Posted May 10 2012 10:19AM
PHILADELPHIA -- There had to be an instant, a flash of memory and confusion as Elton Brand rolled around on the United Center floor near the Chicago Bulls' bench, wrestling with Taj Gibson for the basketball right through tempers and technical fouls in Game 5 Tuesday night.
In that tangle of limbs and elbows and red and white uniforms, it would have been natural for Brand to think, ever so briefly, my bench. My floor. My house.
That place had been Brand's house. That team, the Bulls, had been his, too, and a heated moment in an NBA playoff game was all Brand wanted back then, when he was young and Chicago was rebuilding, a year removed from its glory days of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson and the rest. Brand was a cornerstone of the future.
"Some people think I'm from Chicago, because that was their first time of seeing me," the Philadelphia 76ers veteran forward said during a break between games in his team's first-round playoff series against the Bulls (he's from Cortland, N.Y.). "I hear people say, 'You never should have left.' They forget I got traded."
Brand isn't from Chicago, but for a while, he sure was of Chicago. Young guy, living the NBA life. A condo in a high-rise with breathtaking views of Lake Michigan. Familiar face in Chicago's nightlife, dining at the finest restaurants. A kid then, just 20 when he arrived as the No. 1 pick in the 1999 Draft after two years at Duke. And two years later he was gone.
It didn't matter that the guy from Duke posted 20/10 seasons in his brief stay. The plug got pulled on the Elton Brand era almost before it had begun. Jerry Krause, the architect of the Jordan-Pippen championship run, decided that a pair of high school big men, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler, were the real keys to his franchise's future. So Brand was traded for Chandler's draft rights and the Bulls' first rebuilding was thrown over for their second, which eventually would give way to a third.
Brand, after playing on a team that went 32-132 in his two years in Chicago, spent seven seasons with the Clippers, during which that club went a cumulative 92 games under .500. Then in 2008, he signed a five-year free-agent deal with Philadelphia. With the Sixers, he has been part of two 41-41 teams, endured a 27-55 season in 2009-10 and, finally, this season, got a sniff of winners' air at 35-31.
Getting a crack at the Bulls when it matters most, in the postseason, and possibly putting them out? For years, Brand carried a chip on his shoulder about the trade. But he also has had mixed emotions because of good memories and the familiar faces he still sees around United Center. Heck, many of the front-office staffers from when Doug Collins coached the Bulls across the street at old Chicago Stadium still are there, so you know the changes since Brand left have been minimal.
"Yeah, absolutely. I couldn't wait to go kick their butts," Brand said of his first several years in L.A. "Which, when I played with the Clippers, we usually did for a while. The first few times after you've been traded, you kind of think about it."
The Chandler-Curry experiment was a flop. Both young big men were slow to develop and eventually were shipped out. Now they're bookends on the pros and cons of going big and young all at once. Chandler won an NBA championship with Dallas last year and was named 2012 Defensive Player of the Year for his work with New York this season. Curry had a toehold with the Knicks, reaching 19.5 ppg and 7.0 rpg in 2006-07, but subsequent injury, weight and personal issues had him logging just 83 minutes off the Miami bench this season. (He is in better shape at least.)
The Bulls lost 98 more games than they won in their first three seasons post-Brand. They have changed coaches four times since he left and went through a Kirk Hinrich-Ben Gordon-Luol Deng era before getting lucky in the 2008 lottery to begin their Derrick Rose era. Even then, they have searched for that low-post threat, that 20/10 man, settling on Carlos Boozer the past two years for a portion of what Brand gave them nightly.
The original, meanwhile, is an elder statesman for the Sixers, a sort of Kindergarten Cop policing that roster's young talent. A ruptured left Achilles tendon in 2007-08 and shoulder surgery the following season have taken their toll and the former 20/10 guy has averaged 13.3 points and 7.4 rebounds since signing with Philadelphia,
He has been in the playoffs just three times in 13 seasons and got past the first round just once, when L.A. beat Denver in five games in 2006, then pushed Phoenix to seven -- after losing Game 5 in double-overtime on the Suns' court -- in the West semifinals. Brand was in full beast mode back then, averaging 25.4 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 43.1 minutes while shooting 55.1 percent in those 12 postseason games.
Last spring, his numbers were 15.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 0.6 apg as the Sixers fell in five to Miami. And now, at 33, he's just one of the ensemble, averaging 8.6 points and 6.0 rebounds in 32 minutes. But his confidence in his mid-range jump shot has returned and, as his old team learned, Brand still will get down on the floor and do whatever's necessary.
"He is one of the most professional players I've ever been around," Sixers coach Doug Collins told reporters last week. "His preparation is off the charts. Obviously there will be nights where his legs just aren't working. But his heart wants to win as much as anyone."
Considering the opponent in front of him this week, maybe more than most.
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