When I first spoke with Elton Brand this summer after he signed with the Hawks, we spent a lot of time discussing his last season in Dallas and learning to adapt to a lesser role. This season, Brand expected to be in a similar role as he was with the Mavericks, coming off the bench behind Al Horford and Paul Millsap and trying to provide the Hawks with leadership and a defensive presence in the paint.
Brand’s role finally seems defined as that bench big who anchors the defense and can score from the mid-range or the post when needed. This was the role he anticipated playing all season, but a combination of injuries to Horford, Pero Antic, and Millsap thrust Brand into more minutes than he ever expected to play this season.
“Coming into the season I thought my role would be where it is now. More of that first or second big coming off the bench for twenty-something minutes, around in that area, backing up Al and Paul and stuff like that.”
Prior to the season, Brand told Coach Budenholzer he would do what was needed for the team. However, at that time, the assumption was what may be needed from him was to be inactive some games, not play upwards of 42 minutes.
“It sounds kind of trite, but he just does whatever we need him to do,” Bud said. “He’s been, I remember at the beginning of the season, he said ‘I’ll wear street clothes, Coach, if that’s what you need me to do and you need me to dress out the young guys.’ And we did that. And when guys were injured and we needed him to play 42 minutes, he played 42 minutes. He’s made some big shots at the free throw line, and he’s had some big blocks defensively. His activity and his communication is just, it’s one of those things where I feel I could list off a ton of things and go on and on. He’s just been the ultimate team guy, and do whatever his teammates ask of him and his coaches ask of him, and he’s been a big part of who we are.”
With so many injuries to the Hawks’ frontcourt, Brand played 34.4 minutes per game over a seven-game stretch from February 17th to March 3rd. During that stretch he averaged 9.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks and, despite the Hawks going 1-6, Brand was a critical part in the Hawks staying competitive in games. Getting into the mindset of playing not just a few more minutes, but heavy starters minutes, was just about doing what was needed.
“It’s just team. Team. You know, guys were hurt and we just wanted to compete. We competed every night, we just couldn’t get over that hump, we had too many guys down. We won that Knicks game, and that was the 42 minute game. I told coach, I’ll do whatever it takes. I remembered last year…for the Knicks, Kurt Thomas. He came back and broke his foot and kept playing and they won. You know, us super OG’s, as much as the game has given to us, you may just have to go out like that. So I’m like, whatever it takes. I’m trying to get out there and play and do whatever it takes to help us win games.”
Brand’s presence has helped stabilize the Hawks’ bench unit on both ends of the floor, and while his Net Rating is a -1.7 for the season, that is the second best among bench players — led by Shelvin Mack‘s -0.6. With Horford out, Brand leads the team in blocks at 1.2 per game despite averaging just 18.5 minutes per game. His presence in the paint has been critical for the Hawks in Horford’s absence, providing them with a rim protector — especially when Millsap is off the floor.
Brand has been able to adapt to whatever role the Hawks have needed him to fill this season, but it seems that he’s finally able to settle in as the first big off the bench playing around 20 minutes a night. For Brand, the descent from star to role player has been precipitated by age and injury, but this season he’s accepted his role as a veteran on the bench, a leader in the locker room, and — when called upon — he can still produce at a high level.
“It’s kinda like — you say self-awareness — it’s just taking the ego out of it. You’re not even thinking about yourself; you’re thinking about the team. This is a great organization and they’re building something here. You go play and compete with these guys every night, and at this stage you just want what’s best for the team and your teammates. You want to see them grow. You want to see them win. You want to see guys get to the playoffs, guys excel, (points to Millsap’s locker) guys become first-time All-Stars and things like that. Those are the things, that’s where you get your juice. And as a competitor you want to play, so don’t get me wrong, so I was staying ready for my chance cause I figured it would come sooner or later.”
His presence on and off the court has had a big impact on the team’s success despite the challenges they’ve had to face, and he has been one of the most impressive parts of this Hawks season. Brand’s role on the Hawks has been in flux for the majority of the year, but his commitment to filling whatever that role is has been unwavering.
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