For the second off-season in a row, the Mavericks got a very talented player for an absolute steal. For the second off-season in a row, the Mavericks got a player another team with dreams of contending had just cast away.
And for the second year in a row, it looks like that second part might be the important one. In fact, it might even be worse this time around.
Last January, the first full month of the season, Lamar Odom averaged 8.8 points, 4.8 boards and shooting 40% from the field in 21.7 minutes. Through 13 games this season, Elton Brand is averaging 22 minutes a game, 5.5 points, and 5.8 boards, shooting just 34%.
Although diminished stats are not overly surprising from a player who averaged only 11 and 7 last year, Elton Brand had a terrific year as the defensive centerpiece of a tough 76ers squad last year. As mysynergysports.com reports, his .75 points per play allowed was considerably better than Tyson Chandler's .8, even if Tyson's .59 allowed in isolation plays dwarfed his .88 (which may be part of the problem on a Dallas team that tends to treat help defense like an entirely optional extra).
This year, his .88 points per play is 174th in the league and actually considerably behind Chris Kaman (.83) and only slightly better than Brandan Wright (.9). Although Brandan Wright, as far as we know, is in some kind of witness protection program currently, you could make a plausible case that Brand should be backing HIM up, if that's all he's capable of. Both Kaman and Wright have been far more effective offensively.
It's probably not an overstatement to say that some part of the success or failure of this Mavericks season, for the second time in a row, will depend on whether the Mavericks' bargain basement buy turns this thing around. They are light on defense, light on rebounding, and Brand can probably provide both. But will he? Can the Mavericks wait for him to do so?
The difference between Odom and Brand, to put it mildly, is that Odom has always been known as something of a knucklehead and Brand has not. That may augur well for the Mavericks, it may not. There are all kinds of reasons that Brand's play is gone and will never return.
For one thing, the Mavericks may have too many defensive problems. While the 76ers are still tied for 6th in the league in least points allowed, suggesting that team was pretty good at guiding the guy they were guarding to a spot where Brand could take it from there. The Mavs, hanging on at a cool 27th in the league in points allowed, seem to be pretty good at not entirely rolling out a red carpet and making actual invitations to the layup line.
For another, as Charles Barkley said last year, Father Time can't be beat. While many blamed Odom's play last year on "sulking so hard his eyeballs near fell out," the fact remains that he is a 33 year old who never had a very good jump shot, one of the few skills that stick around, and he is so far continuing his solid work even though he's back in LA (21% shooting, 1.5 points, 2.9 rebounds).
Brand is also 33, with a longer injury history than Odom. Although he understands defensive positioning as well as anyone in the league, he is no longer athlete enough to get there through the sieve that is the Dallas perimeter D. There are only a few centers capable of making up for that; the Mavs had one and let them go. I would not be at all surprised to see Brand catch on with another team that wasn't starting at defensive zero next year and do very well on that end.
On the other hand, it may be as simple as waiting for his mid-range jumper to fall. Since he shot 49% last year, and it is an old man shot, there's no reason he should be stuck at 34% this season. If so, that will open up the rest of his offensive game. Then we'll see about the defense.
Here's hoping it's not Lamar Odom 2, the Odoming.