For Sixers, a new Brand of basketball

Elton Brand's trademark good nature remained a constant, even under coach Eddie Jordan. This season, his play has become something to smile about.
Elton Brand's trademark good nature remained a constant, even under coach Eddie Jordan. This season, his play has become something to smile about.
Posted: February 13, 2011

Last year, talking to Elton Brand was like poking a balloon.

You figured eventually he'd pop.

Since he was already crammed into Eddie Jordan's doghouse you figured: Why doesn't he bark a little bit?

But being the good guy and NBA gentleman he's always been, Brand spoke mutinous words only once. It happened last February, just minutes after a loss to the Toronto Raptors, in a game he was pulled from at the start of the second half.

"I don't call the shots," Brand said that night. "I just go out there and play the best I can. I didn't think it was my fault, but I'm easy to get pulled, it seems.

"Maybe they're getting prepared for something else, I don't know, maybe I won't be here."

But he is still here. And after getting knocked around his first two seasons with the Sixers - on the court and off - Brand is finally looking like the inside option the franchise brought him here to become. His efficiency rating is a strong 19.9 and his numbers are steadily climbing.

Brand said that last season was "absolutely" the worst of his 12 NBA seasons, while this season probably tastes a little bit like redemption.

Brand signed with the 76ers for approximately $80 million as a free agent in July 2008. Early in the 2008-09 season, Brand suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, his second consecutive season-ending injury. During the 2009-10 season, the Sixers were 27-55 and Jordan was eventually fired, but not before he decided that the team was better off without Brand on the court (Brand said he knew Jordan felt this way) and limited Brand to career lows in games started and minutes played. He finished the season with career lows in field goals made, field goals attempted, points, rebounds, blocks, and assists.

To the City of Brotherly Love, Brand's contract was an albatross. His play was disappointing. And his future held only more of the same. It was a bleak picture, all gray clouds and impending rain.

Just not in Brand's mind.

"I'm just a highly optimistic person," Brand said.

Slim and trim?

At the start of training camp, the talk was about how Brand had slimmed down over the summer. He'd lost 15 pounds, was lighter on his feet, and would now be somewhat gazelle-like in getting up and down the court. This was said to be the crucial piece of information in explaining a rejuvenated Elton Brand.

Everyone bought in. Brand went along for the first week of training camp, but now it's four months later and Brand said he knows it wasn't the reason.

"It wasn't a big deal about losing weight or anything like that," Brand said.

He said he's only a pound or two lighter than last season.

For Brand's entire basketball career, he's been underestimated. At Peekskill High in New York, he wasn't supposed to become a McDonald's all-American. Upon leaving for Duke University, his high school coach told him, "Hopefully Coach K will play you at the end of the game." Once he was drafted into the NBA, everyone said he couldn't do this, that, or the other thing. He was voted rookie of the year.

Sitting on the scorer's table after a recent shoot-around, Brand recounted all of these underestimations. He didn't seem particularly concerned with them, but was just explaining why one more bout of disbelieving wasn't going to sink his ship.

When Doug Collins became the team's new head coach last spring, he spoke with Brand about his expectations, nearly all of which centered on a leadership role, not necessarily how he'd kick butt on the court.

"I don't even know if he knew I could still play at a high level. Honestly, I really don't know if he knew," said Brand.

But throughout the summer, Brand was playing ball against the NBA's best, pickup games against guys like the Boston Celtics' Paul Pierce. In games of 5 on 5, Brand's teams were always difficult to beat.

"I was hot," Brand says. "I had my skill-set. I knew I could still shoot, post, rebound. It goes - with age, it does happen. But I knew it wasn't happening to me to that point, yet."

Brand's numbers this season have supported his claim: In December, 13.8 points per game on 48 percent shooting. In January, 15.0 points per game on 56 percent shooting. In February, 21.0 points per game on 58 percent shooting.

Brand hails old reliable - hard work - for his resurgence.

"I've always felt with how hard I work, good things would happen for me," said Brand.

"I wanted to be there for EB," Collins said of taking over as coach. "It was important for me that EB end his career, in Philadelphia, in a very, very positive way."

Brand won't go so far as to say he ever regretted his decision to sign with the Sixers, but he admitted that many days during those first two seasons he recognized that the train had hopped its chosen track.

"I was thinking, 'OK, this didn't turn out,' " Brand said.

Behind the scenes

If Jordan entered training camp believing Brand was a bad fit, then Collins entered armed with counters to that notion.

And, perhaps more important, Collins demanded more of Brand than any previous coach.

"Elton would be the first one to tell you he didn't hang his hat on defense throughout his career," Collins said.

In those first weeks, Collins called out everyone, from rookies to veterans. Missed blockout? Whistle blown. Poor pick-and-roll defense? Get on the end line. Missed bunnies? Stop the scrimmage.

"It was tough love from coach," said Brand. "He doesn't really cater to anybody. In practice, I'm shooting my little midrange shot and I missed a few and he like gets on me for missing them in practice. 'EB, I need four or five of those a game from you.' And it's like, 'It's practice,' but I understand. You miss them in practice, you miss them in a game. There wasn't one moment where I felt he was catering to me, but I felt like he was going to give everybody a chance."

Teammate Spencer Hawes, who starts in the frontcourt with Brand, said Brand was gradually looking more like himself.

"When I was a kid growing up, trying to emulate some of the stuff he does, his touch around the basket is his forte," said Hawes. "His midrange ability to catch and know when to shoot, know when to go, I think that is his specialty."

Collins knew a Sixers turnaround hinged on Brand and swingman Andre Iguodala. Both had been through so much: Brand through his injuries, and Iguodala through an endless parade of coaches. It wouldn't be enough to get them playing well separately, he needed them playing well together.

"I knew if I could get those two guys playing off of one another and connected, that they were the conduit to my young guys," Collins said.

If the leaders believed the coach's gospel, they'd preach it to the disciples.

But how could this be done?

Common sense held that Brand and Iguodala were about as compatible as Tom and Jerry. Brand was gobbling the low-block space that Iguodala needed for slashing, Brand was too slow in transition when Iguodala wanted to bust loose.

Under Jordan, very few plays were designed for Brand's skills and even fewer designed to make Brand and Iguodala a smooth-working pair. But the strange thing is that it shouldn't be difficult, because Iguodala wants to pass and Brand wants to shoot.

Brand isn't necessarily best on the low block. If his defender is bigger, he'll struggle to score. If his defender is smaller, he'll command a double team - and passing isn't his strength.

What Collins and his coaching staff created were a handful of offensive sets that have Brand moving up and over, toward the sweet pocket, and out of the way. If a basketball court were a chessboard, Brand would move like a knight, not a king.

It may seem selfish that before games Brand and Collins talk about how Brand will get his looks that night, but the reality is that Brand wants to score. He'll give you the hustle, the heart, the determination, and the defense.

But you better get him the ball.

Just last season, Brand sat there - and believe it, he sat there - watching lesser players put up big numbers against the Sixers.

"It took self-control," Brand said of life before Collins. "You see other guys on other teams starting and playing a lot of minutes and it's like, 'Man, I know I could kick his you-know-what.' . . . You know what I mean?"

We do now.


Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at kfagan@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/DeepSixer3, and read her blog, Deep Sixer, on Philly.com.

 

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