When we talk about the Sixers' frontcourt on the defensive end of the floor, well, it's mostly a hypothetical discussion. We're forced to choose between believing that Spencer Hawes, Jason Smith, Marreese Speights, Thad Young or some combination thereof will miraculously learn to defend in a way they've shown no propensity to in their first combined 10 years in the league and hooking our wagon to the hope that Elton Brand can turn back into the player he was before the Achilles injury. I'd say the latter is much more likely.
Technically, Brand doesn't really need to revert back to the player he was prior to the Achilles, he was decent defensive player in limited action during his first season with the Sixers. In fact, he showed flashes of being the type of weak-side helper the team is going to desperately need as recently as last season.
He averaged 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per 36 minutes in 09-10, so the defensive plays were there, to a degree. In fact, he was a force for stretches, usually right around the times Eddie Jordan called him out in the media. There was this game, against Charlotte. This one, against Memphis. On a handful of other occasions, he looked lively and active on the defensive end. As the season wore on, however, he increasingly became a non-factor on that end of the floor. He's was awful on the defensive glass pretty much throughout, though.
There are two schools of thought on Brand's lackluster play on the defensive end for the majority of the season. One is that Eddie Jordan's imbecile coaching tactics turned Brand off to the whole process. He checked out early on and the effort was never there. The lineups Jordan trotted out there stressed everything but defense, on the offensive end, Brand was ten times more likely to touch the ball 30 feet away from the hoop on a pointless dribble-handoff than he was to get the ball in a position to score. He was demoralized and simply did not handle it like a professional, at least not on the floor. The other is honestly the Occam's razor answer. He just doesn't have the athleticism left to be a defensive difference-maker.
At this point, we have to hope that Brand was demoralized enough to give up on the defensive end. That's the only explanation that gives us a glimmer of hope that he'll rebound significantly this season. If the simplest answer proves to be true, I'm not sure there's any hope that the front line will be even be able to put up a fight against most teams.
Unfortunately, though, shotblocking is only a minor part of the equation. Right now, Brand is the best-equipped big the team has to match up with a post presence on the opposing team. He's the only guy with a history of decent defensive rebounding. He's the only one who has a fundamental understanding of what positional defense is all about. Doug Collins can mask some of these deficiencies with solid coaching a defensive game plan to de-emphasize the weaknesses, but smoke and mirrors will only take you so far.
If the ultimate goal is to make the playoffs. If vastly improved team defense is supposed to be the key to that improvement, Brand absolutely must be the last line of defense against driving perimeter players. I think it's possible. I think he's got enough left in the tank to be a deterrent, and a deterrent is sometimes more important than anything. A guy to block one or two, but alter a handful more every game.
When you look at the cast of characters in the frontcourt, I just don't see how it's reasonable to expect this role to be played by anyone but Brand. I'm not sure what Doug Collins has up his sleeve, but I'm pretty sure that when we talk about the short term success of this team, it's going to be Collins' ability to get more out of Brand, or lack thereof, that will define the team's overall defensive potential.
Of course, even if Brand does return to form and become that presence in the paint the teams to be so desperately lacking, we've still got the pick-and-roll to worry about. I'm fairly sure Brand played the P&R worse than anyone else on the team last season, but let's fight one battle at a time. Brand's contract is a sore spot for many Sixers fans, it's gotten to the point of hatred for some, but the next time you lament his salary, keep in mind that he's probably the best - and probably only - shot we have at defensive legitimacy. If that's something that matters to you.