Thursday, April 28, 2011
Posted: 1:45 a.m.
By John R. Finger
MIAMI As he drew his sixth foul of the game and walked to the bench for the final time of the season, Elton Brand was put into an extra long hug from his coach Doug Collins. If anyone deserved it for the way he played over the final months of the season, it was Brand.
I was so proud of him, Collins said. What a great year it was for him with two tough years in Philadelphia. He has the heart of a lion and just competes every single moment. I am glad he is on my team. I thank him for all he has done this season. He is one of the ultimate professionals I have ever been around.
Thats high praise coming from a longtime coach and player like Collins, but there was more to it than just the points and rebounds Brand put up every night. After those two tough seasons Collins talked about, Brand led the team with 15 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. But more than that, Brand was the spiritual leader of the Sixers and along with Andre Iguodala, one of the mentors to a roster filled with young ballplayers.
So when Brand plays the final two months of the season with a broken right hand and a dislocated finger on his left hand, it resonates. It might even mean more to the team than the 22 points and eight rebounds Brand posted in the Game 5 defeat against the Heat on Wednesday night at American Airlines Arena.
Though far from his best season statistically speaking, the 2010-11 campaign just might have been Brands most meaningful.
I was proud to have these guys under my tutelage, Brand said after the 97-91 loss to the Heat on Wednesday. They listen, work hard and will get better. Its kind of tough playing with young guys, but not these young guys. The guys just did a great job this season.
It takes a special kind of person to sacrifice himself for the good of the team. Thats especially the case for a player who has been in the league for 12 seasons, and takes a mentorship role on a young team. However, the young guys helped Brand get to the postseason for just the second time in his long career.
We had a great season. We played together, Brand said. There are definitely going to be different phases, it happens to every team, so we needed to enjoy the run we have. We worked hard this year.
Brand likens it to laying a base. It may have looked like a five-game exit in the playoffs to a superior team in black and white, but it was bigger than that.
We were in every single game, down to the wire. We are proud of ourselves, Brand said. We are definitely going to work harder. We know what we have to do to get better. Its obvious were not far away.
Headed into next season, Brand, 32, has two years worth more than 35 million on his deal and will be difficult to trade. However, one player who may be difficult to trade because of both his contract and his ability will undoubtedly be part of the offseason intrigue.
Typically when a season ends short of a championship, the speculation over which players will remain for the next year and which ones will depart. Needless to say, its the potential departures that garner the most speculation and media intrigue.
Certainly when it comes to staying or going, Iguodala is the first name mentioned.
Asked point blank if he wants to return to the Sixers in 2011-12, Iguodala said he wants to play for one team for his entire career.
Its always been a dream of mine to play ball for one team, Iguodala said. This has been a great ride so far. Im really looking forward to the summer, letting my body recuperate. I want to get back to 100 percent. Im looking forward to next year being my best year in the league.
Like Brand, Iguodala battled an injury that would have sidelined a lesser man. With tendonitis in his knee, Iguodala appeared in 67 regular season games. Thats significant because in his first six seasons with the team, Iguodala missed just six games and played in every game during the past three seasons.
But going forward, Iguodala would like to put his stamp on the game as a 76er.
I always wanted to be in one place, be comfortable in one spot. I still feel the same way, being able to put a stamp on not only my career, but the Philadelphia 76ers record book, Iguodala said. I want to keep climbing the charts with some of the greatest basketball players ever. Just for my name to be brought up as having some of the most steals in team history is something I always thought about. I want to continue to climb the charts and take this team to the next level.
The season was something of a breakthrough year for Iguodala. Though he often took some ill-advised shots, Iguodala bought into Collins philosophy and thrived. Like Brand, his numbers were off from his best years, but Iguodala finished eighth in the defensive player of the year balloting and was the go-to guy for the Sixers not because of his shooting, but because he could find an open teammate.
Still, in Game 5 it was Iguodalas tough jump shooting that spurred the Sixers late charge and brought them to within a point with 36 seconds to go. He scored 18 of his 22 points during the second half.
He is a very good player, Heat coach Erik Spolestra said of Iguodala. He is so unique in terms of how many things he does to impact the game. He is such a good defender, hes long and he moves his feet. Also, he is a very good rebounder and an intelligent defender. Offensively, I think he gets judged on how many points he scores. He does so many other things.
Undoubtedly, Brand and Iguodala will return next season, though its clear the teams future lies in its youngsters. For now, the vets are passing along the knowledge until its time to pass the baton.
E-mail John R. Finger at firstname.lastname@example.org