- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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It happened again. It happened early again. It really, really did.
After years of refusing to spend his real-estate millions on basketball players, Donald Sterling has quietly matched another lucrative offer sheet to a Los Angeles Clippers restricted free agent.
Days before Sterling was required to do so, even.
The NBA's What Next Summer continued this week with the famously frugal Mister Sterling splashing around some more cash. Two days early, Sterling matched Corey Maggette's $42 million offer sheet from the Utah Jazz. Just like Elton Brand's $82 million offer sheet from the Miami Heat was matched a whopping 12 days before the deadline to respond.
No matter how many times you've heard that Sterling absolutely had no choice but to spend money this summer, just to get the league's minimum payroll of $32.9 million, these are still historic expenditures, assuming you've been following Sterling or the Clips at all the past 20 years.
If you have, you know we're not going to get what would be an even more stunning spectacle: Sterling, sitting down for an I-told-you-so press conference, telling us how it feels to finally uncork some NBA checks.
The consolation: At least we can explain the timing behind Sterling's sudden rush to pick a tab of $124 million.
The trigger man? Lamar Odom.
Even though The Donald can say, at long last, that he has indeed paid to keep one of his own free agents, Sterling is still Sterling. Which means he is much more comfortable matching someone else's offer than doing his own negotiating.
That's why the Brand contract was matched when it was, and that's why Maggette's was matched Tuesday, after L.A. went into free agency vowing to use the full 15 days to match any offer to a restricted free agent.
The new plan, in both cases, was to match faster in hopes of spurring Miami or Denver to make an offer to Odom. The Clips are having trouble knocking out their own Odom deal; negotiations have stalled with a three-year, $24 million contract on the table. As with Brand, and Maggette, negotiations are bound to go quicker if someone else sets Odom's market value.
The Clippers matched on Brand after just three days to free up Miami's cap space, figuring that would convince the Heat to make Odom a firm offer. Matching on Maggette now is supposed to tell the Heat and Nuggets that this might be the time to strike on Odom, since Sterling is still Sterling. No way he keeps Odom by taking on a third long-term contract. Right?
He doesn't have to. After signing Maggette, Sterling has nine players under contract at a total of right around $32 million: Brand, Maggette, Quentin Richardson, Keyon Dooling, Marko Jaric, Wang Zhizhi, Melvin Ely, Chris Wilcox and rookie center Chris Kaman. A small signing or two would get the Clippers to the league minimum.
The Heat and Nuggets know, though, that the Clippers do plan to spend more than they need to and match any offer to Odom. General manager Elgin Baylor has told this to Odom directly. Miami and Denver see that they probably only have a shot at landing Odom this summer if they offer something really rich, but Odom's history makes it tough to justify that kind of risk. You can comfortably max out Brand, the good citizen with the double-double skills and the tireless work ethic. There is much uncertainty with Odom, given past injuries and off-court troubles.
Thus Miami and Denver understand that, to actually get Odom, they'll probably have to wait a year. If Odom signs a one-year deal with the Clips, as he is strongly considering, he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. The Heat and Nuggets should both have serious cap room next July, barring big trades between now and then, if they want to go after Odom without worrying about interference.
Of course, even if Odom winds up signing a one-year deal at roughly $5 million, it will still be recorded as an offseason for the ages in Clipperdom. Even after their legit center (Michael Olowokandi) and dead-eye shooter (Eric Piatkowski) fled for Minnesota and Houston, respectively, and even after Andre Miller becomes Nuggets property after Thursday when the Clips decline to match Miller's offer sheet.
First, it was $10 million over four years on a coach: Mike Dunleavy. Then the $82 million to Brand, from an owner whose previous richest contract was Piatkowski's five-year, $15 million pact. Then the $42 million to Maggette, the small forward Dunleavy wanted most, locking up last season's top two scorers for the new coach.
Based on what's happened for two decades in Clipperland, that's three pleasant surprises.
The summer of 2003 will be known as the time when Donald Sterling finally broke out his checkbook.