PHILADELPHIA – Elton Brand was a bust.
He heard it from the fans.
He was called one by the media.
Even his former coach had no use for him.
When the Sixers did pop up as a sporadic topic on talk radio or TV debate shows, the question was the same: Why did the Philadelphia 76ers waste $80 million on a broken-down Brand?
Hurt or buried on the bench, Brand's career numbers were crashing faster than a bad stock tip.
The beneficial part of a long-term deal, however, is that if both sides are patient, there's always time for a comeback. Brand is making his this season and has the Sixers thinking playoffs.
Brand may never become a legitimate 20-10 threat at power forward again like his years with Chicago and the Clippers, but he's as steady and durable as any Sixer this season and has earned the crunch-time trust of coach Doug Collins.
Brand is averaging 14.9 points and 8.7 rebounds. His 35.1 minutes per game are the most for him in four years. He played a game-high 46 minutes and posted a double-double by halftime in Philadelphia's overtime win over Charlotte on Monday. He's an All-Star candidate, and has become a respected locker room leader on a team full of young 20-somethings.
"He's the guy we need," guard Lou Williams said, "if we want to do big things later in the season."
The Sixers counted on big things when they wooed Brand away from the Clippers and signed him to a five-year deal in the summer of 2008. He spurned the Clippers and rejected more money from Golden State to sign in Philadelphia in a move that appeared to signal the Sixers were ready to become a threat to contend in the Eastern Conference.
Brand joined Andre Miller, Andre Iguodala, Samuel Dalembert soon after they stretched Detroit to six games in a first-round playoff series.
"He was the missing piece to get us to that next level," general manager Ed Stefanski said on Tuesday. "No one expected us to do much and we took Detroit to Game 6. If we had a guy like Elton Brand, would he take us over the top?"
The Sixers put their faith in — and marketed their brand around — Brand. His image was plastered around the city, from print and web ads to billboards to the side of buses.
But he became the face of a flop.
He suffered a separated right shoulder, and finished with averages of 13.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in only 29 games. That came a year after he missed all but eight games in his final season with the Clippers because of a torn Achillies' tendon.
"I'd come to a city where there was so much fanfare, and 'this guy's a double-double' and all that," Brand said. "Then you're hurt, you don't get the opportunity and things start sliding."
Year 2 was no better.
Former coach Eddie Jordan, with his ill-conceived Princeton offense, buried Brand on the bench even before the season completely unraveled and the Sixers spiraled toward the draft lottery. He lost his starting job, sat out fourth quarters, and started only 57 of 76 games in a season that cost Jordan his job and Stefanski his title as team president.
Riding the bench in uniform hurt Brand more than sitting there in a suit because he was injured.
"It was much worse," he said. "Just sitting there in the fourth quarter without the opportunity this late in your career and knowing you can still help."
Brand lost support after the dismal season from fans fed up with another Sixers team far from a championship.
"I'm a realist," Brand said. "You're losing, you're in last place in the East, which is not that strong, you're not even close to a double-double. It is what it is. I just wanted the opportunity to show I can play and we can win."
He's doing both for a the resurgent Sixers. Brand has 15 double-doubles after only seven last season. He is shooting 52 percent from the field, and the Sixers are responding with a 14-10 record after a 3-13 start. The Sixers have already matched their home win total last season (12) and are percentage points ahead of Indiana for seventh in the East.
"He's now a 15-9 guy instead of 20-10, but that 15 could be more if he got more shots," Stefanski said. "But he's playing within the system and he's doing a good job with that."
Brand's only missed game this season was because of a league suspension in November for committing a flagrant foul. He was whistled for another one against the Bobcats — but potentially saved the win with a block on Kwame Brown with 49 seconds left in regulation. Asked if he could have made the same athletic play a year ago, Brand responded with humor: "I'm not sure, I wasn't out there in the fourth quarter."
Brand, who turns 32 in March, reported to training camp in his best shape in years. He ditched junk food and started bicycling, determined to show he had the stamina to last a whole season.
So far, it's working out.
"By the time we do make the playoff run," Brand said, "I'll be even better."