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 camp Day 6 observations: The pads finally go on

Eagles camp Day 6 observations: The pads finally go on

It kinda looked like football today!

After months of watching Eagles run around in shorts, the pads went on this morning. No, the team didn’t go live (tackling to the ground), but the pads were popping some and it actually resembled the real game way more than the previous days' sessions. The plan is to go three days with pads before a day without them.

A few guys – Nolan Carroll, Rueben Randle, to name a few – left practice early thanks to injuries, but it didn’t appear any of the injuries were serious (see story).

Here are some observations from Saturday’s practice:

• The much-anticipated first play of 11-on-11s was won by left defensive end Vinny Curry, who blew past right tackle Lane Johnson and would have had a sack if not for that pesky red jersey Sam Bradford was wearing.

How did Curry feel today?

“Hot," he said. "Hot."

You don’t look hot.

“I got my crop top on, you know what I mean,” he said, showing off his green shirt with midriff showing. “It was fun though, man. I got a lot to learn. I’ve got a long way to go.”

• After Curry got a chance to show his stuff with the first team, Marcus Smith flashed with the twos. Yes, that Marcus Smith. On the first play, he beat Matt Tobin, who has been working at left tackle. It’s obviously early and he’s the fourth-best defensive end on the roster, but the switch to the 4-3 defense could actually make him a serviceable NFL player. He’s better going downhill. Smith looked good in 1-on-1 drills against Dennis Kelly later.

• My favorite drills in training camp are offensive line vs. defensive line 1-on-1s. It’s high entertainment between the two biggest and strongest positions on the field. Fletcher Cox is unstoppable in these drills and will be until Brandon Brooks is healthy enough to practice. He’s used to going against monsters from his time in Houston against J.J. Watt. Today, Cox wasn’t stoppable.

Rookie Alex McCalister looks like a string bean and was no match for Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Rookie Destiny Vaeao had a nice power move on Dillon Gordon. Brandon Graham beat Malcolm Bunche with a sweet move to end the drill, which brought plenty of cheers from his defensive line teammates.

• Play of the day belongs to Randle. He made an incredible one-handed grab on a ball from Sam Bradford during individual drills. Randle has been getting looks with the first-team offense and has looked good. Unfortunately, he left early with cramps.

• If you’re looking for a bunch of quarterback analysis today, I don’t have much for you. All three were certainly better than they were in Friday’s disaster, but didn’t get a chance to really air the ball out. The biggest longball play of the day came in 7-on-7s when Carson Wentz aired it out to a diving Josh Huff, who made a great grab. Huff did have a glaring drop today, though.

Bradford had a really nice pass to Chris Givens during 11-on-11s. Bradford also had a great pass – of about 45 yards – to Xavier Rush, who dropped what should have been a touchdown.

• Trey Burton is the forgotten tight end. Yes, he’s third on the depth chart but Brent Celek isn’t getting any younger and Burton is showing some real pass-catching ability this training camp, especially for someone with just three career receptions. He made a great catch on a high ball today.

• It looks like Jordan Matthews’ struggles catching the ball are well behind him. He’s been very solid this summer. He made a few great catches early. On one, he leaped up and snagged the ball around Jordan Hicks and Malcolm Jenkins. A few minutes later, he made another good catch on the sideline.

• Wentz used a hard count to draw off the defense in 11-on-11s. Hard counts. Remember them?

• Earlier this week, Reuben Frank wrote about Wendell Smallwood and that despite his small physical stature, he plays big (see story). Well, we saw it on Saturday. In the open field, instead of trying to go around Jalen Mills, Smallwood lowered his shoulder and tried to go through him. That’s a nice way to start the practices in pads.

• As the pads went on, Blake Countess’ helmet cam was gone, but one appeared on Chase Daniel. It looks like the Eagles are going to keep testing these things out this training camp. Here’s what the camera looked like when it was on Countess:

• Tomorrow’s practice at 10 a.m. will be open and free for all fans at the Linc. No tickets required, just show up for first-come, first-serve seating. Fans can park in K Lot starting at 7 a.m. and gates open at 8 a.m. Enter on 11th street or Darien Street entrances.

What might you see? Well, things are getting a little feistier now that the players are able to hit each other.

When will they start getting under each other’s skin?

“Maybe tomorrow,” Curry said with a smile. “You never know when. You never know who’s having that hot, sweaty, bad day. You just never know. That’s the beauty of training camp."

Pros, cons and likely prospects of a Vince Velasquez trade with Rangers

Pros, cons and likely prospects of a Vince Velasquez trade with Rangers

Vince Velasquez just turned 24 in June.

He's under team control for the next five years and won't start making a lot of money (in baseball terms) until about 2020.

He has a big fastball that averages 93.7 mph, the 10th-best velocity of any NL starting pitcher.

He can be really, really good at times — the 16-strikeout shutout of the Padres, the 10-strikeout game against the Marlins, scoreless performances against the Mets, Indians and Diamondbacks.

And even when he's not at his best, like Friday night in Atlanta, Velasquez can succeed because his stuff is that good. He's made 18 starts this season and allowed two runs or fewer 11 times.

All of these things make him valuable to the Phillies. And all of these things make him attractive to every other team in the majors.

It doesn't seem likely that the Phils will ultimately pull the trigger and trade Velasquez to the Rangers, who are in "deep discussions" with the Phils on a deal, according to CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury (see story). But Texas has such an intriguing group of prospects that it makes sense for the Phillies to listen.

Velasquez, for all of his strengths, has not proven yet that he can be a durable, 180- to 200-inning starting pitcher. He's never even reached 125 innings at any level in the minors. There have been numerous games this season in which his pitch count has soared — either because of a lack of control, nibbling around the plate or a lot of foul balls. The result has been some early exits. That was a knock on Velasquez when he was in Houston and he hasn't yet fully outgrown it.

That's why it could make sense for the Phils to trade him. Perhaps they believe they'd be selling high on a guy who's shown so much talent and promise but not the type of consistency of a No. 1 or No. 2 starter.

Obviously, it makes sense to move him only if the return is strong. And the Rangers could certainly offer a strong package if they decide Velasquez is their guy.

The names you'll see thrown around a lot as the Aug. 1 trade deadline approaches are power hitting third baseman Joey Gallo, infielder Jurickson Profar and outfielders Lewis Brinson and Nomar Mazara.

Mazara is a pipe dream. The Rangers refused to include him in last summer's Cole Hamels trade, and he's only increased his worth to them this season by hitting .282/.334/.417 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs for a first-place team. He'll be a top-three finisher for AL Rookie of the Year. It's almost impossible to envision the Rangers trading away a valuable piece of their major-league roster for Velasquez. It would be a wash, at best.

Gallo and Profar are more realistic targets for the Phillies in a Velasquez trade. Gallo, 22, has some of the best raw power in the minors, true grade-80 power. The 6-foot-5, left-handed hitter bashed 23 homers in the minors last season, 42 the year before and 40 the year before that. Initially, that power translated to the majors when Gallo was called up last June. He hit homers in each of his first two games and had five in his first 50 at-bats before pitchers adjusted. So far in 136 big-league plate appearances, he's hit .192/.287/.408 with seven homers and 63 strikeouts.

The whiffs will always be a part of Gallo's game. To me, he has Brewers' first baseman Chris Carter written all over him — a lot of homers, a lot of strikeouts, low batting average. Gallo could be better than Carter because he plays a more important position and will hopefully be more than a .217 career hitter like Carter, but you also have to keep in mind that the Phillies already have Maikel Franco at third base. If Gallo was traded here, he'd likely play either first base or left field.

It's hard to say right now whether or not Gallo is more valuable or a better fit for the Phils than Velasquez. Usually, it makes sense to go with the everyday player over the pitcher who can make an impact at most twice a week. But, as stated above, Velasquez can give you six quality innings even when he's not "on." He has the most upside of any of the Phillies' young starting pitchers, including Aaron Nola.

Profar, who is somehow still just 23 after years atop prospect lists and a few injuries, would seem to be a better fit. He's a multi-dimensional player who has impressed scouts for years for a reason. He can play every infield position in addition to left field, he has the look of a .300 hitter, and his power is developing.

A switch-hitter, Profar has hit .301/.356/.440 for the Rangers in 181 plate appearances this season with four doubles, two triples and five homers. It's been a while since his last full season in the minors, but in 2012 he hit .281 with an .820 OPS, 14 homers and 62 RBIs as a 19-year-old everyday shortstop at Double A.

The opinion here is that Profar will be a better major-league hitter than Phillies top prospect J.P. Crawford.

There is, however, a vast financial difference between Profar and Gallo. Profar will go to salary arbitration in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before becoming a free agent. Gallo, like Velasquez, won't start making meaningful baseball money until around 2020.

But a team like the Phillies that has deep pockets and so much open payroll space moving forward should be more concerned with receiving the right player than playing the cost benefit game.

Another thing to consider here is that the Rangers need Profar. He's been playing every day for them and playing well at second base, third base and shortstop. He played Friday night in left field. He's started a bunch of games at first base, too, and figures to get some more reps there with Prince Fielder out for the season and Mitch Moreland having just an OK year.

Brinson is another name to keep in mind. A right-handed centerfielder, he was Texas' first-round pick in 2012. He had a terrific year at three different levels in 2015, hitting a combined .332/.403/.601 with 31 doubles, eight triples and 20 homers. He's struggled this season at Double A Frisco, hitting .227 with a .692 OPS in a hitter-friendly environment.

The Rangers also have some other pieces who could help the Phillies, but you'd figure any deal for Velasquez would have to include one of these three. Otherwise, it just makes no sense to even entertain the idea of a trade.

And really, if the Rangers are willing to include one or more of those three young players, they could get any team in the majors to listen to an offer for a starting pitcher. A package centered around two of them might be enough for Chris Sale. Maybe one of them could net Atlanta's Julio Teheran. Velasquez is really good, but so are the combinations of trade packages the Rangers can put together.

Eagles Injury Update: Nolan Carroll, Rueben Randle leave practice early

Eagles Injury Update: Nolan Carroll, Rueben Randle leave practice early

The Eagles' first day of training camp in pads wasn’t without some minor casualties.

Cornerback Nolan Caroll left early with a sore ankle and wideout Rueben Randle left early with cramps. Both are considered day-to-day.

After Carroll left the field, Eric Rowe got some first-team reps with the defense. Randle was having a very good day, standing out with a one-handed grab, before going inside.

Undrafted wide receiver Marcus Johnson, from Texas, went inside early with a quad injury. Corner Ron Brooks (cramps) also went in early.

The Eagles started the day without starting right guard Brandon Brooks (hamstring) and starting running back Ryan Mathews (ankle). Neither have practiced since the whole team got together for the first full-squad on Thursday.

Darren Sproles continues to get most of the first-team reps at running back, with Kenjon Barner filling in. Veteran Stefen Wisniewksi has been taking Brooks’ spot at right guard.