Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Even smart basketball fans, that is, ones who know that Kobe shoots too many times, that it's better to have Stephen Curry than Monta Ellis, that every time Dwight whines a small galaxy is destroyed, remain visual viewers. So as long as Elton Brand was missing shots, he looked like a terrible acquisition.
Even as he grabbed 11 boards against Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol on opening night, 12 against Nene, two weeks later. And they weren't really wrong. The Mavs actually could COMPLETELY use a player like Omer Asik, or at least like Omer Asik was last year, a no-offense defensive force, but Brand is a few years from being that kind of defensive player. Even if, last year, according to mysynergysports.com Elton allowed just .04 points per play more than Asik, he doesn't have the mobility to make up for the mistakes of wing defenders like he once did.
But as long as the 10-footer was MIA, there wasn't much point in paying attention to what Brand was doing well. Now, however, aside from a weird Carlisle game where Brand played less than 9 minutes against the Nuggets, Brand has averaged better than 60% shooting in 6 of the last 7 games, 8 of the last 10. And so, like a magic spell, it is suddenly possible to see how well Brand is doing on the other end.
Anyone who saw his work against the enormous Jazz front line last night knows pretty well the truth of this. Simply put, Brand is the only competent post defender the Mavericks have, allowing a very low .76 points per play from that spot. But he's allowing a preposterously low .33 points per play on isolation plays, and .74 on spot-up shooting. None of these numbers are particularly out of line with his performance last year, although the 2012 iso numbers did, and likely will, settle around a still quite respectable .75 with more exposure.
This is the real magic spell, by the way. A 33 year old, with limited mobility, playing good defense on a team with the third fastest pace in the NBA, 28th in the league in points allowed.
Now in the midst of the worst losing streak in recent memory (9 out of 10 games) and with exactly one lineup offering any kind of hope (Dirk and Brand), Mavericks fans are clamoring for more Elton Brand. I suspect, sooner or later, they will get their wish.
And yet, with all I've said in praise of Brand, the sad truth is, it may not make that much of a difference. If Brand and Dirk could play 45 minutes, it would. But at 30-35, at full strength, it would remain to be seen.
The thing is, the Mavericks offense is in a super, duper rut. Yes, they are still hanging on to the 10th spot in the league in points scored, but it's an illusion caused by 7 100+ point games prior to Nov 22nd and a three day spree between Dec 8th and 12th when they scored 116, 119, and 115. Since that time they have broken 100 three times, all in OT games. No, you don't have to score 100 to be a good offense or to win games. But if you're not scoring 100 with a super-fast pace, there's no real point in having a super-fast pace. That, at least, is my opinion.
Worse than general scoring has been fourth quarter scoring. 14 points against Utah. 22 against NO. 20 against Washington, a game they won. 16 against SA. 15 against Denver. 17 against OKC.
So why aren't the Mavericks playing Elton Brand more than 20 minutes a game, despite his sterling defense, despite his great rebounding on a team that doesn't have much in the way of either without him? Well, I think they should be, but it's obvious that Chris Kaman is the superior offensive player currently. Even while Brand is shooting with high-efficiency, he's also solely and entirely a pick and pop offensive player whose high point totals since he started performing like his old self are 15 against Minny, 14 against San Antonio, 12 and 11 in the last two and 9 on December 12th against Boston.
Meanwhile Kaman has five 20-point games on the season, and a team 25-point fourth-quarter, a fairly typical number for a high-pace team, would have beaten OKC, New Orleans and Utah. And sure, 16-19 doesn't sound amazing right now. But it's a little bit better, is it not, than 13-22?
In other words, what the Mavericks seem to have with Elton Brand is a player who solves their biggest problems but, because the Mavericks currently have a list of problems so long Santa can't get through it, leaves still too many problems to win basketball games. It's not his fault. More to the point, if OJ Mayo ever starts scoring again, it should be Brand who gets the lion's share of the minutes basically immediately. If Darren Collison ever starts really scoring again, or Jae Crowder starts hitting some shots, it should be Brand.
But when Rick has to watch another fourth quarter lead slowly but inevitably slip away because no Maverick can hit a shot, because no Maverick besides Dirk can even find a shot, I cannot currently fault him for putting Kaman, who must currently rank as this team's second best offensive player, out there, and when not Kaman, a small lineup that has yet to prove successful even once. I hate the small lineup. It never wins. More to the point it gets destroyed, and loses overtimes like they are inhibitions on New Year's Eve. I wish the small lineup would disappear forever. Far better Kaman than the small lineup. Far better life in prison, at this point.
But just because X is disastrous does not make Y a winner. In the last five games, the Mavericks have had 11 or fewer turnovers five times, a huge change from previous games. They have come within 2 of winning the battle of the boards in every game, have actually won it twice. Against the Spurs they grabbed more o-boards (by 8), more boards, threw more assists, had as many steals, more blocks, and exactly as many turnovers...and lost by 25.
Elton Brand is the answer to a question the Mavs are not currently good enough to ask. I do think that if one or two guys can turn around their offensive games, Elton Brand becomes the reason the Mavs can rip off a few wins, and again, anyone who saw him battling the Jazz's endless stream of big men, none of whom got more than 15 points, only one of whom grabbed double-digit rebounds, can hardly doubt that.
Nine games below .500 with some tough ones coming up, the question very soon will be whether there is any point to winning WITH Elton Brand, a player who almost certainly does not have a future with the Mavs. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it--but we might come to it soon.