Elton Brand's tenure in Philadelphia couldn't have started worse. He was the big fish when he signed his "Philly Max" contract three summers ago. The big feather in Ed Stefanski's cap. The guy who was going to elevate an up-and-coming low seed in the Eastern Conference to a fringe contender, or better. Things didn't play according to plan, but after just about everyone had given up on him, Brand is finally playing one of the roles he was brought here to play, on and off the court.
His first season in Philly was a total loss. Maurice Cheeks suddenly went from coaching an upstart with a ton of athleticism and no expectations to an expensive, veteran team with big plans. He didn't get much time to figure things out and he was let go before Christmas. Then Brand dislocated his shoulder and was lost for the season. I remember the Orlando playoff series, I was sitting about 10 rows behind the Sixers bench during game three and I couldn't help but notice Brand, in a suit, sitting a row behind the team. A passive observer. He was a member of that team in name only.
His second season began with Eddie Jordan taking shots at him in the media and ended with Brand viewed as a total bust in Philly. Brand was more than professional about the situation, but instead of being a veteran leader helping the young guys through a rough season, he became a pawn in the blame game. You had Eddie Jordan trying to shift the responsibility for his horrible failure to Ed Stefanski, the man who hired him. Jordan's only defense was "Look at the roster I was given."
When Doug Collins came in, he had fences to mend, holes to fill, roles to define and Brand. He had to somehow get Brand's body and mind back into game shape. This time last year, Brand was an afterthought. His contract was pretty much on the same level as the toxic mortgage-backed securities that nearly brought our economy down few years ago - or Gilbert Arenas' contract now. Worse than that, though, Brand still wasn't a part of this team. He was working out on his own, keeping his distance from Philadelphia. He basically withdrew.
From opening night of last season, though, things changed. Brand was in better shape, and Collins put him in position to be an effective player again. Three years had passed since the height of his prime, so there was no way Collins was going to get the vintage 20+/10+ Brand back, but he got a reasonable facsimile, and he got it every night. EB didn't miss a single game due to injury this past season, in fact when Collins offered him a day off to rest various nagging injuries late in the season, Brand said no way. The team had games to win.
Even the game he missed was demonstrative of his transformation. His team lacked an interior defender who could intimidate opposing drivers by blocking shots. Collins' answer to that weakness was to foul drivers, and foul them hard. Brand missed his only game this year when he was suspended for a particularly hard foul to prevent a dunk. This wasn't a rarity for Brand. His hard fouls grounded Blake Griffin when the teams met, and sent a number of other high-flyers to the floor throughout the season. He set the tone that there were no free rides when he was on the floor, it was an example for the young guys to follow, if they were paying attention.
This summer, Brand's transformation has come full circle. Elton Brand, the guy who sat in his suit and didn't share a high five with a single player during the biggest win of the playoffs in his first season with the Sixers. The guy who was vilified by the media and his own coach in his second season. The guy who disappeared to train on his own. That guy is the one who got his teammates together to work out in Los Angeles during the lockout. When the Sixers signed him to his $80M deal, it was probably a reasonable expectation to think this is who Brand would be heading into his fourth year in Philly. A slight drop-off in production, but a veteran leader, helping the young guys along. The road to get here was obviously much bumpier than anyone had planned for, but at least they're getting what they should've expected out of the back end of the deal. That's more than you can say for most five-year deals to guys who finish the contract in their mid-thirties.