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' rookies adjusting to NFL life while contributing in key roles

Eagles' rookies adjusting to NFL life while contributing in key roles

Their quarterback is a rookie, of course, but so is their current lead running back, two offensive linemen who’ve started games, two of their wide receivers, their cornerback who’s played the second-most snaps and one of their more surprising defensive linemen.
 
There are rookies up and down the Eagles’ roster. But not just rookies. These are guys in key roles.
 
With Carson Wentz starting all year, Wendell Smallwood currently at tailback and Bryce Treggs starting last weekend in place of Nelson Agholor at wide out, this became only the second season in the last 30 years the Eagles have had a rookie start a game at quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
 
It also happened in 2012 with Nick Foles, Bryce Brown and Damaris Johnson.
 
Throw in Jalen Mills, second on the team in cornerback reps; Destiny Vaiao, the Eagles’ first undrafted rookie since Sam Rayburn in 2003 with two sacks in a season; offensive linemen Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Isaac Seumalo; plus special teamers like Kamu Grugier-Hill and C.J. Smith, and rookies really make up a significant portion of the roster.
 
“All of us being in the same situation, it really helps just knowing we’re all rookies and we’re all out here trying to make plays and help the team,” said Smallwood, whose 4.4 rushing average would be fourth-highest ever by an Eagles rookie if he gets 31 more carries.
 
“It kind of keeps us together. Looking at each other and seeing the other guys doing good, that gives you the confidence that you can make plays, too. They’re in the same position as me being rookies.
 
“I look at Carson and he’s got so much on his plate, man, and he’s going out there and doing it, why can’t I do it? I look at Jalen, he plays a lot. It goes unsaid but we definitely watch each other and it pushes you to do well as well.”
 
After a 3-0 start, the Eagles are 5-6 going into their game Sunday against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
 
Their playoff chances are dwindling but if nothing else this season could be serving as a launching pad for a number of rookies who seem to have bright futures here.
 
Wentz should be the Eagles’ quarterback for the next decade. Smallwood is their most promising rookie running back since LeSean McCoy in 2009. Vaitai will be a starter whenever Jason Peters decides to retire. Seumalo has a shot at becoming a starter somewhere along the interior of the O-line. Mills has been uneven but never stops battling. Treggs hasn’t done a lot but at least he can run and did reel in one 58-yard pass.
 
On a roster decimated by years of terrible drafting and Chip Kelly’s talent purge, the Eagles had to get contributions from their rookies this year to be competitive, and they have.
 
“Rookies, in unchartered territory for some of them, but really for us, in one respect, we say there are no more rookies,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said.
 
“You've been into it this far. The expectations are high on them from themselves, and of course as coaches we put high expectations on them. We just want to focus on today. Let's go out there today and have a good practice today, because we believe what we do today will show up on Sunday.”
 
There are two big challenges facing rookies. No. 1 is on the field, No. 2 is off the field.
 
On the field, rookies are dealing with a 16-game season that runs into January after playing 11 or 12 games in college and finishing the regular season in mid-November.
 
“The college football season is winding down so they kind of hit that wall just a little bit now with us,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “We have five games left and they are either getting ready for a bowl game or not going getting ready for Christmas break. So that's obviously a challenge with the young players, just keeping them plugged in mentally and physically going down the stretch.


 
“And then just the grind of how important every single rep in practice is, to get it right in practice, and that corresponds to the game. And you just can't show up and go through the motions during the week and expect it on Sunday. Not at this level. 
 
“You might get away with that in college because you're a better athlete or you're a better team than your opponent, but here, everybody is good. The challenge is for them to practice well because then it helps them when crunch time comes in the games.”
 
Mills isn’t a starter, but he has played 454 snaps, which is about two-thirds of the Eagles’ defensive reps this year. That’s 10th-most on the team, fourth-most in the secondary.
 
“It’s a grind, for sure,” he said. “My body’s used to right now getting ready to shut down or go to a bowl game, so physically you have to learn how to take care of yourself and how to recover. The older guys help me through that. 
 
“That means for me getting a minimum of nine hours sleep every night and making sure I eat healthy. Our cafeteria does a great job getting us healthy food. Just have to take care of your body and eat healthy.
 
“Mentally it’s a grind. Being mentally sharp the same way I was in Week 1, that’s tough to do. Just stay focused. Anything negative or anything that could cloud my judgment or anything that doesn’t have to do with football, I have to just eliminate that from my life right now.” 
 
Wentz, of course, is the centerpiece of the Eagles’ 2016 rookie class. 
 
Even though his numbers have dipped after a very hot start, he’s still on pace for the fourth-most passing yards in NFL history by a rookie, the seventh-best intereption ratio and the seventh-highest completion percentage.
 
Wentz said when it comes to making sure the other rookies are grounded and stay positive, he takes the lead from the veterans on the offense.
 
“I think we all have a hand in it,” he said. “When things are going poorly, in the huddle all eyes are on me, but we have some really good leaders. Jason Kelce, Brent Celek, Darren Sproles, Jason Peters, they’ve been around, they get it, they do a great job, and I try to follow the lead a little bit and take the lead a little bit. 
 
“That’s one thing we don’t lack is leadership on both sides of the ball.”
 
There’s a football adjustment for these kids but there’s also a hidden non-football aspect that fans don’t see.
 
Remember, these are kids — 21, 22, 23 years old — who all of a sudden are making an enormous amount of money, have tremendous demands on them from outside and are thrown into a foreign city without friends or family trying to make a living.
 
“The hardest thing for me was adjusting to life,” Jason Kelce said. “You’re in a whole new city, for the first time you’re off on your own, paying taxes and doing all these other things and it’s easy to kind of get overwhelmed in your thought process instead of really focusing just on the little things. 
 
“It’s a tough just getting to the point where you feel comfortable because there’s so much drastic change everywhere. There’s all this chaos around you outside football and it can be a little much. 
 
“For me with young guys, you just tell them to keep staying with it, keep improving it, keep paying attention to the details. 
 
“You can run into certain situations where guys over-think things and it can really affect how they’re playing out there and if you’re an older guy you try and take that burden off of them and just try to remind them to go out there and play hard and focus on the minute details that allow you to be successful and just go play.”

Sixers-Celtics 5 things: Slowing down Isaiah Thomas

Sixers-Celtics 5 things: Slowing down Isaiah Thomas

The Sixers (4-15) continue their homestand against the Boston Celtics (11-8) at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night (7:30 p.m./CSN and CSNPhilly.com).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup.

1. A green giant-sized challenge
Just crumple it up and move on.

That's about the only thing the Sixers can do after getting ran out of the gym by the Orlando Magic on Friday. Instead of looking like a team that hadn't played since Monday, the Sixers appeared flat in a 105-88 loss.

Outside of Joel Embiid's first 20-point, 10-rebound game (he had 25 points and 10 boards) and a strong effort from Jahlil Okafor (16 points and 13 rebounds), not much else went right for the Sixers.

Now Embiid will sit the second game of a back-to-back set and Okafor will be thrust into the starting lineup, as the Sixers try to deal with Boston big man Al Horford. 

Horford, the Celtics' prized free-agent acquisition, is coming off his best game so far for his new team. He recorded 26 points, eight rebounds and six blocks in the Celtics' 97-92 win over the Kings on Friday.

2. Little big man
Even with Horford coming off a productive performance, the Sixers' game plan against the Celtics has to focus on slowing down Isaiah Thomas.

The 5-foot-9 guard continues to put up big numbers in the scoring department. Despite his shooting percentages taking a dip this season, Thomas still ranks ninth in the NBA with a career-high 25.7 points per game. 

And even though he is a willing passer (averaging a career-high-tying 6.3 assists), expect Thomas to try and score early and often against the Sixers. After all, the reserve-turned-All-Star has put up 21.5 points per game against the Sixers during his career, his highest mark against any opponent.

3. Dial up the long-distance defense
The Sixers need to be aware of Thomas and just about all of his teammates when they toe that three-point line.

The Celtics rank fifth in the league in three-pointers attempted (31.1), three-pointers made (11.3) and eighth in three-point percentage (36.3) per game.

The C's have four players shooting above 40 percent from beyond the arc, and perhaps a bit surprising, three of them are big men. Jonas Jerebko (46.4 percent), Horford (42.4 percent) and Amir Johnson (40.0 percent) have all been on target from long range.

4. Injuries
Robert Covington (knee) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are both questionable. Embiid (rest), Nerlens Noel (knee) and Ben Simmons (foot) are out for the Sixers.

The Celtics have no players listed on the injury report.

5. This and that
• The Sixers have lost five games in a row overall and eight straight to the Celtics.

• The Celtics rank 25th in rebounding with 42.2 a night.

• Dario Saric had two points Friday against the Magic and has failed to reach double digits in scoring five of his last six games.