Elton Brand, The Stable Old School Chevy

Per Stefan Bondy, Leon Rose has expressed interest in potentially luring general manager Elton Brand away from the 76ers to take the same role for the Knicks.

To some, the prospect of Brand departing would be a relief. A large portion of the fanbase believes that his decisions this past summer represent two of the most ludicrous contracts in the NBA. His departure would signify an opportunity to hit the “refresh” button. The owners could wipe the slate clean on the entire front office and, really, all high-ranking personnel not on the roster. 

The correct answer is that Brand represents the only stability this franchise has right now. The decisions he made this past summer are not enough to judge his value as a general manager.

The Horford Deal

At least the continuation of the union with Tobias Harris has hovered around logical expectations in his first full season with the team. Harris’ 19.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists would indicate failure, given that he is making nearly the same amount of money per year as LeBron James is. However, evaluating his performance in that light is a misunderstanding of what you are paying a player to do.

Brand paid Harris to perform to the level at which he has shown he can play, not the level at which he has never shown he can achieve. To do so would be to have unrealistic expectations. Harris’ 2019-20 numbers are on the same plateau as his career-highs across all statistical fields, if not setting a new high ground for his career marks. Additionally he has played the most games and minutes of any Sixer on the roster. He has posted the third best defensive rating of his career when playing over thirty minutes per game.

The Horford deal, on the other hand, has faced reasonable scrutiny. Giving a 33-year-old a $109 million deal was certainly questionable, in and of itself. Allocating it to a player who was accustomed to being primarily featured at the same position as Joel Embiid was nonsensical and insulting to Embiid. Horford’s horrid output has magnified the preconceived concerns that people had with the deal.

Across The Board

Horford’s season, essentially regardless of statistical filter, is amongst the worst of his career. It is his third worst in terms of points per game, by far his worst in field goal percentage, third worst in rebounds per game, and tied for worst in blocks. 

You might feasibly argue that on this team, his role as a scorer should be reduced. His outside positioning in this team’s offensive and defensive schemes would account for the decline in rebounding. Further, his presence on the perimeter rather than in the post would explain the decline in his blocks. It’s unrealistic to expect a player of his size to be able to block smaller guards and wings when he is drawn out to defend the perimeter. That all makes sense.

What is alarming and terrifying is his declines in field goal percentage and free throw percentage. The 3% decline from his previous career-low indicates a player whose lower body is beginning to weaken. What’s more concerning is the free throw percentage. Horford is shooting below 76% for the first time since his age-29 season. Marked decline in free throw percentage is one of the earliest signs of father time. 

Dragging on Defense

What has been most worrisome is the massive decline in Horford’s defensive prowess. He is no longer able to hold his ground against opposing bigs in the paint. He is far too slow to stay in front of smaller players and protect the drive. Horford’s declines in free throw percentage and defensive effectiveness are massive indicators that his legs are beginning to offer less and less support. While decline is to be expected with age, predicting this significant of a decline from a recent all-star would’ve been impossible. 

With Horford only getting older, those numbers are likely to decline further. Such is especially likely if Horford remains in his current role with the Sixers.

Hindsight is 20/20

It’s easy to look back and charge Brand with recklessly spending money on misfitting pieces. In reality, the idea of adding Horford makes as much sense now as it did way back when. Horford’s theoretical fit was conducive to supporting Embiid and Simmons on offense and adding depth on defense. He was coming off of four consecutive seasons of shooting over 35% on catch-and-shoot triples and didn’t require extensive touch time to be an efficient scorer. He would serve as the quiet veteran to linger around the perimeter waiting for kick-outs when Embiid or Simmons ran into trouble. When Embiid was out, Horford would get back to the post and feast on the opposition.

Most importantly, he represented the polar-opposite of Jimmy Butler. Horford is an even-keeled veteran who does not launch passive aggressive on-court tirades when things weren’t going his way. He is willing to step into a bigger role on an as-needed basis. Al provides the defensive depth needed to preserve Embiid for the playoffs. He simultaneously allows Embiid and Simmons to develop and grow together. That job description sounds like the perfect fit.

Beat The Bucks

Signing Horford was a move that was expected to pay its biggest dividend in the playoffs. The contract was offered with one goal in mind–beating the Milwaukee Bucks. The Sixers’ management team felt that it had a strong enough roster to win a title in 2019-20. With the NBA being wide open, the Bucks were the one obstacle preventing them from hosting a championship parade.

With the defensive vision formed by pairing Embiid and Horford, a healthy Sixers team beating the Bucks seemed very feasible. The paint would be protected by two of the most physically-tough bigs in the NBA. The Sixers were going to take away Milwaukee’s path to the basket on defense. They would let their balance of talent take care of business on offense. It did, however, pose the risk of not even reaching the Bucks if the fit didn’t go as planned. But, it was certainly a risk worth taking. 

Al Horford’s tenure has certainly not panned out as hoped. But, Elton Brand’s decision to sign him was very smart–regardless of the money. 

Speaking of Decisions…

Elton Brand’s decisions are, at least, justifiable. The people who own the team, on the other hand, are not capable of making competent decisions. It took them more than a week to fire a general manager who had been linked to burner accounts that leaked offensive sentiments and confidential information regarding the team’s players on Twitter. More currently, the multi-billionaire owners needed to be convinced by public relations consultants to reverse a previously-made decision to reduce the salaries of Sixers’ and Devils’ employees by up to 20% during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

If the Sixers were to allow Brand to leave, the management can’t be trusted with hiring the right replacement. After they were turned down by numerous candidates before the 2018-19 season, what makes you think top candidates want to lead this franchise forward?

That’s right, I couldn’t come up with anything, either.

Survey the Landscape

Today’s players have more power than any generation in league history. As a result, the NBA has transformed from an owner-dominant association to a business in which the only way to ensure job security is to build relationships with the players. That’s how Brett Brown has remained with the Sixers, how Ty Lue stays in coaching conversations, and how Rob Pelinka became the general manager of the Lakers. Relationships are a currency in the league, today. Those relationships are built by former players being able to relate to current players, and executives demonstrating a deep sense of care for the athletes they engage with.

The hiring of Elton Brand back in 2018 was a move that would bring a typically-senseless franchise closer to players both on the roster and on the free agency board. That’s why he serves as a significant asset to this franchise going forward. Brand serves as an ambassador that connects the Sixers to enticing players in the future. Perhaps more importantly, he represents a new direction away from the franchise’s current regime.