To the Faithful Departed: Elton Brand

To the Faithful Departed: Elton Brand
August 14, 2012, 6:46 am
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This week, I'll be saying a proper goodbye to some longtime Sixers
players that won't be suiting up in the Red, White and Blue next season.
First up: Power forward Elton "Sugar Bear" Brand, amnestied by
management and now signed with the Dallas Mavericks.

Sixers fans will never be able to consider Elton Brand's four years in Philadelphia without considering the over $60 million the
team paid Elton over the timespan for the privilege of his service, a
number that he never came close to earning. No matter how good Elton was
for us on or off the court, he was never nearly that good, and that's why I can't even get a sentence into his Sixer eulogy without mentioning how overpaid he was.

And while that may or may not be a fair thing, hey, that's life in
the NBA. In baseball you can afford to give a player like Barry Zito or
Jayson Werth a max-type contract, and even if he gives you close to
nothing, as long as your team is willing to spend a little and/or has a
quality farm system, you can still remain competitive, because there's
no salary cap and individual players don't matter nearly as much. But in
basketball, where individual players are so important and there is
a salary cap, an ill-conceived mega-contract can totally hamstring your
team's chance of contending. And that's what Elton's deal was, and
that's what Elton's deal did.

Still, ask an average Sixers fan—one who watches the games,
anyway—their impression of Elton, and I think they'd probably have
mostly positive things to say. For a guy who was such a disappointment, I
can't remember more than one or two times, if even that, that Elton was
booed at the Wells Fargo Center. When he comes back to Philly for the
first time as a Dallas Maverick, I imagine the reception won't precisely
be rapturous, but the cheers will far outweigh the heckles. Against all
odds, Elton Brand ends his time as a 76er as someone who I'd say the
fanbase...kinda likes, actually.

There's an oft-quoted maxim as relates to Philly sports fans that we
don't always demand talent or performance from our athletes—only
effort. I've long questioned this truism, but if you wanted a pretty
good example to support it, Elton's case would have to be one of the
best. Even as he struggled miserably over his first two years as a
Sixer, never fully recovering from the Achilles surgery that cost him
most of his last season with the Clippers, he never got lazy, never took
games off, never skipped practice, never feuded with teammates or
management. He was always a model citizen, and he was always a grinder.

It was really tough to watch Elton those first few years. It became
clear a couple weeks into the 2008-'09 season that the athleticism that
had helped make him one of the most dominant two-way frontcourt players
of the mid-'00s had almost completely deserted him. There's nothing more
depressing in pro sports than watching an athlete who still believes
he's capable of doing things that his body no longer allows, and that
was Elton in those first two seasons—I remember wondering why his shots
kept getting blocked, why he was never able to put back offensive
rebounds, until I realized it was for the simple fact that he just
couldn't jump anymore. We had committed $80 million dollars to an
above-average jump-shooting big man, who wasn't even all that big.

Still, Elton kept on keeping on, and even as he was putting up
numbers well below his career averages—just 13.8 ppg and 8.9 rpg on
44.7% shooting in 29 games in '08-'09, before losing the rest of the
season to shoulder surgery—and catching hell in the media for it, he
never lashed out at anyone but himself. He seemed to have a pretty good
understanding of Philly sports fandom, even from his first press
conference where he was asked about Eagles fans booing Santa Claus ("He
had 30,000 people and no gifts. What were they supposed to do?"), and he
seemed to understand that responding to criticism in this town would
surely bring his demise.

Instead, he kept his head up, kept saying and doing the right
things, expressing faith that his best years as a Sixer were still ahead
of him, even as his numbers dipped even further the next season (13.0
points and 6.1 rebounds) and the Sixers went in the tank, putting up
their worst record (27-55) since Allen Iverson's rookie year of
1996-'97. Don't give up on me, he perpetually seemed to be pleading with the fanbase, who by that point were fairly ready to do just that. I know I'm better than this. I just know that I am.

And then came the 2010-'11 season, and with it, the arrival of Coach
Doug Collins. On a suddenly young, rebuilding team—Andre Miller had
departed in free agency the off-season before, and in this off-season,
the team had traded veteran center Samuel Dalembert for project big man
Spencer Hawes, and landed the #2 pick in the draft, taking the potential
star Ohio State wingman Evan Turner—Collins turned to Brand as the
elder statesmen, the stabilizing force, and the team's de facto leader.
It was a good look for Elton, and the bond between he and Collins was
quickly evident.

More importantly, Collins seemed to understand how to use Brand in a
way to maximize his current skills while minimizing the effect of the
physical skill he had lost. No longer did Brand go careening into the
post expecting his strength and athleticism to carry him to two
points—instead, he was spotting up just outside the paint for his
suddenly deadly close-to-mid-range jumper. Brand's offensive game became
predictable, but reliable, and while the Sixers weren't using him as a
first option like the Mavericks would use Dirk Nowitzki, he became their
best bail-out option in the half-court—if the team became stagnant,
they could just dump the ball to Elton, let him create a little space
and get off that short jumper, and if he was in single coverage, he'd
have a pretty damn good chance of making it.

As the team became smarter in their use of Brand, his numbers began
to climb. He would never be a 24/10 guy again like he was in his best
year with the Clippers, but now he was back to being a 15/8 guy—and an
efficient one at that, shooting over 50% from the floor and nearly 80%
from the line, and rarely turning the ball over (barely one a game).
What's more, he was finally staying healthy, and the only game he missed
that season was when he was suspended for some foolishness in
Washington. I wrote a column that January naming Elton, much to my
surprise, as the team's MVP at mid-season, a status he held onto until season's end.

After experiencing a 27-55 regular season the year before, and
enduring a rookie year from Evan Turner that could be charitably
described as "underwhelming," not many would have expected the Sixers to
make the post-season in 2011, but make the post-season they did, and
Elton was arguably the biggest reason why. In the playoffs against the
Heat, he posted solid numbers—15.6 and 8.4 on 54.8% shooting—and had a
key block late in Game Four, the one game in the series they would win.
After it became clear that the Sixers were going to lose Game Five and
the series, despite a strong team showing (including 22 points from
Brand), Collins took Brand out of the game, and in a near-tearjerking
moment that for many Sixers fans will remain the enduring memory of
Elton's time as a Liberty Baller, embraced him and said in his ear, "I
love you to death."

Elton's 2011-'12 season, to be his last as a Sixer, was not as
successful as his '10-'11. His numbers dropped back to 11 points and 7.2
rebounds a game, and he was largely overwhelmed in the playoffs,
scoring in the single digits for eight consecutive games across two
rounds, and losing minutes to the younger, more athletic Lavoy Allen.
Much of it was due to injury, as his hand had been swollen nearly the
entire season, but even at full health, it seemed likely that Elton's
production would never match his '10-'11 campaign again.

Still, even as his stats sagged, Elton remained a valuable team
member. He switched his focus to defense, and became the team's most
consistent lockdown post defender—a necessity considering that most
games he was starting alongside Spencer Hawes or Nik Vucevic, neither of
whom particularly specialized in the stuff. In one of the season's
biggest wins, Elton helped frustrate the Magic's Dwight Howard into a
6-17 night, using his still physically imposing body to muscle Howard
outside of the paint, where he struggled to score from. And on offense,
Elton remained efficient, still posting a fine 18.0 PER, higher than
Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner or Andre Iguodala.

On isolated nights, Elton could even still be that go-to offensive
option. In a key home game against the Hawks late in the season, when
the Sixers were still battling for playoff positioning but rapidly
losing ground, Elton put the team on his back and won them the game,
posting a 25-10-5 and dominating his matchup against the much-younger
Josh Smith. All six of us from The 700 Level were in the building that
night, and we marveled at how the old guy was still able to get it
done—even as we knew we'd probably not see that kind of performance from
Elton again soon, if ever.

When news came down about a month ago that Elton had been amnestied
by the Sixers, I was pretty miffed about it. Many was the day in Brand's
first two seasons that I prayed the Sixers would be allowed just such a
provision, to let them to get his contract off the books and try again
to get that first-option-type guy for Andre Iguodala to complement, but
by the time they actually did it, there didn't seem to be moot point—he
only had one year left, his expensive expiring contract would have had
great value at the trade deadline, and in the meantime, he was still one
of our best post players available to our undermanned front court.
What's more, after the four years of committed, uncomplaining service he
had given our team and city...it just felt disrespectful. Elton
deserved better than this. (And yeah, he would have made a pretty damn
good pairing with our new guy Andrew Bynum.)

Still, I'm happy for Elton that he gets to start over with the
Mavericks, a team still tasting the champagne from their championship
celebration two seasons ago, where he gets to be a role player, and
where the demands and expectations of him will obviously be much lesser
than they were with the Sixers. What's more, on a team of older vets
like the Mavs—key rotation guys Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Chris Kaman
and Dirk Nowitzki are all 30-plus, and all know (to varying degrees)
what it's like to be a past-your-prime All-Star—he'll finally get to
hang out with some nice boys his own age again. (At the very least, he
won't have to pretend to care about Twitter. And maybe they'll get his Thundercats and Terrence Trent D'Arby references, finally.)

Elton ends his time in Philly as a disappointment, but one it's hard
to lay any kind of blame on, or harbor any real ill will towards. Elton
gave his all in his four years as a Philadelphia 76er, did everything
he could for this team and this city, and leaves the franchise in a much
better place than he initially found it. Despite the too-much money and
not-enough production, we still love our Sugar Bear, and hope he has a
solid season full of pulled pork and Shiner out in Big D. Say hi to Mark
Cuban for us.

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