The Atlanta Hawks have had a strange season. The season started in an incredibly positive manner, as under new head coach Mike Budenholzer, the team implemented a new up tempo philosophy of ball movement that paid dividends. The Hawks were building up an impressive record, and looking comfortably the third best team in the East when disaster struck. On December 26, Al Horford went down injured for the season, and ever since then the injuries have continued to pile up for Atlanta. As a result, one of the key aspects of the Hawks season is the expanded opportunities that players who were expected to be role players have received. There is no better example of this than veteran center Elton Brand.
Back in October, before the season begun, I wrote an article asking, could Elton Brand still command the paint at the age of 34? Although Brand didn’t see his number called often early in the season, post-Christmas he has answered that question with a resounding yes. Horford’s injury was followed by those of Pero Antic and Gustavo Ayon, leaving Brand as the only available option at center. Couple that with the fact that Paul Millsap has also missed a number of games, leaving the Hawks shorthanded at power forward also, and Brand has been forced to play more minutes than he has in a number of years.
The watershed moment for Atlanta’s season came with Horford’s injury against the Cavaliers at the end of December, so it’s only right to look at Brand’s production from that point onwards. Since he was asked to step into the void up front Brand has been averaging 7.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 23.2 minutes of play, all while shooting 52.8 percent from the field. Looking a little bit closer at the months of January and February individually gives an even truer sense of what has been asked of EB.
Brand averaged 20.2 minutes a night in January, but it was in February, when the injuries ramped up, that his minutes followed suit at 28.1. In both months he has given excellent productivity. His points have ranged between 7.1 and 8.3, and his rebounds between 4.8 and 7.8. One worrying trend that has developed though is a decrease in his shooting percentages. From shooting 59.7 percent from the field and 85.7 from the line in January, his numbers dropped off to 47.2 and 60.0 percent respectively in February. That indicates that as gallant as his performances have been, Brand must surely be starting to feel fatigued. In consecutive games at the end of February Brand played 40 plus minutes, which can’t be easy when you’re in your 15th year playing at the most physical position in the NBA.
Any time the issue of age is brought up with Brand, he’s quick to point out that he’s only 34. That says a lot about the selflessness and veteran mentality that he now plays with. Although he has been needed on the court much more than general manager Danny Ferry probably expected when he signed Brand, with a team as young as much of Atlanta’s current group, Brand’s voice is invaluable. After last night’s loss against Portland, the Hawks have now lost 12 of their last 13 games. On February 1, they were the three seed in the East, but little over a month later they find themselves on the bubble at the eighth spot. Atlanta now need leadership more than ever, and if there’s anyone on the roster who can give that both on and off the court, it’s Elton Brand.