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A Clipper a Day - Elton Brand

We've got 15 days without a regular season Clippers game, and there are 15 spots on an NBA roster.  I'm going to go through the Clippers roster, providing 2007-2008 season outlooks for every member of the team.  I have no specific order, although I will save the last roster spots for the end - I mean, I don't think they're going to waive Aaron Williams, but we'll save him for the end anyway, just in case.  Besides, how much am I going to say about Aaron?

So without further ado, let's get started with Elton Brand.

Elton Brand is arguably the most underrated player in the NBA.  Of course not everyone agrees on the best metrics for measuring a player's performance, but by all of the more sophisticated measures, Elton Brand has consistently been in the top 15 or even top 10 players in the league.  Consider the following table:

Rank Name Career PER Years ASGs All-NBA MVP
1 Shaquille O'Neal 27.63 15 13 13 1
2 Tim Duncan 25.17 10 10 10 2
3 LeBron James 24.24 4 3 3 0
4 Tracy McGrady 23.88 10 7 6 0
5 Dirk Nowitzki 23.84 9 6 7 1
6 Kevin Garnett 23.84 12 10 8 1
7 Kobe Bryant 23.49 11 9 9 0
8 Yao Ming 23.22 5 5 3 0
9 Elton Brand 22.75 8 2 1 0
10 Vince Carter 22.01 11 10 2 0

I knew this was going to be interesting, but even I'm shocked by this table.  These are the top 10 active players by career PER.  Quite a list right?  Hard to argue with this list, they're all superstars, and there's Elton Brand at number 9.  The other 9 players in the top 10 have made the all star team 84% of the time throughout their careers.  And all of those missed All Star games for those 9 - EVERY LAST ONE OF THEM - was either when they were under the age of 22 or injured.  Elton Brand, on the other hand, has made the all star team twice in eight seasons in the league.  And one of those two selections was as an injury replacement.  All-NBA selections tell a similar story.  Most of these players are fixtures, or have been since they turned 22.  Elton Brand has been selected All-NBA second team once in eight seasons in the league.  Wow.  So, you know, up above where I said 'arguably' the most underrated player in the league?  Strike the arguably.  

The most underrated player in the NBA
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                                           © Henry Chen, all rights reserved
Again, not everyone agrees that PER is the best way to measure a player.  But we can all agree that Elton Brand stands out like a sore thumb in the table above.  PER has a high correlation with recognition for every other player on the list.  But Elton Brand toils in relative anonymity as compared to his peers.

The reasons for this are not very important.  His teams have not been good for most of his career (his All NBA season was in fact the only season he played for a team with a winning record) - but the same problem has not kept Kevin Garnett from being recognized.  The biggest reason is probably that his game is not flashy, although one would think that coaches and sportswriters would be sophisticated enough to see beyond that.

In a way, Elton's consistency may have worked against him in terms of notoriety.  He has averaged no fewer than 18 points per game every season in the league, and most nights he scores somewhere between 15 and 25.  He is not the type of player who puts 40 points on the board, but he is almost guaranteed to contribute positive numbers.  He just doesn't have off games.  

After his 05-06 All NBA season, 06-07 was widely considered a disappointment.  I disagree.  Of course his 05-06 season was better - if his task is to always be better than his best season or be deemed disappointing, that's a pretty tough standard to meet.  But in 06-07 he averaged 20.5 points per game (second highest of his career and 16th in the league), 2.2 blocks per game (7th in the league), 9.3 rebounds (10th in the league), and 53% from the field (highest of his career and 13th in the league).  That's some off year all right.

Of course, points per game is the glamor stat and there the drop off (from 24.7 to 20.5) is significant.  But he took fewer shots per game as defenses focused more attention on him.  It's pretty ridiculous to criticize someone for being a 'poor' scorer when they average 20.5 points and their shooting percentage actually increases.  

But this does illustrate the fatal flaw in Elton Brand's NBA game:  he is not unstoppable.  His offensive repertoire has improved the last several years, but he is not the kind of player that can take on a double team and still put the ball in the basket.  (Notice also that I said it's a flaw in his NBA game - I hardly consider this a problem in the game of basketball, a game played by teams.  Unfortunately the NBA game - and basically every NBA coach has bought into this - is an individual game, especially on offense.)

The big question for Elton Brand in 2007-2008 of course is when will he return to the court.  If you're on this blog, you already know that EB ruptured his Achilles tendon in early August.  He's currently in a walking boot, and scheduled to have that removed at the very end of October.  No one knows how long it will be after that before he's on the court.  Two months of rehab after getting the boot off would put him on the court at the beginning of January, but the conventional wisdom is that he won't be back until February.  From the standpoint of the season, February is probably too late (of course January may be too late as well).  But from Elton's standpoint, he should definitely wait until he's ready.  He does not want to rush back and play poorly, or worse still re-injure himself.  

Ultimately, ClipsNation will be happy if he returns ANY time this season and performs at the consistently high level we've come to expect.  In general, a surgically repaired Achilles does not change a player's performance level.  There's no reason to expect that he will be limited once he has completed his rehab.  

Even at the end of the season, and even if he returns strong, there will be questions about Elton's status with the Clippers.  Why?  Because he can opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent at the conclusion of this season.  But I'm here to quell your fears.  Barring a trade, Elton Brand will be a Clipper in 2008-2009.  Why am I so sure?  Under the collective bargaining agreement, the maximum salary for a 9 year veteran is set at 30% of the salary cap, but for a 10 year veteran it is 35% and as it happens, 08-09 will be Elton's 10th season.  Unless he just wants out of Clippertown (and there's be no indication to this point that that is the case) EB has every reason to exercise his option to stay with the team in 08-09.  

Is Elton Brand the kind of player that is going to command a maximum salary offer at the age of 30?  Well, if you're paying attention to data like PER, then yes, he is.  

That's one area where he probably won't be underrated.