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.