A Surprisingly Unsarcastic Salute: Elton Brand, NBA Model of Consistency

A Surprisingly Unsarcastic Salute: Elton Brand, NBA Model of Consistency

Coming into this NBA season, I think most of us had given up on the $80 million dollar man ever being a productive member of the Philadelphia 76ers. After two erratic, uninspiring, injury-plagued seasons in the city of Brotherly Love, it was easy to view that 80 mil as a sunk cost, spent on a player who was but a shell of the All-Star we thought we had signed. "He's a 13/6 guy, a fourth option," I said to Rev in the pre-season discussion we had about the Liberty Ballers. "And anyone expecting more from Elton Brand in '10-'11 is about to get spiritually posterized."

Well, if EB hasn't made me eat my words just yet, he's at least sliced them up and served them to me on a dinner plate for my eventual consumption. Because through 40 games of the '10-'11 season, Brand very well might be the Sixers' most valuable player.

He's not their best player--that honor still goes to Andre Iguodala, whose refined all-around game could make a contending team very happy at this trade deadline, as long as they don't stare too long and hard at the accompanying bill. And he's not their most important player--that's undoubtedly Jrue Holiday, who despite occasionally putting up frustrating shooting nights like yesterday's 3-14, seems virtually limitless in his skill and potential when he's on his game. But in terms of the guy who's been the team's rock, who's kept them in games night in and night out...I think it's gotta be Brand, doesn't it?

First and perhaps most importantly, out of the 40 games the Sixers have played this season, Elton has been present and accounted for in 39 of them, missing the one game in Toronto just because of a suspension on a foolish flagrant foul in Washington the previous night. Similarly, in only one of those 39 games has he played less than 25 minutes, a blowout loss to the Spurs that was over by the third quarter. Considering how much EB's minutes fluctuated last year under Eddie Jordan, forcing the team to over-extend Marreese Speights in reserve or to go small out of necessity. Merely by staying in games and on the court, Brand is helping the team tremendously, stablizing the power forward position and preventing the Sixers from having to dip too frequently into their already-shallow pool of back-up bigs.

But of course, that wouldn't mean much if Brand wasn't producing in his given minutes. Luckily for us, he's having his best statistical season for the Sixers in just about every meaningful category, averaging nearly 15 points and nine rebounds a game, while shooting at a 52% clip from the field and 78% rate from the line. He's not really scoring more than in the past--his per 36 minute scoring numbers are virtually identical to the past two years--but he's doing it much more efficiently, and consequently, his PER (19.0, a team best) is over three points higher than it was in each of his first two seasons as a Sixer.

The biggest thing for me, though, is just the consistency. His first two years in Philadelphia were frustrating for any number of reasons, but mostly, it was the inconsistency that got under my skin. He'd follow a 23/12 game that made it seem like he was finally finding his groove with a 2-11, seven point effort with more fouls than rebounds that made you wince with every clanged jumper. There's still a little room for variation, but these days with EB you pretty much know what you're getting--14 to 18 points with 8 to 12 rebounds, a steal or two, a block or two, and solid, unremarkable defense. That might not sound like MVP-type numbers, but given the number of erratic young'ns we have on the team this year--Holiday, Turner, Hawes and Meeks, all of whom could be feast or famine on any given night--it's hard to underestimate the benefit of having a guy putting up above-average numbers whose stats you can pencil in before the game just about every night.

Does this begin to justify the $80 million that the Sixers spent on Elton three summers ago, when we thought we were getting a franchise talent that our young, athletic team could congeal around? No, not even close, and to expect Elton to do that with his play at any point is still folly. But as long as we're still stuck with his albatross of a contract for another two-and-a-half seasons, it's good to see him at least producing like a legit NBA veteran starter, proving that all that money wasn't completely wasted. And if the Sixers do end up making the playoffs this year, he's going to be on the shortlist of the biggest reasons why--perhaps even at the very top.

Jordan Matthews eager to return after missing first-ever game

Jordan Matthews eager to return after missing first-ever game

Jordan Matthews experienced something new on Sunday. Something he hoped he’d never have to experience. 

He was relegated to spectator.  

After never missing a game dating back to little league – through high school, college, and into his third season in the NFL – a right ankle injury kept him out of Sunday’s 32-14 loss in Cincinnati. 

“It’s definitely not fun,” Matthews said. “But it’s one of those things where I try not to dwell on it or be like ‘woe is me.’ There’s people going through way worse things in America than me missing a football game.”

The Eagles certainly could have used Matthews on Sunday. But they should get him back this weekend when the Birds host Washington for a 1 p.m. kickoff at the Linc. Along with Ryan Mathews and Dorial Green-Beckham, Matthews is listed as questionable. 

But he seems confident he’ll be good to go. 

“I think one game is definitely going to be enough for me,” Matthews said. “I’m definitely going to try to get back out there Sunday.” 

On Friday, during his first media availability in two weeks, Matthews said he chose to find the positives in his absence from Sunday’s game. Namely that Paul Turner and Trey Burton got some extra reps. 

Burton had five catches for 53 yards and Turner, in just his second NFL game, had six catches for 80 yards. 

“I try to see the positives,” Matthews said. “I liked seeing what PT was able to go out there and do. I was happy for him and his first live-game action, being able to go out there and make plays. I was also proud of Trey. His role got to expand with me being out and I think he played extremely well. He got to show what he can do and show how he can help this team. We just have to continue to utilize him moving forward. There’s always a positive in it. 

“We might not see it now, in a loss, but just think, some of those guys are going to be weapons for us in the future. And we saw they can go out and perform well without me in there, so I think it’s going to end up being a positive. But I definitely can’t wait to get back out there.”

Earlier in the week, head coach Doug Pederson said that even with Matthews’ returning, the team would still try to get Turner involved. Since the team sees Turner primarily as a slot receiver, that means Matthews could see time outside this weekend. There’s an even better chance when taking Green-Beckham’s injury into account. 

Before the season, Pederson talked a lot about wanting to play Matthews both inside and outside, but this season, Matthews has been in the slot for 74 percent of his snaps. Forty-four of his 57 catches have come from the slot too. 

On the play where Matthews hurt his ankle against the Packers, he was actually lined up outside and caught a back-shoulder throw from Wentz. 

“I was actually joking with Carson,” Matthews said, “I was like ‘bro, the reason I got hurt was because our back shoulder was better than Jordy [Nelson] and Aaron [Rodgers’]. So it didn’t mesh well with the universe. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way on Monday night for everybody to see, so the football gods took my ankle. So it’s all good. … That’s a joke.”

Matthews, despite being in his third season, is clearly one of the Eagles’ leaders on offense, especially in a very young receivers room. He’s looking forward to playing Washington after he thinks they were the first team that “actually came out and beat” them earlier in the year. 

With four games left in the regular season, the Eagles’ playoff chances are extremely slim. But Matthews thinks it’s important for the team to finish strong, especially with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. 

With Wentz, Matthews thinks the Eagles have already taken the first step toward building something special. 

“He’s the guy,” Matthews said. “He looks like the guy, he walks like the guy, he talks like it. And he goes out there and plays like it. It’s more we have to continue to ride around him and coach Pederson and be positive and go out there and produce.”

Eagles-Redskins scouting report: Secondary must stand up vs. Kirk Cousins

Eagles-Redskins scouting report: Secondary must stand up vs. Kirk Cousins

Eagles (5-7) vs. Redskins (6-5-1)
Sunday, 1 p.m. on Fox
Redskins favored by 2; over/under 47

When the Eagles went into FedEx Field in Week 6, they had an opportunity to leave 4-1 and in great position in the NFC East. Instead, what ensued was a stretch of three divisional losses in four weeks by a combined 18 points.

Two months later, the Eagles are out of the race at 5-7 while the 6-5-1 Redskins are still battling for an NFC wild-card spot. The 'Skins would be out of the playoffs if the season ended today — they currently hold the seventh spot in the NFC, behind the Bucs (7-5) but ahead of the Vikings and Packers (6-6).

This is obviously a crucial game for Washington, but the Eagles are just as desperate after losing by 11, 14 and 18 points the last three weeks. Don't underestimate the role desperation and a few weeks of embarrassment can have on a team's ability to bounce back. It was partly why I cautioned in these scouting reports the last two weeks not to count out either Green Bay or Cincinnati, teams that had more talent and stability than a few weeks of midseason losses indicated.

Cousins and Reed
The next time the Eagles limit Kirk Cousins will be the first time. In four games against them, he's completed 63 percent of his passes, averaged 336 yards, thrown 10 TDs and two interceptions and rushed for another score. Washington has averaged 31 points and won three of the four contests.

The Eagles' margin of error on defense is extremely small in this game. To win, they'll need a better effort against a Redskins' ground game that gashed them for 230 yards last time, they'll need to generate consistent pressure on Cousins and they'll need Jordan Reed to not be himself.

Reed, the NFC's most dangerous tight end, is questionable with a Grade 3 AC joint separation suffered on Thanksgiving. Reed was a warrior on Turkey Day, leaving the game in the second quarter, standing on the sideline in a sling, probably receiving a little (ahem) help at halftime, and then dominating in the second half in Dallas. Reed finished that game with 12 catches for 95 yards and two TDs, but was hurt badly enough to miss last week's game.

The Eagles were fortunate to avoid Reed in the season's earlier matchup. Fortunate because he destroyed them last December, catching nine passes for 129 yards and two TDs in a 14-point win. Washington uses its tight ends more than any offense in the league, and Reed is a mismatch even for an Eagles team that has allowed the fewest catches (31) and receiving yards (327) to tight ends. 

With Reed out in October, backup Vernon Davis burned the Eagles for two catches, 50 yards and a TD. But it sounds like Reed will play Sunday after telling reporters that his range of motion is back.

The issue in stopping Washington is the Eagles just don't have enough defensive backs to defend everything. It's why they need Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham to get consistent pressure and keep Cousins out of a rhythm. They haven't been able to do that. They had no sacks in Washington in Week 6 and have failed to sack Cousins in two of the last three meetings.

Without forcing Cousins to get off his spot and get the ball out quickly, the Eagles' secondary hasn't shown anything to inspire confidence they can stop DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder, Pierre Garcon, Reed and Davis at the same time.

To make matters worse, this is the first week Washington's All-Pro left tackle, Trent Williams, is back from a four-game substance abuse suspension. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams has allowed just three sacks in his last eight games against the Eagles.

Which Wentz will show?
Last week was Carson Wentz's worst game as an NFL quarterback. He missed wide-open throws, threw three interceptions and could have thrown more and barely exceeded 300 yards despite throwing the ball 60 times. 

He didn't look like the guy we saw the first four games of the season, and quite frankly he hasn't looked like a top-20 QB since October. 

The lack of weapons and occasionally poor protection are major reasons why, but Wentz isn't void of blame — he's simply missed some makeable throws.

Against Washington back on Oct. 16, Wentz was just 11 of 22 for 179 yards as the Eagles lost the time of possession battle. The best days belonged to Ryan Mathews (9 carries, 60 yards) and Jordan Matthews (three catches, 75 yards). Both are questionable heading into this one. 

Wentz didn't throw a single pass at Josh Norman in the first meeting. At times, Norman has followed the opposing team's top receiver, but don't expect him to do so this Sunday. Norman has lined up on the left side 64 percent of the time this season and in the slot just nine percent. 

Slot matchup
Matthews has run 73 percent of his routes from the slot and should draw third-round pick Kendall Fuller. As long as Matthews is sufficiently recovered from his ankle injury, this should be a good matchup for the Eagles. 

Fuller has been beaten repeatedly this season, allowing 42 catches (on 53 targets) for 542 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterbacks have a 123.9 rating against him, third-worst among all slot corners. (Malcolm Jenkins is actually worst in this category with a 137.9 QB rating allowed in the slot.)

Fuller has also struggled to wrap receivers up after the catch, allowing an NFL-high 213 yards after the catch. Picking up yards after a reception is something the Eagles have struggled to do all year.

Run game
The Eagles were shutting running backs down until they played the Redskins in October. Since-demoted RB Matt Jones rushed for 135 yards, current starter Rob Kelley rushed for 59, and both had a run of 45-plus yards.

Cox, Barwin and LB Nigel Bradham had awful games that afternoon against the run. It also didn't help that the Eagles were credited with 12 missed tackles. 

Run-stuffer Bennie Logan left that game early with a groin injury and missed the next three weeks. Since returning, however, Logan hasn't been himself, struggling to rush the passer and stop the run.

The Kerrigan factor
The Eagles always have trouble containing Redskins pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan, who had three sacks in the first meeting. 

Kerrigan has been a force in 2016 with 44 QB hurries, which is three more than Kahlil Mack and second-most among outside linebackers to Von Miller.

Kerrigan has nine sacks in 11 career games against the Eagles, and Washington is 5-1 when he has at least one against them.

Prediction
Close game, better performance from Wentz and an awakening in the run game, but not enough defensive talent to shut down what Washington will try to do deep with Jackson and Crowder, over the middle with Reed and short with Garcon.

Redskins 31, Eagles 27