Brand sees zone for Team USA improvement

TORONTO -- In what has been a busy summer, the passport belonging to Clippers star Elton Brand now sports ink from China and Japan. Speaking at his latest destination -- the Toronto International Film Festival, where Brand The Movie Producer attended the world premiere of his new film, Vietnam-era POW flick "Rescue Dawn" -- Brand The Team USA member took a moment to reflect on the team's recent disappointing bronze-medal performance at the World Championship.

"They say we've taken a step, but we also failed," Brand says of Team USA's 101-95 semifinal loss to Greece and subsequent third-place finish with a 96-81 victory over Argentina. "You want to win the gold, and we didn't accomplish that."

Brand, who was one of the few big men on a roster littered with athletic slashers and swingmen, says the team needs a fix -- and his prescription to remedy what ails Team USA doesn't necessarily include heavy doses of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen.

"We have a solid squad and we played great in spurts, but you have to adapt to international play and we haven't done that." Brand explains. "It's not our game: from the trapezoid to the 3-point line to the 10-minute quarters to the defenses that can be implemented. We all have a lot to learn, from the coaches to the ball boys.

"We can fix it," he adds, "But it's going to take a change in our approach."

According to Brand, the first step in the squad's learning process is to relocate that much-talked-about sense of urgency. "The World Championships are highly touted around the world, but in America, I don't think that we know enough about its history and its importance," he explains. "Our goal is to win the gold in the Beijing Olympics in '08, and we made a step towards that, but a big step would have been to win the gold in Japan."

More important, Brand believes, is that the team alter its game plan when it faces cohesive international squads such as Greece, which picked apart Team USA's man-to-man, half-court defense with heavy doses of pick-and-roll. "In the Olympic qualifier in Venezuela next year, I promise you you'll see us play zone defense and other things that cater to the international game," he says. "Our coaches didn't feel we had to implement that because of the athletes we had. But we didn't play it at all. And with our smaller lineup, that made it tougher to defend the pick-and-roll."

According to Brand, that small lineup needs fixing too. The All-Star power forward -- who averaged 17.4 minutes per game -- played in all nine games but started only four, spending some of that time playing the less familiar center position. Brand says the team could use more big bodies like his.

"Big Brad Miller can shoot the ball and he'll hit some 3s, but the rotations being what they were, he didn't get the playing time," Brand says of the Kings' All-Star center, who failed to log any minutes in the tourney's final three games and ultimately logged a team-high five DNPs. "A lot of [our opponents'] bigs would have had a problem matching up with Brad, but he didn't play at all."

Still, Brand isn't pointing any fingers, and he's certainly not quick to criticize Mike Krzyzewski, his former Duke mentor and current Team USA coach. Brand's report card for Coach K? "I give him an Incomplete," he says. "Our goal now is Beijing in '08, so I'm sure he'll get an A eventually."

Despite modest averages of 8.9 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, he isn't about to point a finger in the mirror, either. "I think I did well," says Brand, who twice tied for the team lead in rebounds and was second overall to Dwight Howard with 11 blocks. "It's different with the touches and the minutes, but I did what I could."

All things considered, he says the World Championship wasn't a total loss. "It was still a great experience, meeting with the troops, doing all of the traveling and bonding with the team," says Brand, adding that the tournament also provided the players and their coaches with a barometer to evaluate the squad as currently composed. Although Carmelo Anthony's sturdy performance garnered most of the press, Brand is most pleased with a certain newly crowned NBA champ.

"Dwyane Wade's passing ability really surprised me," he says. "He likes to score and he has athleticism, but he's a great passer, and I didn't know that about him."

Between Team USA and the unveiling of "Rescue Dawn" -- which is based on the true survival story of captured American fighter pilot Dieter Dengler, played by the most recent Caped Crusader, Christian Bale of "Batman Begins" -- Brand has had a fulfilling summer. But none of the aforementioned gigs outshone what transpired on the home front. After a long courtship, Brand married his fellow Dukie, new wife Shahara, in a July ceremony in North Carolina.

"The wedding was a great time," Brand says, before enveloping Shahara in his arms while flashing a bright smile. "This is a Dukie right here."

"I'm proud of Elton all around," Shahara says. "He's an amazing person, and I'm proud to be his wife, his best friend. Team USA, the movie, the [upcoming] season. Everything he does, I'm behind him."

Brand, who departed from Toronto on Sunday, says he will spend the waning summer days preparing for the 2006-07 NBA season. "I'm feeling tired, so the rest of the summer I'll shut down and focus on basketball." he says. "I've got two-a-days and the task of getting my game right and improving. Trying to be the best player in the league takes so much out of you, I don't have time for much else anymore."

He is careful to add that his thoughts have never turned away from the Clippers. "We've had a good offseason, and I really like our acquisitions," says Brand, who is particularly pleased with the signing of former Suns forward Tim Thomas. "Tim lit the Lakers up in their series and lit us up in our series, so he's going to help with his versatility and his ability to hit the 3s. And Aaron Williams is a solid veteran who knows the game and can back up the center position.

"We're definitely moving in the right direction," he adds.

Fortunately for him, that direction now -- at last -- points home.

Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles and writes the Media Blitz column for ESPN The Magazine.