Elton Brand believes 76ers in 'position to contend now'

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Sunday, February 10, 2019

CAMDEN, N.J. -- After reshaping his roster with a series of moves this week, most notably landing forward Tobias Harris in a trade with theLA Clippers, 76ers general manager Elton Brand declared Friday morning that Philadelphia's time to win is now.

"We believe we are in position to contend now," Brand said, "and our moves reflect that belief."

Philadelphia sent out four players -- includingMarkelle Fultz,the first overall pick in the 2017 draft-- and brought back five others in three trades, completing a dramatic roster overhaul that Brand hopes will allow the team to return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001.

He paid a heavy price to acquire Harris, center Boban Marjanovic and forward Mike Scottfrom the Clippers. Brand traded two first-round picks -- the Sixers' own lottery-protected pick in 2020 and the Miami Heat's unprotected 2021 first-rounder -- plus the Detroit Pistons' second-round picks in 2021 and 2023, along with forward Wilson Chandler, rookie guard Landry Shamet and forward Mike Muscala.

"We had to add a player like that when we had the opportunity," Brand said of Harris, who averaged 20.9 points and shot 43.4 percent from 3-point range for the Clippers this season.

"We had targeted him as a player we would want if he became available, and we coveted him. We know he fits great into our system and he'll do well."

With the move for Harris and the one three months ago to land Jimmy Butler, Brand has pushed most of his chips into the center of the table for a team that ended a five-year playoff drought last season and is built around two young All-Stars:Joel Embiid, 24, andBen Simmons, 22.

"[Simmons and Embiid] rapidly improved over the last season, so the window is now," Brand said. "The opportunity is now. So, once I saw that, we discussed taking a shot at it now, because who knows how long that window is going to be open?"

Harris had 14 points and eight rebounds in 32 minutes in his debut Friday night, helping the Sixers top theDenver Nuggets117-110.

Speaking before the game, Sixers coach Brett Brown echoed Brand's sentiments.

"I think it is," Brown said when asked if reaching the NBA Finals is a realistic goal.

"It's different," he said with a laugh. "But I would feel ... I would feel borderline cowardly to not look at you and say yeah, that's what needs to be the goal. That's what I'm telling the team. That's what our goal should be."

Harris and Butler can be unrestricted free agents this summer. Keeping both players will be expensive -- almost certainly to the tune of max contracts for each of them.

If Philadelphia were to do that -- along with granting Simmons the max extension Brand has already said he'll get this summer -- the Sixers would soar far into the luxury tax. (Embiid signed a massive deal last summer.) But when asked if ownership had committed the funds to keep this team together, Brand didn't hesitate.

"Absolutely," he said. "I've gotten all assurances from the managing partners that we can bring them back and sign them for what we need to sign them for. A lot of things need to happen before that, but we are all on board to keep this core together long term."

Before worrying about that, though, the Sixers have more pressing matters to deal with -- namely, sorting out how these players are going to fit together. Brown lost three members of his core rotation -- Chandler, his starting power forward, and rotation players in Shamet and Muscala -- while gaining Harris and four players who should immediately receive minutes off the bench: Scott, Marjanovic and forwards Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis.

One player who won't be part of that mix is Fultz, whose time in Philadelphia came to an end Thursday afternoon when he was sent to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Jonathon Simmons, the Oklahoma City Thunder's protected 2020 first-round pick and the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2019 second-round pick. Moving on from Fultz capped a 20-month saga that saw him play in only 33 regular-season games and spend much of his time away from the team while dealing with repeated issues with his shooting form.

"We expected him to be back some time this season," Brand said when asked about the decision to trade Fultz. "That was our hope. But right now we had a chance to add a player, wing depth, and so we had to go do it now."

In response to a follow-up question, Brand said that potentially having to reintegrate Fultz during the stretch run, along with the opportunity to at least partially restock some of the draft picks sent out to acquire Harris, were key factors in making the decision.

"Just where we are in the season, integrating him in a month or so when we are hoping he'd come back in two [or] three weeks, whenever that was," Brand said. "To add a piece now, get ready for the playoffs and add some assets, a first-round pick and a high second-round pick, it just felt like the time to do it now."

Brown said he got the news that Fultz had been traded while seeing it on NBA TV, having missed several messages from Brand leading up to the move happening because he had been talking on the phone. Brown admitted that, in recent weeks, he'd begun to wonder if things would ever work out for Fultz in Philadelphia.

"Toward the end I wondered, and I would be lying if I didn't start wondering a lot," Brown said. "I'd be lying if I didn't feel sad. I felt that. It was two emotions. Sad personally, selfishly, I suppose, that i never really felt like I got a chance to coach him. I never really felt like the city got a chance to see him. I felt sad for that. And I was pleased for him that he had a new start, a fresh start, another opportunity."

Philadelphia's move to get Harris in the early hours of Wednesday morning sparked a frenetic final couple of days before the deadline for the teams atop the Eastern Conference. The Toronto Raptors added Marc Gasolon Thursday while also clearing several roster spots for potential buyout market opportunities, and the Milwaukee Bucks made one of the more surprising moves of deadline day by getting forward Nikola Mirotic from the New Orleans Pelicans.

Although the Boston Celtics didn't make any significant moves, they did get a boost simply with the possibility of getting Anthony Davis this summer. The Pelicans chose to let the deadline pass without trading the All-Star forward.

"It was an arms race," Brand said. "Teams were trying to get better. I think four of the best teams are in the Eastern Conference. They wanted to get better and I'm glad we took a shot to get better early. We'll be prepared."

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