To the Faithful Departed: Elton Brand

To the Faithful Departed: Elton Brand

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.

Eagles' QB-rich support system for Carson Wentz paying dividends

Eagles' QB-rich support system for Carson Wentz paying dividends

In the wake of the Sam Bradford trade, the Eagles' announcement a week before the opener that Carson Wentz would start Week 1 was met with some skepticism and overwhelmingly tempered expectations.

But it looks like the kid can play.

And the Eagles aren’t just looking smart for drafting and playing Wentz. They’re also looking pretty smart for filling their coaching staff and quarterback room with decades of quarterback experience.

“It's a tight room,” head coach Doug Pederson said.

It’s also a knowledgeable one.

Pederson is a former NFL quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich is a former NFL quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. Quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo is a former college quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. And backup Chase Daniel has been in the league since 2009 and in Pederson’s offense since 2013.

If Wentz has a question, he has plenty of guys to ask. And it seems like this support system, which at one time looked like overkill, might be one of the keys that has allowed the rookie to take the NFL by storm.

“There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt,” the veteran backup Daniel said. “Obviously, he’s a very bright young mind, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the coaching in the quarterback room has played a good part into his maturation and his bringing along so fast. There’s no doubt about it.”

Through three games, Wentz has completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 769 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. He's the first rookie in NFL history to put up those numbers in the first three games of a career. Oh yeah, and the Eagles are 3-0.

It’s hard to believe that about a month ago, Wentz was gearing up for a redshirt year as the third quarterback behind Sam Bradford and Daniel. Now, he isn’t just the future franchise quarterback. He is the franchise quarterback.

And Wentz gives his quarterback-heavy coaching staff plenty of credit.

“It’s huge having them,” Wentz said. “I could never say enough how much they understand the game. They get it. They know what it’s like. As a former quarterback, they know what I’m going through and how I’m seeing things, so it’s been huge.”

The Eagles were clearly smitten with Wentz from the time they saw him in Alabama for the Senior Bowl. Eventually, de facto GM Howie Roseman was able to maneuver to the No. 2 pick to draft Wentz.

But Wentz went No. 2 and not No. 1, so it’s almost impossible to not peek over at Los Angeles and see how first overall pick Jared Goff is doing. So far, he isn’t doing much of anything. It doesn’t mean that eventually Goff won’t be a good quarterback, but through three games, he’s been inactive once and hasn’t yet played. The Rams are sticking with Case Keenum for now.

NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling compared the support system for Goff with the Rams and Wentz's with the Eagles. We’ll take a deeper look into what he started:

Rams
• Head coach Jeff Fisher: Defensive coach

• OC Rob Boras: Never a QB coach; coached tight ends in NFL from 2004-15

• QB Coach Chris Weinke: Former NFL QB for seven seasons; was highly-thought of QB draft guru with IMG academy for four years

• Vet QB Case Keenum: In league since 2012; best QB he's played with is Matt Schaub

Eagles
• Head coach Doug Pederson: 12 years as NFL QB; QB coach in Philly; OC in KC

• OC Frank Reich: 14 years as NFL QB; QB coach in Indy with Peyton Manning in 2009-10; QB coach and OC in San Diego

• QB Coach: John DeFilippo: College QB; QBs coach at Fordham, Columbia; QBs coach with Raiders, Jets, OC with Browns

• Vet QB Chase Daniel: In league since 2009; learned under Drew Brees; has been in Pederson's offense since 2013

It’s very possible if Wentz becomes a great quarterback that other teams copy the Eagles’ quarterback-heavy approach.

But it’s not just about getting a bunch of smart people and a talented rookie in the same room. Everything else has to work. The rookie has to be a diligent learner and all of the teachers have to check their egos and work together.

“I let John (DeFilippo), I let the quarterback coach run the meeting,” Pederson said. “If I interject, I interject. The way it works is I send my message through Frank (Reich), Frank through the position coaches. At the same time, if I want to interject something, I will interject. Just making sure there's one voice in the meeting room and they are not hearing three different answers from three different people, the message is the same.”

Practice squad quarterback Aaron Murray, who joined the team a couple weeks ago, thinks the quarterback room has “definitely” helped Wentz achieve his early success. While he is just a practice-squader, go ahead and add Murray — who was in the offense for two years in Kansas City — to the list of quarterback minds happy to help Wentz.

Murray, a fifth-rounder out of Georgia in 2014, has been impressed with Wentz’s ability to pick up protections and schemes at a young age. He compared him to Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in that regard. While Murray, along with everyone else, is happy to give Wentz tips, he tries to not overload him.

“You still want him to just go out there and play,” he said.

Murray is the newcomer to the room, but he’s been impressed with the dynamic so far. He’s not the only one. It looks like this quarterback experiment might just work.

“It’s awesome. It’s great,” Daniel said. “Everyone has a say in there and everyone in the room, it’s pretty crazy, everyone in the room, really except Carson, has been around it, has been in it and played. Obviously, he’s played, but been around for a while. He’s just a sponge, he’s just taking it all in.

“Maybe some stuff he doesn’t need to take in. Maybe some stuff he wants to do his own way, which is great. You want your own personality out there. But yeah, he’s been great. It’s been great for us too as players. We have almost a 2-to-1 coach-to-player ratio. It’s been great. Everyone has little tidbits here and there and we roll.”

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Pete Mackanin unloads on Phillies' bullpen after latest collapse

Pete Mackanin unloads on Phillies' bullpen after latest collapse

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies’ bullpen continued its ugly, late-season collapse on Tuesday night. It was tagged for six runs in a 7-6 loss to the Atlanta Braves. The Braves rallied for the tying and go-ahead runs in the bottom of the eighth inning (see Instant Replay).
 
The loss came two days after the bullpen gave up 14 earned runs in four innings in a 17-0 loss to the New York Mets on Sunday and it left manager Pete Mackanin more than a little bit frustrated.
 
“The bullpen has just not been doing the job,” Mackanin said.
 
Jerad Eickhoff gave up just one run (on a solo homer by Freddie Freeman) over four walk-free innings to open the game. He was up 6-1 after four innings when the rains came and stopped the game for an hour and 53 minutes.
 
With Eickhoff bounced by the weather, Mackanin had to go to his bullpen. He used four relievers — Severino Gonzalez, Luis Garcia, Joely Rodriguez and David Hernandez — and all gave up runs.
 
Phillies relievers have pitched 77 1/3 innings this month and allowed 69 earned runs for an ERA of 8.03. So that’s one more thing Matt Klentak has to fix this winter, along with the offense that Mackanin wants to see addressed (see story).
 
Ultimately, Hernandez took the loss when he gave up three hits and a run in the bottom of the eighth. The other run in the inning was charged to Rodriguez.
 
As unbelievable as it may sound with rosters being expanded in September, the Phillies played this game shorthanded.
 
They did not have reliever Edubray Ramos. He had a sore elbow, Mackanin said.
 
They did not have outfielder Peter Bourjos, who had gone home to be with his wife for the birth of their child.
 
They also did not have outfielder Tyler Goeddel, who is out with a concussion.
 
Not having Bourjos or Goeddel forced Mackanin to use Darin Ruf in left field after Roman Quinn went out with an oblique injury in the sixth inning. Ruf failed to make a catch on a long fly ball by Tyler Flowers to the gap in left-center. The non-play extended the eighth inning and fueled the Braves’ comeback.
 
“It should have been caught,” Mackanin said. “If Quinn's out there, he catches it. He wasn't out there.”
 
Hernandez was the only free agent that the Phillies signed to a major-league contract this winter. The Phillies signed him with an eye toward using him as the closer. But Hernandez struggled much of the season and slipped into the middle innings while Ramos, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez rose to high-leverage roles.
 
Gomez lost the closer’s job last week and Mackanin was saving Neris to close out this game. That meant Hernandez had to pitch the eighth. He couldn’t protect the lead. He gave up the game-tying hit to Mallex Smith and the go-ahead hit to Emilio Bonafacio.
 
“Neris was going to close for us,” Mackanin said. “I thought about using him with two outs in the eighth. But, at some point, somebody else has to do a (bleeping) job. Somebody else has to (bleeping) step up. In two games now, every reliever I brought in has given up a (bleeping) run. That's unheard of.”
 
The bullpen’s unraveling threw cold (rain) water on Eickhoff’s solid start and Ryan Howard’s big night. Howard belted his 24th homer, a grand slam in the first inning, to highlight a 14-hit attack and help the Phils jump to a 6-0 lead.
 
“Eickhoff looked like he was having one of his best games and then the rain came. So that was our first disappointment,” Mackanin said. "Other than that, Howie swung the bat great. Hit that grand slam. We got 14 hits, but we stranded 12 runners. We have to keep adding on.”
 
Quinn had three of the Phillies’ 14 hits then added to his collection of injuries with the oblique strain that bounced him from the game in the sixth. He hurt himself taking a swing.
 
Oblique injuries generally keep a player sidelined for at least three weeks, so Quinn’s season is likely over. He missed six weeks with a similar injury at Double A Reading this summer. The 23-year-old outfielder came up from the minors on Sept. 11 and has been auditioning for a spot on next season’s opening day roster.
 
“It looks like it,” Mackanin said when asked if Quinn was done for what remains of the season.
 
Injuries have been a consistent hurdle for Quinn ever since he was selected in the second round of the 2011 draft. He has missed significant time with a ruptured Achilles tendon, a wrist injury that required surgery, a torn quad muscle and an oblique strain. Now he has another one.
 
“It’s the same one I hurt before,” Quinn said. “It’s frustrating.”
 
Right now, just about everything is frustrating with this team. Good thing there are only five games left.

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