Eighty-million. More than any other statistic that Elton Brand has accumulated over the course of his nine-plus years in the NBA -- the two All-Star appearances, the 6,611 rebounds, the 1,352 blocks -- nothing has come to define the Sixers forward this season like the $80 million, five-year contract he signed in the summer of 2008 to leave the Clippers and, presumably, boost Philadelphia into the East's upper echelon.
Unfair as that may be to someone who began his career averaging at least 18 points and 9 rebounds per game for eight consecutive seasons, Brand hasn't given anyone much else to go on this year. Not with the career-low 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds he's tallied through the season's first month.
Struggling to grasp his role in new coach Eddie Jordan's Princeton-style offense while recovering from almost three seasons lost to Achilles and shoulder injuries, Brand quickly found himself benched late in games.
"My role [I thought] was to score in the low post, rebound, block shots and bring toughness," Brand said. "But after the first game I didn't play in the fourth quarter, I didn't know what my role was.
"It was a little difficult because you don't really have a rapport with the coaches. But [coach Jordan and I] talked about my energy level and how it's a process with the injury. It takes time to shake off the rust, but I just wanted a chance."
And a chance is what Brand has after a partially-torn MCL sidelined emerging second-year forward Marreese Speights until early next year, quickly ending speculation that Brand would move to Philly's slower second unit.
"I'm 30 years old now," Brand said. "And I see what's going on now. I see the big picture. You could say, 'Okay, I'm not playing the fourth quarter but I've got my big contract -- pass the doughnuts. And when the fans bring signs that say you stink, you can go home and eat more doughnuts.
"But that's just not in me. It's pride; I want to play. I want to get to every loose ball and prove I need to be out there."
He'll also need to prove that he can operate effectively in Jordan's free-flowing system.
"He has to run a little bit more at both ends," said a scout. "He'll have to play at a little quicker pace and move without the ball differently than he has over the course of his career. That means back cuts, moving on the perimeter to free guys up, and being a bit more of a playmaker. He's been a very good high-post player and I think he's been a quality pro long enough that he'll figure out how to be consistent for Philadelphia."
In the three games since Speights was sidelined, Brand had shown signs of an increasing comfort level, averaging 19.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.7 blocks. Leaving Tuesday night's loss to the Wizards with a sore left hamstring may delay the process, but Brand's recent play has made Jordan feel more confident about leaving the 6-foot-9, 254-pounder on the floor late in games.
"It just takes good games," Brand said. "It's obvious; if I'm dominating out there I'm going to play. And this is an opportunity to show I deserve to play."
Whether that will translate into an opportunity for the Sixers to reverse a season that has seen them beat only one team with a winning record, and win only three of their last 11 overall, will be a function of Jordan's ability to focus his team on both ends of the floor. With each step Brand takes away from his identity as a bad contract, Jordan's, and the Sixers', job will become easier.
• Dirk Nowitzki's MVP credentials. After the Mavericks flamed out so badly the last time Nowitzki won the league's top individual honor (losing in the first round of the 2007 playoffs after winning 67 games during the regular season), associating the now-11-year veteran with the award has been taboo. But in leading the Mavs to a 10-4 start while averaging 27 points, 9 rebounds and blocking 1.6 shots per game (a career-best thus far), Nowitzki has forced himself into the conversation again with Kobe, LeBron, D-Wade and friends.
• The seat under Mike Dunleavy. With rumors swirling that his days in L.A. are numbered, the Clippers coach offered a staunch defense of, well ... being the current coach. "When's the last time you ever saw an interim coach come in and the team be successful and make a playoff run?" Dunleavy asked the Los Angeles Times. You mean besides Pat Riley in 2006? Look, if your best defense is that your 6-9 start is the norm, then the end isn't far off. If the Clippers were smart, they'd kick Dunleavy upstairs to keep the GM role in which he's done pretty well. That's a big "if."
• Two point-guard lineups. With an influx of young point guards who are too effective to bench, an increasing number of clubs are rolling out lineups with two playmakers, a trend noted by Bethlehem Shoals at The Baseline Blog. From Dallas to Milwaukee to New Orleans (minus Chris Paul, and perhaps with him when he returns from a sprained ankle), point-guard-heavy backcourts are posing matchup problems for defenders while allowing the teams that employ these lineups to paste over their roster holes.
• Rajon Rondo's free-throw stroke. With the Celtics off to a 10-4 start, it's easy to overlook their lurking problems, like the fact that Rondo was hitting only 33.3 percent of his free throw attempts through Tuesday. While it clearly hasn't derailed Boston, it isn't a good omen when your starting point guard make his living by driving into the heart of a defense.
• The Timberwolves. November can't end soon enough for what may be quickly shaping up as the league's worst team. Having not won since they squeaked out a 2-point victory on opening night against the even more dismal Nets, the T'wolves end turkey month with a pair versus the Nuggets that sandwich a visit from the Suns. The Nets, ranked 28th in scoring and 23rd in opponents' field-goal shooting, are likely to stumble into December at 1-16 and crush the record (1-13 in 1994-95) for the worst start in team history.
• Charlotte's point guard play. Before the season, the Bobcats were poised to for a dilemma about who to start at the point this season -- the seasoned and solid Raymond Felton or the promising NBA sophomore D.J. Augustin. Thirteen games in, it seems the only thing this pair is competing for is a spot on the bench. As a unit, the two have combined to shoot 35 percent while handing out 7.3 assists and turning the ball over more than four times a game. Making matters worse is their inability to help stretch defenses. They're connecting on only 26 percent of their three-point attempts. For a coach notoriously hard on his point guards, Larry Brown probably can't hand the ball to Stephen Jackson fast enough.
While Carmelo Anthony's scoring touch has sparked the Nuggets to a 10-4 start, Denver is also receiving quite a boost from rookie point guard Ty Lawson (9.4 ppg, 3.2 apg )and third-year veteran Arron Afflalo (8.7 ppg) off the bench. A scout assesses their impact:
"You feel the burst of energy [Lawson] gives Denver every time he comes into the game. Chauncey Billups is as good a floor leader as there is in the NBA; he gets everybody involved, gets Carmelo his shots, does what George [Karl] wants, picks the right times to shoot. And then Lawson comes in and turns up the tempo and is extremely aggressive. He consistently challenges his matchup in transition with the dribble. Also, he's a guy who can get into the paint consistently. And he plays with a confidence that is impressive.
"And though not as big an addition, Afflalo is just a nice sound player. He may not come out and put up eye-popping numbers, but he's going to play the right way, make open shots and do whatever Denver asks him to do. A good on-ball defender, Afflalo is also an intelligent defender; he's not the quickest player at his position defensively, but he already understands the limits of his abilities."
• "Who is that? Jesse (The Body) Ventura?"-- Lamar Odom asks a room of reporters, including our Arash Markazi, who is coaching the Hornets now.
• Clippers broadcasters Mike Smith and RalphLawler were suspended one game for this recent exchange during a Clippers game against the Grizzlies. The L.A. Times offers the pertinent details:
Smith: "Look who's in."Lawler: "Hamed Haddadi. Where's he from?"Smith: "He's the first Iranian (pronounced I-rain-ian by Smith) to play in the NBA."Lawler: "There aren't any Iranian (pronounced the same way) players in the NBA."Smith: "He's the only one."Lawler: "He's from Iran?"Smith: "I guess so."Lawler: "That Iran?"Smith: "Yes."Lawler: "The real Iran?"Smith: "Yes."Lawler: "Wow. Haddadi -- that's H-A-D-D-A-D-I."Smith: "You're sure it's not Borat's older brother?"Smith: "If they ever make a movie about Haddadi, I'm going to get Sacha Baron Cohen to play the part."Lawler: "Here's Haddadi. Nice little back-door pass. I guess those Iranians can pass the ball."Smith: "Especially the post players.Lawler: "I don't know about their guards."
• "You know players sometimes are like little puppies. We want to be patted on the head even if we make a mistake."-- Dwight Howard on his motivation in asking coach Stan Van Gundy to be less negative.
• "This is like seeing the guillotine squad,"-- Nets coach Lawrence Frank greets an growing scrum of reporters before his team lost to the Knicks and fall to 0-13. They have since fallen to 0-14.
• "I like him. I'm concerned about him. If he doesn't go back to Miami, the West would be his best bet."-- Magic coach Stan Van Gundy offers some career advice for conference rival Dwyane Wade.
• SLAM.com: Extensive, entertaining interview with one of the toughest men in the NBA to have his own cooking show: Charles Oakley.
•Bloomberg.com: Now we've heard everything, or at least that Shaquille O'Neal is about to add art curator to his lengthy résumé.
•The Oklahoman:Kevin Durant describes how he developed his unique free-throw routine -- by watching Antoine Walker.
•CNBC.com: The D-League season opens Friday, and from the looks of it, it's becoming a moderate success.
• Washington Post: Though his teams were largely afterthoughts, Abe Pollin's influence on the people who worked around him was profound. After his passing at age 85 on Tuesday, hoops in D.C., or D.C. itself, won't be the same.
•Freedarko.com: Remember when a player excited you so much you recalled why you love hoops? Bethlehem Shoals does, and that player is Brandon Jennings.
1. So after being lustily jeered yet again in Toronto, Vince Carter doesn't "know why they're booing me, to be honest," Carter told the Globe and Mail. Let us refresh his memory. Does flying back and forth to North Carolina to walk through graduation instead of resting for Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern semifinals ring a bell? Your Raptors lost when you missed a buzzer-beater. Or perhaps you may remember dancing up a storm at a Nelly concert while sidelined with a knee injury. Maybe the 20 games you mailed in for Toronto in 2004-05 -- 15.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists -- before suddenly finding the motivation to tally 27.5 points, 5.9 boards and 4.7 assists after being dealt to the Nets will jog your memory?
2. It's almost funny to watch the likes of Donnie Walsh in New York and David Kahn in Minnesota claim they are not sacrificing the current season in hopes of a brighter 2010. Please. The white flag was raised in all but about half a dozen cities before training camp even started. None of those front offices will admit it for the sake of ticket sales and team harmony, but the drumbeat of 2010, combined with a tight NBA economy, has prompted many to cash in on this season and walk quickly to the exits. Oddly enough, most fans seem content living the lie that will be this season if LeBron and Wade is the payoff. And unless a few star free agents commit, that dream will sustain most fans. But don't interrupt them with the notion that their teams need to be careful about adding talent now because of all the young talent that needs developing. It's unseemly.
3. Could there be any worse development for Clippers fans than owner Donald Sterling's claim that he will live "forever?" Just think: decade after decade of providing other teams with NBA-schooled free-agent talent; turning off promising players with poor coaching and mismatched teammates, and mismanaging the franchise with meddling and stinginess. After 26-plus years of making the Clippers a punch line, forgive us if it takes a while to believe Sterling when he claims he would be thrilled to pay more than any team in America "if I could sign quality players who warranted it."