Traditionally, NBA teams try to avoid spending $80 million on a bench player.
That’s the very situation the Philadelphia 76ers find themselves in, as their biggest free agent acquisition this decade, Elton Brand, lost his spot in the Sixers’ starting lineup last Monday to rookie guard Jrue Holiday.
Holiday retained his starting spot last Wednesday, and from the sound of it, Brand’s spot on the bench may become a permanent fixture in the Sixers’ lineup, especially with forward Marreese Speights' recent return nearly a month ahead of schedule.
Since Brand’s move to the bench, the Sixers are 2-3, including a stunning win over Boston this past Friday. Considering the arc of the rest of the season, the Sixers made huge strides last week toward becoming a legitimately competitive NBA team for the rest of the year.
But after losing to the L.A. Clippers on Saturday in overtime and suffering a disheartening 105-98 defeat at the hands of the Washington Wizards last night, one begins to wonder: How much longer will Brand accept his new bench role before transforming into a mini bench-hating Iverson?
Was it a coincidence that the Sixers snapped their three-week, 12-game losing streak last Monday against the Warriors on the same night that Brand headed back to the bench to provide the Sixers a small-ball starting lineup? Was it the perfect storm of circumstances or were the fears last season of Brand clogging up the Sixers’ running game legitimate?
After the victory over the Warriors, Brand was found saying all the “right” things about his new role as the most expensive sixth man in the NBA.
"My temperament after losing so many, I just want to win," Brand said. "So (coach Eddie Jordan) knows I'm not going to not be professional, be a detriment to the team. It works both ways."
"It's not hard (to accept)," he said. "You switch on the button, go out there and play. Believe me, this is a great life. Especially when you get a win."
While he painted himself as a team player to some members of the Philly media, he also dropped some not-so-subtle comments with a hint of Iverson-esque petulance.
"As long as we get those 30-point leads, absolutely," Brand said to the Philadelphia Daily News, regarding his acceptance of his new bench role. "Of course I feel that I'm just as good starting."
And when asked if he was surprised to be in a bench role, Brand replied, "When you look around at other teams, yeah. No disrespect, but [Golden State center] Mikki Moore, he gets to start and I don't."
Uh-oh. While Brand may have been all smiles when the Sixers pasted the Warriors, how’s he feeling after losing to two sub-.500 teams?
"We should have won this game," Brand said last night after the loss to the Wizards dropped the Sixers to 7-21 on the season. "With all due respect and credit to them, they outworked us, pretty much their second unit. They got tip-ins. They out-energied and outhustled us. Our unit [the second unit], certain guys didn't box out, didn't rebound, wasn't tough, and certain guys got a longer leash than others. They played longer and the mistakes were showing."
I’m not sure Brand could have included any more passive-aggressive digs in that comment if he tried. Did he forget that he’s now part of that second unit? And that he effectively threw his second unit teammates under a bus?
“Certain guys didn’t box out?”
“Certain guys got a longer leash than others?”
That smells like bench angst to me.
Judging by Brand’s comments from the past week and a half, he still believes that he should be a starter for an NBA team.
But unlike Iverson, Brand appears to be more of a team player, willing to swallow his pride, head to the bench, and give coach Jordan a pillar of support on the second unit until he can earn a starting role again.
Also unlike Iverson, Brand seems to recognize the great opportunity ahead of himin theory, a former No. 1 pick playing against second units filled with NBA castaways and journeymen should be able to dominate.
"[With me] at the five, Thad [Young] is a great player at the four, no forwards can guard him because he's so quick, so that gives us a mismatch there,” Brand said. “Coming in to play the five, yeah, I could do that also. I get touches and move the ball and pass the ball. It's fun playing the five, you get a lot of touches out there."
Brand has noticeably improved his shooting percentage since moving to the bench, as he’s shooting at a near-60 percent clip from the field.
But besides his new, improved percentage and a small uptick in points per game, Brand’s stats since moving to the bench haven’t been the otherworldly numbers Sixers fans may have held out hope for. (And he’s certainly nowhere near his career averages of 19.7 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game.)
2009-10 stats: 13.3 PTS, 7.2 REB (3.1 OFF, 4.1 DEF), 1.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 1.4 BLK, 1.9 TO; 47.8 FG%, 82.2 FT%
Past five games: 15.4 PTS, 7.4 REB (2.6 OFF, 4.8 DEF), 1.0 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.2 BLK, 1.6 TO; 59.6 FG%, 78.9 FT%
With that said, one of Brand’s biggest critics over the course of the season (his coach) seems pleased with Sir Elton’s development as of late.
"You know, his game is coming along," Jordan said. "Maybe he feels more aggressive, more confident against—I hate to say—second-line players."
But as ESPN’s recap of the Cleveland/Philly game surmised in its concluding sentence, “He didn't sign a five-year deal in 2008 to ride the bench for a lousy team.”
With a couple more losses like the one last night to the Wizards, don’t be surprised if Brand’s on-and-off-court demeanor begins to deteriorate. How long will he continue putting up 18/12 with three blocks if Willie Green’s the guy taking end-of-game shots in clutch situations of winnable games?
This Christmas season, Sixers fans could be haunted by the Ghost of Iverson’s Bench-Hating Past, as it comes to life once again in the form of Elton Brand.