PHILADELPHIA -- These are not boom times for your 76ers, who opened the NBA season with modest expectations and are having trouble living up to those.
Because basketball fans in this town are fond of the team and respectful of its past successes, the Sixers have been allowed to perform their early rituals in relative solitude so as not to embarrass the group further. If the team gets things together a bit, the fans will drift back in groups of two and three, but they sense there's no real rush.
As usual, the Sixers are a franchise in transition. General manager Ed Stefanski will celebrate the second anniversary of his hiring next month, and head coach Eddie Jordan and his magic revolving offense are fresh from the packing crate, Styrofoam peanuts still littering the floor.
Everyone said this would take awhile and darn if everyone wasn't right. With a victory on the road Wednesday night against the depleted and winless Nets, the Sixers could even their record at 4-4, but this isn't a half-empty or half-full glass just yet.
None of this -- especially the part about the lack of fans -- amuses a Sixers management that saw attendance slide last season to its lowest level since the 1996 opening of the Wachovia Center. There was a tight rein on expenses during the off-season, and Stefanski -- who "does appear to like the new coach and his philosophy -- was limited to hiring someone in Jordan's moderate price range.
As for players, the league allows teams to have 15 on the roster, with 12 active for each game. Only four of the 30 teams entered the season with fewer than 14 on the roster. If you can guess the identity of one of them, you win a ballhandling clinic with Primoz Brezec.
All right, money's a little tight until further notice, and now Mr. Snider looks up to find that the most expensive guy on the roster is sitting on the bench at the end of the games. There will be only one way to explain that to the corner office and it is with wins.
So, here we are, barely two weeks into a fresh schedule, and the new coach is setting up a point of contention with the general manager -- who signed the most expensive guy, Mr. Elton Brand -- while the team chairman is within his rights to ask why the most expensive guy is this damn expensive if he can't play.
Otherwise, a pretty smooth start to the season.
The central figure at the moment is Brand, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury after missing nearly all of the previous season with an Achilles injury. In between those two seasons, Stefanski signed Brand to a huge contract, wagering a great deal that Brand was the low-post presence to solidify the Sixers' game.
Brand wasn't fully himself when he hurt his shoulder, but came back to the team for training camp this season in great shape. Stefanski compared the power forward's physique to that of a prizefighter, and Brand had clearly worked hard on his rehabilitation.
What we have learned so far, however, is that well-defined biceps and pectorals don't make a player run any faster. Brand is still a starter, as is the ever-perplexing Samuel Dalembert, but when the games are on the line, Brand and Dalembert have been on the bench, all $26 million of them.
What's a coach to do? The Sixers have been getting beaten because their defensive rotations aren't quick enough or smart enough. It is a small sample after just seven games, but teams have been shooting ridiculous numbers from three-point range against them. Giving up 105 points per game is what leads a coach to put the guys he thinks are holding back his defense on the bench, regardless of their salaries.
Someone asked Jordan after Monday's loss to Phoenix if he was experimenting with different combinations on the floor.
"I'm not experimenting," he said. "I'm trying to find people to get the job done."
Jordan is politic enough to leave Brand and Dalembert in the starting lineup, because that's a point of pride he can't take from the veterans -- yet. But the NBA is all about minutes. Those are going to Marreese Speights and Jason Smith, among others.
It's no big deal to ease out Dalembert, who has one more year left on his big contract. Dalembert was the mistake of the previous administration.
It is something else again to say that Brand isn't good enough to perform the role for which he was hired. Brand was Stefanski's idea, an idea that has three more seasons, not including this one, and $51 million to go before it expires.
Jordan is saying that by his actions, if not his words, which means he is either super-confident in the others or super-confident that if he goes with Brand, he goes down.
Entering tonight's game, Brand is averaging 10.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Of his 71 points this season, 33 have come in the first quarter. Brand is a good citizen in the locker room. He says he is frustrated and finds the situation "very difficult," but leaves it at that.
Things will not remain so quiet all season, not if the team keeps playing at its current mediocre level -- and particularly not if the expensive seats remain empty and the expensive players remain seated.