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In part three of our Looking Ahead series we're going to expand our research into the medical arena. Elton Brand is the subject, we'll look at the player he was before the Achilles injury, the player he was when he returned last season and the player he could be in 2008-2009 for the Sixers. Click here for the complete Looking Ahead archive.

For Elton, we're going to look at his stats from last season and the year before. He only played 8 games in '07-08 due to the Achilles injury which we'll talk about below. 2006-2007 was his last full season, although there are some questions about the health of his Achilles for the final 3 months of that season as well. I'm going to use per game numbers, because I find them easier to swallow than per minute, or per 36 minutes. Elton averaged 34.3 and 38.5  minutes respectively in the two seasons if you want to do the math. Also, all stats used below were grabbed from basketball-reference.com.

2007-2008 (8 games)
Minutes/game: 34.3
Points/game: 17.6
Rebounds/game: 8.0
Assists/game: 2.0
Steals/game: 0.4
Blocks/game: 1.9
Turnovers/game: 2.1
FG %: 45.2
3pt %: 0
FT %: 78.7
2006-2007 (80 games)
Minutes/game: 38.5
Points/game: 20.5
Rebounds/game: 9.3
Assists/game: 2.9
Steals/game: 1.0
Blocks/game: 2.2
Turnovers/game: 2.5
FG %: 53.3
3pt %: 0
FT %: 76.1

The 8 games Brand played last season were little more than proof to himself, and any team who may interested in acquiring his services, that he was back from the Achilles injury he suffered the year before. In fact, the numbers from the previous season were off because he originally injured his Achilles in February of that season. He played through the first injury because as Elton said, "I've got a rule: If I can run, I can play."

So, the questions we need to answer:
  1. What was the injury?
  2. What is the surgery like?
  3. What is the rehab period?
  4. Can he be the same player after the injury?

This is what a ruptured Achilles tendon looks like:

rupturedachilles.jpgThe tendon literally shreds within the leg. That picture is of the old surgical method of repair. It required an 8-inch incision and there were so many risks involved, many doctors opted to put the patient in a cast rather than operate. This, in turn, meant a full recovery from the injury was an iffy proposition.

Thankfully, medicine has made great strides in this area. They now perform the surgery with an incision only a couple of centimeters long, and post-op rehab involves a walking boot, rather than a full cast. (source: Institute for Foot and Ankle Reconstruction at Mercy)

Every source I've been able to find online says the recovery period from the surgery Brand underwent typically runs from 6 to 9 months. Brand returned after 8 months of rehab for those 8 games. He played in back-to-backs twice, including 76 total minutes in a back-to-back situation to end the season.

By all accounts, Brand rehabbed tirelessly to get back last year. He proved the Achilles was healed and now he's had a Summer to rest it and strengthen it. We aren't talking about an ACL that could sap explosiveness. We aren't talking about micro-fracture surgery. This is an injury that is expected to heal, and the rate of re-injury is very low (4% or less). There's no physical reason Brand shouldn't be 100% back from the injury at the start of the season.

With that in mind, let's first take a look at the player Brand was before the injury.

As I was browsing his stats, the last injury-free season he had, 2005-2006 stood out. Brand set career highs in points, blocks, shooting percentage and averaged a double-double. His PER was off the charts (26.5) and his win shares were unbelievable (15.0). My first comp set was to find out how many player had matched his all-around performance from that season. The criteria I used was offensive and defensive win shares. So here are the players who compiled at least 9 offensive win shares and 5 defensive win shares in the same season, since 1986-87. It's an impressive list.

  • Michael Jordan (7 times)
  • Karl Malone (6 times)
  • David Robinson (4 times)
  • Shaquille O'Neal (1 time)
  • Tim Duncan (2 times)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (2 times)
  • Kevin Garnett (3 times)
  • John Stockton (2 times)
  • Shawn Marion (1 time)
  • Elton Brand (1 time) 
Elite company, but that was three seasons ago in his age 26 season. Let's use his last full season, injured or not, for the next set of comps. Here are the players who averaged at least 20 points/game, 9 rebounds/game, 2 blocks/game, 2.5 assists/game and appeared in 75 or more games, since 1986-87.

  • David Robinson
  • Shaquille O'Neal
  • Hakeem Olajuwon
  • Patrick Ewing
  • Tim Duncan
  • Kevin McHale
  • Kevin Garnett
  • Elton Brand
And now the players who accomplished the same in their age 27 season.

  • Shaquille O'Neal
  • Hakeem Olajuwon
  • Kevin Garnett
  • David Robinson
  • Tim Duncan
And finally the players who accomplished the same in their 8th year in the league.

  • Shaquille O'Neal
  • Tim Duncan
All of these comps put Brand in elite company, and it's no mistake. Is was an elite power forward in this league who put up amazing numbers. We aren't talking about comps to his best season here, and we aren't selectively choosing the statistics to make his numbers stand out better. He was a force at the position and his statistics more than bare that out.

So, the next step is to see if there is statistical evidence that points to players of this caliber having a significant drop off from their age 27 season to their age 29 season. Is it typical to hit a wall at this point in their careers? We'll look at the power forwards only, centers are a different animal altogether.

  • Kevin McHale: His age 29 season was the best season of his career. The drop-off began when he was 32 and it was a steep fall.
  • Kevin Garnett: His age 29 season was strong. His statistics dropped off this past season at the age of 31, his 13th season in the league. The statistical drop off probably had a lot to do with his role on the Celtics, though.
  • Tim Duncan: His scoring was down 2 points in his age 29 season, but rebounded the following year. Still going strong through age 31 season.
  • Karl Malone: His statistics remained unbelievable through his age 34 season, then were merely excellent through his age 39 season.
  • Charles Barkley: Sir Charles was dominant through his age 32 season, then his scoring dropped off quite a bit but he remained one of the game's best rebounders until his retirement at 36. Quick side note, Chuck shot 60% from the field in '89-90 even though he took 92 three pointers and made only 20 of them (21%). On two-pointt attempts he shot 63% and he averaged 25.2 points/game. Unbelievable numbers.
  • Chris Webber: Here is a cautionary tale. Webber put up solid numbers through his age 29 season, then the injury bug really bit him. He missed nearly all of his age 30 season, then was traded to Philly at 31 and we all know what happened after that.
Webber, Barkley, Brand, Malone and Duncan are the only forwards to average 20 and 10 over the first 8 seasons of their careers. Of course, none of them sufffered an injury that caused them to miss their 9th season but Brand, so I'm not sure we can count on the same career trajectory for Elton.

That being said, I think he's healthy and motivated. He proved his work ethic by fighting to get back for the end of last season (whether it was purely so he could opt out and sign a big money deal is beside the point). So I'm going to operate on the assumption that he will follow in the footsteps of these other PFs. I don't think a drop off is imminent.

Looking Ahead

Brand is coming into a new situation with a whole lot more pressure than he's ever dealt with in his career. The entire city has its hopes rested on his shoulders. All the fans, players and coaches hope and/or believe he's the missing piece that will bring this team back its elite status. For the first time in a long time there are legitimate championship hopes. If all goes according to plan, this will probably go down in history as the best offseason the Sixers have ever had. Like I said, that's a boatload of pressure.

On the court, this is probably going to be the most talented team Brand has ever played on. I've seen some people say Maggette is a better player than Iguodala and I think that's crap. Maggette is a selfish, one-dimensional scorer. Having him on the court didn't make things easier for Brand. He was never much of a three-point shooter. Once he got his hands on the ball, he shot it. Elton averaged more assists than Maggette in 4 out of 5 full seasons they played together. He had a legit PG for 2 full seasons in LA, Miller for one and Cassell for the other. He did play alongside Kaman for 4 seasons, but Kaman never put up numbers as good as Sammy's during those seasons. It wasn't until last year, without Brand on the team, that he took a step forward. The Clippers were a weak team. Now he'll be surrounded by 4 quality starters, this will only help him.

One thing could hurt Brand, however. The Sixers' Achilles heel (sorry about the pun), three point shooting. If the Sixers' starters can't improve their three point percentage, teams will double Brand mercilessly. They may do so no matter what. He's going to have to be able to beat doubles, or make the right passes out of them. Hopefully, he'll find a way to cut down on his turnovers as well (2.5/g over his career).

All told, I'm expecting a big year out of Elton. I think he'll probably take about 15 shots per game and here's my prediction for his stat line.

Minutes/game: 37.5
Points/game: 22.0
Rebounds/game: 11
Assists/game: 3.5
Steals/game: 1.3
Blocks/game: 2.5
Turnovers/game: 2.7
FG %: 51
3pt %: 0
FT %: 77

Leave your thoughts in the comments, as usual.
by Brian on Sep 12 2008
Tags: Basketball | Elton Brand | Looking Ahead | Offseason | Sixers |