- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Los Angeles Clippers.
LOS ANGELES -- Mike Dunleavy says Elton Brand isn't merely a good guy to have on your team. "Terrific," Dunleavy says. "Great guy, great work ethic, great player."
Elton Brand says he likes it when Mike Dunleavy spends the first 45 minutes of practice with the balls locked away. Says he's "the teacher we've never had here."
Corey Maggette says "you have to give that to Elton Brand," referring to Brand's $82 million contract, and that Mike Dunleavy already reminds him of another coach named Mike.
"He's almost identical," Maggette says, "to Coach K."
A bit much, you say? You certainly could, but they're not listening. You can throw in the usual October disclaimer about how this is still the honeymoon stage, with the season opener (and real losses that count) another two weeks away, but it's getting pretty sappy at Staples Center. That's where the Lakers run the triangle and the Clippers are starting over with a love triangle.
Brand. Dunleavy. Maggette.
That's the historic trio that is now trying to build on the unique bond they share. Brand, Dunleavy and Maggette are the first Money Men ever seen in Clipperdom, which might explain why they're passing the praise back and forth so early. Apparently they've realized rather quickly that, for the Clippers to have any hope of restoring themselves to a position of promise -- after everything they lost during and after last season's disaster -- the three of them have to form a lasting and successful union so there's a new base to start from.
Those three men got the cash that we waited two decades for Donald Sterling to spend. That means they also get the pressure and expectations that come with high dollars ... at least until Sterling stops spending again to take the pressure off them.
"People are supposed to expect more from us," Maggette said. "I know that. You know that. Like they always say, with great power comes great responsibility. So we've got to respond, and when the season starts we will."
Question is, what's a reasonable response?
Maggette is the holder of a six-year, $42 million contract, after the Clippers matched an offer sheet he received from the Utah Jazz. Brand was the recipient of a six-year deal worth nearly double that, when Sterling -- who had never paid a player more than $15 million over five seasons -- matched Miami's offer.
Before either player was formally retained, Sterling signed Dunleavy to a four-year deal worth $10 million. Forget that the last year on that contract is a team option. At $2.5 million per, Dunleavy is earning the Clipper equivalent of Larry Brown money.
Of course, it doesn't exactly require a deep examination to see that there's not a lot left around the Money Men. The Clippers have lost three starters and a top reserve -- without compensation -- from a team that was supposed to contend for a playoff spot and wound up losing 55 games. Gone are Lamar Odom, Michael Olowokandi, Andre Miller and Eric Piatkowski ... with Darius Miles traded away the summer before to get Miller. Now you look at this team and the Clippers have huge holes at center and point guard and have only remnants of the athletic depth that made them so promising in the first place.
Add it all up and that's why there's a nagging sense that the Clippers have also blown their opportunity to banish the franchise's nightmare past. It sure looked like a new day after the hopeful season they had in 2001-02, when L.A.'s hoop stepchild went 39-43 and became national darlings with so many young, exciting players.
Yet there were plenty of skeptics who said the Clippers would never be able to keep winning with so many future free agents, and those guys look smart today. Selfish play sent the Clippers spiraling, and ultimately got coach Alvin Gentry fired in March, all of which proved to be doubly disappointing when the Lakers started 11-19, which had opened a window for the Clips to be even more darling. You can certainly make the argument (and we do) that the Clippers were the most disappointing team in town, since the Lakers made it back to 50-32 before their run of three consecutive championships was ended in the second round by San Antonio.
The theory the Clippers submit these days is that they'll be the proverbial Addition By Subtraction squad, since Miller was a major disappointment and with Olowokandi in the same club. Brand, for one, believes that the selfishness will start to fade now that the other Clippers have seen one or two get full-fledged NBA money.
"I'm always optimistic and I always have been," Brand said. "We've got a lot to learn, and so many new faces, but everything's correctable. We don't have the same talent, but we have the togetherness. It's more like we used to be. It's definite -- the chemistry's better already. Guys want to be here. Guys want to win."
Dunleavy, though, is more cautious. His last job, remember, was in Portland, where the Blazers never had chemistry but oozed talent. Dunleavy admits that, if you asked most coaches, they'd rather have the talent first and try to sort out the lab work later.
"Absolutely," he said. "There's no question.
"I think (the chemistry will be better), but I can't tell you it's better talent. Nobody's going for that."
Had the Clippers' grand plan materialized, they might have been able to say so. They were prepared to drive Miller and Olowokandi to the airport, so frustrated were all parties, but the eagerness to move on also stems from the Clippers' belief that they had a real shot at Gilbert Arenas. The Clips insist that a package worth $60 million was assembled to land Arenas, and that Arenas (an L.A. guy) was strongly considering it. That would have been a nice way to replace Odom.
Arenas instead took closer to $65 million to sign with Washington, and the Clippers elected not to match a similar offer from Miami to Odom, who kept blasting the organization publicly until he had a new employer. Whether the Clips let Odom go because of the smear campaign or because he's too unreliable at that price -- the latter was just as much a factor -- the fact remains that Odom's departure created another big void.
"I came here believing that the franchise would do the right thing -- that when the opportunity presents itself, we'd spend the money to really upgrade," said Dunleavy, who also came back to L.A., after leaving the Lakers more than a decade ago, even though many colleagues warned him not to.
"I think so far those things have come true. We probably came up a little bit short this summer based on what we intended to do. I thought I was going to have one more big player, one more established kind of guy in our lineup, but it didn't happen. But it wasn't for a lack of trying."
It remains to be seen if the trying will continue, and there are plenty of skeptics already lined up to shoot down the notion that it will. The Clippers are still operating under the cap, with management rationalizing the departure of Odom by contending that it can use future cap space to sign a worthy replacement. If they do, fine. If they don't, it's SOS time. Same Ol' Sterling.
"We stepped up to the guys that needed stepping up to, but it's an ongoing process," Dunleavy said. "We need to step up in the future."
In the meantime, the Clippers' Money Men will have to do all the heavy lifting, relying heavily on the aforementioned togetherness. While it's difficult to see them challenging for the West's No. 8 slot, having been stripped of so much talent, Brand and Maggette believe that Dunleavy's teaching is worth something, too.
"He's been there," Brand said. "We don't remember the Laker days. We're not that old. But we remember the Portland days."
Said Maggette: "We've never seen a guy know stuff like this. He keeps saying, 'They're going to do this, they're going to do that, and here's the counter for it.' He's almost identical to Coach K. ... He might be a little more mild-mannered than Coach K, but he teaches like him."
That's as far as Maggette will go, though. Like Brand, he'll admit he was surprised that Sterling matched his offer sheet. Like Brand, he says he's ready to shoulder the additional pressure that comes with significant salary. It's the chemistry-over-talent theory where he hesitates.
"All we can say," Maggette says, "is we'll see."
11hMarc Stein and Calvin Watkins