will watch as they proceed, hopefully playing meaningful basketball well into the spring of 2019.
“Many teams got better at the deadline,” Brand reiterated. “But that doesn’t change the fact that our goal is to get to the Finals. I will be disappointed if we don’t get to the Eastern Conference Finals and do well. However, we are still in a position to get better in the future, but I would be disappointed.”
In a year of tremendous satisfaction, there is no reason to think disappointment is on the horizon.