Early Exits

The Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors both suffered first-round playoff exits last season. They believe they can go farther after each added an All-Star big man in the offseason.

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The 76ers will debut power forward Elton Brand on Wednesday when they host Jermaine O'Neal and the Toronto Raptors in the season opener for both teams.

Oddsmakers from SBG Global have made 76ers –5.5 point spread favorites (NBA Odds) for today's game, the over/under has been set at 190 (View Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 52% of bets for this game have been placed on 76ers –5.5 (View NBA Bet Percentages).

Toronto went 41-41 while Philadelphia was 40-42 as both finished well behind NBA champion Boston in the Atlantic division last season. The Raptors lost in five games to Orlando and the 76ers were ousted by Detroit in six.

But the additions of Brand to Philadelphia and O'Neal to Toronto figure to make the Atlantic much more competitive in 2008-09.

"It's kind of like a tale of two teams that have made improvements and they are trying to make a bigger step from last year," Raptors All-Star forward Chris Bosh said.

Brand was limited to just eight games last season with the Los Angeles Clippers due to a ruptured left Achilles. But that didn't stop Philadelphia from making possibly the NBA's biggest splash in the free agent market by signing the two-time All-Star for five years and a reported $82 million.

"Just bringing him in was going to make us better," swingman Andre Iguodala said. "I think we're starting to understand how to get movement around him when he gets the ball inside."

Prior to last season, Brand averaged at least 20 points for four straight seasons, but the nine-year veteran has been to the playoffs just once in his career.

The 76ers were the last team in the city to capture a major pro championship by winning the NBA title in 1983, although the Philadelphia Phillies are close to ending that drought by winning the World Series.

"I think it's fun to keep an eye on what they're doing," Brand said about the Phillies. "We want to go win one, too."

While Brand is expected to become the focal point for Philadelphia offensively, O'Neal is only being counted on to complement Bosh in the interior. O'Neal, a six-time All-Star, averaged 18.6 points and 9.6 rebounds over eight seasons with Indiana, but never made it to the NBA finals with the Pacers.

"This is Chris' team," O'Neal said. "I'm here to help him lead. He's been a centerpiece for quite some time and he's a hell of a talent. I'm not into whose team this is, I'm into success. I've been through some rough times over the past four years and to get this opportunity, it makes you want to do whatever is necessary for this team to be successful."

Like Brand, O'Neal is coming off an injury that cut into his 2007-08 season. He missed 40 games because of lingering pain from a torn ligament in his left knee that was surgically repaired the previous summer, but insists he is pain-free for the start of the season.

Bosh flourished against Philadelphia last season, averaging 21.5 points on 53.1 percent shooting as Toronto won three of four meetings. But questions remain whether he can lead the Raptors in the postseason, where he's shot just 43.3 percent in 11 games - including eight losses for Toronto.

"I mean we want to get better of course, and of course we want to be in that upper tier of the Eastern Conference," Bosh said. "But that doesn't guarantee success - the playoffs are a whole another season."

With the departure of T.J. Ford in the deal for O'Neal, the full-time point guard duties will finally go to Jose Calderon. The Spanish Olympian finished fourth in the league with 8.3 assists per game in 2007-08 while starting 56 contests.

The Sixers are counting on Brand to provide leadership for a young core that includes Iguodala, who averaged a team-high 19.9 points last season. Fourth-year guard Louis Williams had a breakout season with 11.5 points off the bench while second-year forward Thaddeus Young turned in a solid rookie season.

"The way any team has any chance of winning is that they're a selfless basketball team," Philadelphia coach Maurice Cheeks said. "I thought that's what our basketball team was last year and I don't think it will be any different this year."

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