“I’m always making a comeback but nobody ever tells me where I’ve been…”
-Billie Holiday

Buried deep in the rectum of the Sixers’ 1-4 start is a delightful bit of news: Elton Brand, he of the 80-million-dollar-deal and the tender ACL and the bad legs and the bum shoulder and the 27,000 minutes on the odometer, maybe – just maybe – has rediscovered his All-Star form.

Through five games, Brand has been kicking ass and taking names (he has like eight names by my count).  After Wednesday’s 101-75 shellacking of the rudderless Pacers, he’s averaging 18 points on 56 percent shooting to go along with 9.6 boards, 2.6 steals, and 1.8 blocks.  He’s posted a WP48 of .341 (Average is .1, anything above .25 is considered “superstar” level production) and has produced 1.3 wins; 1.2 more than he produced in his first 105 games as a Sixer.

Statistic/48min EB in ’08-09 and ’09-10 EB in ’10-11
Points per shot 0.94 1.12
FT % 0.72 0.89
FG Attempts 18.2 17.2
FT Attempts 5.1 4.7
Points 20.8 23.5
Rebounds 10.7 12.5
Steals 1.5 3.4
Blocks 1.9 2.3
Assists 2.2 2.9
Turnovers 3.0 1.3
Personal Fouls 4.6 5.2


As the above chart ably demonstrates, so far in this young season Brand’s done pretty much everything better than he has since he first pulled a Sixers’ jersey over his shoulders (I leafed through his game logs, and outside of his first five games in Philly – which look much better on paper than I remember them looking on television –  nothing really comes close).  The run has been astonishing, exhilarating, remarkable: The question is, is it sustainable?

While it’s hard to say for sure (the future is, historically, difficult to predict), his present scoring efficiency –the single biggest driver of his resurgence – probably isn’t something he can keep up.  Though he’s hitting his shots, the problem with Elton is the fact that he’s taking them.

The three most efficient ways to score points in the NBA are at the rim, from the foul line, and behind the arc (Ty Willihnganz, whose data I’ve expropriated fairly liberally for this post, wrote a thoughtful essay on this topic the other day).  Good players and good teams get the lion’s share of their points from these three avenues (Per example, the five teams that took the most 16-23 footers, the least efficient sort of shot in the game, last season – Washington, Miami, Chicago, Memphis and Sacramento – combined to go 179-231). Elton Brand, unfortunately, doesn’t.

On average, 62.5% of league possessions are used in one of the above three ways.  Brand, thus far in ’10-11, is at 30%. How? He hasn’t attempted a three-pointer this year, he doesn’t get to the line a ton (he attempts about 1 fewer foul shot per 48 minutes than the average 4), and, since his ACL went, he doesn’t get to the rack either.

Of his 66 field goal attempts this season, only 14, or 21%, have come at the rim.  In ’09-10, the average PF attempted 37% of his shots from the rim.  According to my calculator, this means that in just 184 minutes, Brand’s passed up 11 high-percentage shots that our hypothetical 4 would have been all over.

And because he’s not taking the high percentage shots, and he’s still shooting, we can deduce that he’s talking low-percentage shots (or we could just look it up at Hoopdata).  36 of his 66 FGA’s have come from between 10 feet out and the three point line – which comes out to (note the symmetry) 11 more low-percentage shots than even an averagely particular 4 would have heaved given those attempts.

To Brand’s credit, he’s laid off the dreaded 16-23 footer this year (though he’s hit an otherworldly 60% of the few he’s taken).  He’s attempted only 10 from that distance, 0.6 fewer per game than he did last year, 1.6 fewer than in his injury-abbreviated ’08-09, and about 7 fewer than most PFs would have taken with his attempts.  He’s also taken a fair of amount of high-yield shots from between the paint and 10 feet out (and hit a ridiculous 68 percent of them).

The picture that emerges from this shot data is of a guy who has a knack for avoiding the worst possible shots but doesn’t do nearly the job we’d like earning the better ones.  Early in Brand’s career, he combined a solid mid-range game with a willingness and ability to get inside and finish. He was a dynamo.  At this point though, he operates almost entirely outside of the paint, and it takes some Annie Oakley-ian marksmanship for somebody who doesn’t shoot threes to produce like that.  But somehow through five games that’s exactly what he’s done.

So in projecting Brand this season, the central question is this: Which trend is most likely to persist, a five game run of out-of-this-world shooting or an established history of sub-optimal shot selection? I think if you were able to read that question, I don’t have to tell you its answer.

This doesn’t mean his hot start is all mirage.  While his shot selection leaves something to be desired, it looks like it might be improving. Plus his rebounding and steals (the latter of which are also unsustainable, but auger well anyhow) are not only tremendously helpful by themselves, but indicate his legs are fresh.

If it’s true he’s got his burst back (and we’re not just overreacting to less than 1/16 of a season), he actually could start taking it to the rack more, and although that hasn’t been part of his game for a while, maybe Doug Collins – who we’re told has coaxed max-effort out of subjects much less cooperative than Brand –  can convince him to reincorporate it.

If that’s the case, we might really see the Brand of old.  If not, at least we’re through with the Brand of February.

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