Much of the talk about the Atlanta Hawks business this offseason has focused on Paul Millsap. Signing a two-year, $19 million deal, the consensus seems to be that it was one of the most underrated deals of the summer. It’s hard to argue with this thinking too, as Millsap is a well established, top tier, frontcourt player in the league and one of the most skilled bigs around. In Millsap’s shadow, there is a deal which could be just as significant for Atlanta this season, though. League veteran and former No.1 overall pick Elton Brand signed with the Hawks as a free agent having spent last year with the Dallas Mavericks. The co-Rookie of the Year from 2000 signed a one-year deal for $4 million in Atlanta, representing rare value for a two time All-Star.
Without a doubt, Brand’s numbers are in decline, but off the bench he’s still more than capable of being a major contributor on a good team. Last season, the New Yorker averaged a career low in minutes, having swapped his long term base of Philadelphia and the 76ers for Dallas. For his previous 13 years, Brand had averaged 35.9 minutes and 17.8 points a night, making last year’s 7.2 points in 21.2 minutes look modest. When you consider that those 7.2 points were accompanied by 6.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks though, the outlook is a little different. That sort of production, combined with Brand’s general leadership and basketball IQ, isn’t easy to find.
A major need for the Hawks this summer was to build up defensive weapons and size inside. In last season’s first round playoff series defeat against the Indiana Pacers, Atlanta gave a strong account of themselves playing good basketball when it mattered. Their downfall was a result of their glaring deficiencies up front though, as Atlanta had no answer for Roy Hibbert and David West. With Zaza Pachulia and Johan Petro allowed to move on, the Hawks added Millsap, Brand, Macedonian Pero Antic and the non-guaranteed Eric Dawson as frontcourt options. One of the key aspects of play that will be required from those players is strong shot blocking. When Josh Smith left Atlanta for the Detroit Pistons this summer, although he had been a great player, the loss of his baffling shot selection was celebrated by many. This neglects the fact that Smith challenged and blocked more shots than any of his teammates in Atlanta in recent years. For his career, Smith averages 2.1 blocks a game and if anyone in the Hawks squad can step up to help to replace that defensive activity, it’s Brand.
For the preseason to date, Brand has averaged 2.2 blocks a game, helped in part by his colossal seven-block display against the Charlotte Bobcats. On top of this, Brand has shown his ability to guard and make life difficult for the best big men in the league. Aside from his seven blocks against Charlotte, Brand’s best defensive showing came against the Pacers. In an outstanding display that didn’t really show up in his own box score, Brand guarded Roy Hibbert out of the game. Hibbert, who helped to end the Hawks season last year, finished the game with only two points and three rebounds shooting a woeful 1-of-7 from the field. With this sort of display, Brand will play himself into heavy minutes if the Hawks need to go big to match up with their opponents over the season.
Aside from his obvious box score contributions, the intangibles of Brand’s personality would have been just as appealing for Hawks general manager Danny Ferry during this summer’s recruitment process. Ferry and new Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer are trying to create a culture in Atlanta, much like the one that can be found at their previous team, the San Antonio Spurs. Budenholzer is instilling a defense first mentality in his players and has spoken of wanting characters who are driven, competitive and hard working in his locker room. In Brand, Budenholzer has a man who ticks all three boxes.
As a team in rebuilding mode at the moment, leadership is pivotal in Atlanta. The Hawks are an inexperienced group when it comes to the NBA, with rookies Dennis Schroeder and Pero Antic and sophomores John Jenkins, Mike Scott and Jared Cunningham all a part of the rotation. Brand’s ability to keep those players’ heads level and pass on the wisdom of a man who has played with a variety of teams, in both positive and negative situations, will be vital to the long term development of the players at the heart of the franchise’s future.
In the end, he may now be in the latter stages of his NBA career at 34, but expect to see Brand step up and continue to make a difference. When it matters, he will still do all he can to will his team to victory and that’s worth its weight in gold.