Elton Brand Embraces Role as Mentor with 76ers
For all intents and purposes, Elton Brand‘s NBA career was over.
Sure, his agent, David Falk, had instructed Brand to stay in shape, using the argument that a contending team could call later on in the season looking for a veteran to fill one last void missing from their roster.
But Brand had seemingly come to grips with the reality of his situation, especially after appearing in just 4 minutes of play during Atlanta’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals last spring.
While that faint glimmer of hope may have still existed, Brand wasn’t fooling himself.
“I wasn’t looking to come back,” Brand said Monday night before the Sixers took on the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Wells Fargo Center. “It was over. I was thankful for the great opportunity and all the blessings I’ve had. I kind of moved on.”
That all changed a few weeks ago.
Brand’s return to the NBA was made possible because of the strange convergence of events unique to this Philadelphia 76ers team. The record-setting start to the season, Brand’s previous experience in the city of Philadelphia, a core of young, talented big men in need of a mentor, the off the court struggles of rookie Jahlil Okafor, and the Sixers’ continued prioritization of development over wins all made Philadelphia a natural fit.
The addition of Jerry Colangelo to the 76ers front office last month also played a key role.
“I think Jerry Colangelo was the one who pushed this forward the most. I think that with Jerry’s connections with [Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski] and David Falk, and our desire to bring in more senior voices in the program, we had considered it a lot,” head coach Brett Brown said, who also noted that they had reached out to Jason Richardson, who played for the 76ers last season.
“I give Jerry [Colangelo] a lot of credit for this one,” Brown continued.
According to Brand, his discussions with the Sixers began after Colangelo was hired. He then had a breakfast meeting with president and general manager Sam Hinkie before continuing conversations with Colangelo about what would be the optimal role for Brand going forward.
The conversations first centered around more of an advisory role, with Brand around the team for a certain amount of hours per week, but eventually morphed into taking an active role as a player.
“[At first] it was just like ‘Nah, I’m not a player anymore’,” Brand explained. “That’s why it took so long.”
Brown readily acknowledged that they didn’t pursue Brand for whatever small on-court contributions they can get out of the 16-year NBA veteran. Should that happen, it will be seen as a bonus.
“He’s very clear, and so am I, on the role that we want from him,” Brown explained. “We will get [value] on the court, but that’s not the main reason. I think that his quotes that I’ve heard today articulate that.”
Instead, the Sixers are looking for a mentor, somebody who can help guide the Sixers’ stable of young, franchise-player hopefuls into mature NBA basketball players, both on and off the court. Somebody who could not only impart the wisdom gleaned from having already lived through an NBA career nearly as long as some of these prodigies, such as Okafor, have been alive, but also somebody who could provide a message in lockstep with the coaches, but from the perspective of a respected peer who has the cachet to command respect.
Putting on a uniform, sitting on the bench, and going through practices as a player was key for Brown.
“You wouldn’t believe what goes on at halftime, when a coaching staff is in another room. You wouldn’t believe what goes on a bench when you’re down 20, and you wouldn’t believe what goes on a players mind when it’s a two-point game with a minute and a half left and do they know their assignments,” Brown explained when asked why they were bringing Brand back as an active player. “It is so much deeper than putting a suit on him and thinking you’re going to get the value out of him that I want to get out of him.”
The level to which this is geared toward being a mentor is evident by the fact that the Sixers didn’t even work Brand out before signing him to a contract. “‘If you’re coming in now at whatever fitness base you’re at, I’m not going to embarrass you’,” Brown told Brand. While the physical body might be akin to a rusty chain on a bicycle, as Brand described it, the Sixers hired Brand for his mind, which is tack sharp and hardened from the experience Brown craves.
The Sixers have always been a young team under the direction of general manager Sam Hinkie, but the presence of at least a couple of veterans had always been a part of the equation, whether that was Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young during the first year of the Hinkie rebuild or Luc Mbah a Moute and Jason Richardson during year two. The omission of a guiding veteran presence, with the exception of Carl Landry, is something they seem willing to admit was a miscalculation on their part.
“The reality of professional sport, and 20 year old’s, it would have been, maybe in hindsight, naive to think that we could just scoop through the NBA year trying to grow everybody without some more voices of Elton’s caliber,” Brown said. “Knowing what we know now you’re always a little bit smarter after events.”
Still, tackling the question of NBA veterans on a losing team is frequently harder than it may seem. Players with the kind of pedigree that Elton Brand has aren’t always willing to accept the realities of father time, frequently hoping for more playing time and a bigger role than their body can realistically allow for. Combine that with the volume of losing the Sixers are still likely to experience and the wrong veteran can make a combustible situation worse.
“I think it’s rare to be able to take somebody that has that resume, and explain the role that we’re looking for, and have him say ‘I agree.’ I think it’s highly unusual,” Brown said. “It’s quite cool that he sees his place at this particular time, and at this stage of his career, in a similar place that we do.”
It was perhaps fitting that the signing of Brand was announced on the day the Sixers played the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team lauded for the inclusion of veterans such as Kevin Garnett and Andre Miller into their collection of young talent headlined by the last two #1 overall picks in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. In many respects, Brand is in a similar situation to Garnett: respected among his peers, willing to accept a decreased role, and with a connection to the city he’s returning to.
With the addition of somebody with the experience of Brand, along with the improved point guard play from recently acquired Ish Smith, the Sixers believe they are in a better position than they were to start the season. Not just to compete on a nightly basis, but also to develop the young talent they have staked the success of the rebuild to.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.