- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- The surprises have been dribbling in faster than most folks can scribble them down.
Example: It went almost unnoticed last weekend that Hugh Hefner gave up some of his Saturday night at the Playboy Mansion to visit Staples Center instead.
Hef was in the house for a celebrity gathering sponsored by the home team, flanked by a few of the requisite lovely companions, and it didn't matter. The focus never left the floor, where the first-place Los Angeles Clippers clamped down on the Phoenix Suns in the second half to retain their Pacific Division lead and remind you that they're also perched atop the whole league, one spot above San Antonio, in field-goal defense.
The surprises continue. If it's not Ron Harper coming back to Hollywood and professing how proud he is now of a franchise he once likened to jail, which happened the next night, it's finding out that Sam Cassell is even cockier than you imagined.
Or it's the realization that Mike Dunleavy is right there with Sam I Am.
No joke. The coach and the coach on the floor are so confident that they believe, no matter what history tells us, that they can impose their ambitious mantra on everyone else in Clipperland until the culture changes.
This place is good because I'm here now.
"No doubt," Cassell says. "No doubt about it. That's how we feel."
"Change the whole thing," Sam says.
It's too soon to attach any permanence to their efforts, but this much is certain: L.A.'s other team has never come close to a start like this in the club's 24 years of Donald T. Sterling ownership. It's likewise safe to surmise that the Clippers have never had a pair like Cassell and Dunleavy, claiming that their mere presence could alter long-held perceptions about this franchise.
The tributes flowing in from all over the NBA go on to suggest that the Clips, in spite of their current three-game blip, have never been more legit. Premature as that sounds just over a quarter into the season, especially for a franchise that did have Larry Brown in charge for 18 months in the early 1990s, it's not tough to back up the argument.
Even in Brown's heyday, there was always a sense that the star players -- and the coach, of course -- would be leaving eventually for teams that were willing to spend and really wanted to win. With three players already signed long-term from the current core, this is different. This is progress even if the Clippers' stay atop a division accustomed to Laker rule, and the rare privilege of looking down at their famed Staples co-tenants, is only temporary.
Dunleavy's arrival didn't merely bring credibility to the Clippers' bench. He's the first of Sterling's 15 coaches, in a quarter-century, who has been able to get the famously tight owner to keep his promises about spending.
Shortly after Dunleavy was hired in the summer of 2003, Sterling matched lucrative offer sheets to Elton Brand ($82 million from Miami) and Corey Maggette ($45 million from Utah). The Clippers declined to match Miami's $65 million offer to Lamar Odom, but went on to make three sincere free-agent runs at three unquestionable mega-talents: Gilbert Arenas in '03, Ray Allen last summer and Kobe Bryant in between.
"Everybody was saying we couldn't get him," Dunleavy said of the Bryant chase in July 2004. "But I'm telling you, it was closer than people think."
No matter how much Bryant later insisted he was really prepared to defect to Clipperland, skeptics scoffed at the whole concept by suggesting Sterling was merely throwing money at free agents he knew weren't going to take it. Prodded by Dunleavy and general manager Elgin Baylor, who had quickly formed an effective alliance, Sterling responded to the skeptics and the Allen snub by committing $42 million over five years to Cuttino Mobley.
The Clippers had never spent more on an outside free agent. Better still, they weren't done. Unwilling to extend a long-term deal to combo guard Marko Jaric, after earlier declining to compete with Milwaukee's $47 million pitch to Most Improved Player winner Bobby Simmons, Baylor struck a sign-and-trade with Minnesota instead of just letting Jaric go. That deal brought back Cassell, whose contract expires at season's end.
The trade was dismissed initially, similar to the free-agent pursuits of the big names, as a move Sterling sanctioned only because it only meant paying Cassell for one season. Dunleavy wasn't listening, convinced that Cassell -- especially in a contract year and after he was widely blamed for the Wolves' collapse -- would be eager to supply the Clippers with the backcourt stability and swagger they lacked.
Dunleavy's only hesitation was Cassell's health, after a back/hip/hamstring issue lingering from Minnesota's 2004 run to the West finals limited the 36-year-old to 59 games last season. Yet after they huddled for two days, there was even less hesitation. Dunleavy and Cassell quickly discovered that their personalities were a closer match than anyone knew.
"Beyond my wildest dreams," Dunleavy said.
"I'm him on the court," Cassell adds.
The trickle-down effect of their shared self-belief has lifted the whole organization. That is why the Clippers' ability to maintain their darling status depends as much on Cassell's durability as the guy (Brand) who's having a career year.
"Sam wasn't happy when the trade first happened," Brand acknowledged. "But he turned around real quick. You hear all the rumors that he's tough to be around or whatever, but you can't believe what you hear or read. After [Dunleavy] talked to him and Cuttino [Mobley] talked to him and I started talking to him, it wasn't long before he was telling me how good we could be."
There were more surprises. Brand doesn't like to talk much about this part, but he showed up for training camp freshly sculpted after dropping 20 pounds. He also showed up with a new mid-range jumper that, combined with his quicker feet, has enabled Dunleavy to move Brand out on the floor when he's guarded by bigger players. Brand can now counter bulk with pick-and-rolls and floor isolations that make him harder than ever to guard.
Third-year center Chris Kaman, meanwhile, has developed into a serviceable starter, easing some of the disappointment from the 2003 draft when Dwyane Wade came within one spot of slipping to the Clips. Dunleavy also has an unheralded defensive specialist to mix in with all the scorers: Second-year swingman Quinton Ross has been checking perimeter players of all sizes, from Steve Nash and Wade to Bryant and LeBron James.
The hoopla has receded a bit with the Clippers' losing three straight after the Phoenix win, which came with the Suns playing their fourth game in five nights. Yet L.A. can do some rationalizing of its own lately, with Maggette -- its most dynamic scorer -- out for the past five games with a nagging foot ailment. And Dunleavy is finally getting his first look in a long time at the club's point guard of the future, Shaun Livingston, after a scary back injury that followed Livingston's knee and shoulder ailments as a rookie.
Livingston's return carries a double benefit, provided the 20-year-old proves his body can hold up. His lanky presence should enable Dunleavy to limit the nightly toll on Cassell and cut his minutes slightly, but also play them together occasionally so Cassell can shift to shooting guard.
Dunleavy, you see, welcomes an overload of options. He has so far dodged the expected problems with on-court chemistry and refuses to even acknowledge the possibility, even though doubts about Cassell, Mobley and Maggette's sharing the ball could have grown by now given how Brand's game keeps expanding.
"I was in Portland," Dunleavy said. "Not enough basketballs? I've been dealing with not enough basketballs forever. Are you kidding me? Give me talent, I'll figure out how to make 'em happy."
It's easier when the talent isn't divided by free agency, as seen during the Clippers' last false dawn. They were national darlings back in 2001-02, so cutting edge at the time that you could find Darius Miles jerseys almost anywhere.
"People forget that we had our own show on ESPN," said Brand, referring to a reality series ("Sidelines: LA Hoops") that followed the club all season. "I made the All-Star team and we were winning [at 34-31 in mid-March], but then we imploded at the end.
"We had nine or 10 free agents and guys had never been paid before. It turned into a tryout for other teams. You had guys saying, 'I need to get a deal and I'm not going to get it from the Clippers.' We let outside influences hurt our team and a veteran Utah team took our [playoff] spot.
"I think it's a totally different scenario now. I'm mean, Cuttino is signed longer than Corey and myself."
The franchise with exactly one winning season since moving to Los Angeles in 1984 is starting to look like -- gasp -- a standard NBA operation. With profits said to be flowing in the multimillions at Staples, and Sterling apparently starting to enjoy the idea that he can battle the Lakers for the city championship if he takes better care of the product, he is at last building a new headquarters in Playa del Rey that will take the Clippers off a dubious list. At present, they're the only team in the league without its own practice facility.
"This is a great place to play now," said Harper, a rookie assistant coach with the Detroit Pistons. "I'm proud of them. I'm proud to be an ex-Clipper. I always say that if I would have been a Hall of Famer, I'd want to go in [wearing] a Clippers jersey."
That's the same Harper who, after leaving the Clippers in acrimony in the summer of 1994, went on to win three championship rings with Chicago and two more with the cross-town Lakers. The same Harper who, angry for months before he left because he knew Sterling had no intent to re-sign him, unforgettably said, "I'm just doing my jail time. In about 65 or 70 more days, my time is up and I'll be out on GB. Good behavior."
NBA commissioner David Stern also acknowledged that things have changed, saying, "Actually, I don't think they're so surprising because they had a good nucleus of players. They signed veterans. They have a good coach . . . and actually a committed ownership now to doing well."
The next step for Sterling? Deciding what to do with Dunleavy and Cassell.
Dunleavy has a team option for next season that hasn't been picked up yet. Cassell becomes a free agent in July and has made it clear he wants to stay. Kaman and Livingston will likewise be eligible for extensions in the near future. How Sterling treats these four -- the rest of the team's core -- will tell us whether he's made a lasting change.
Yet you haven't heard any carping from the coach or his coach on the floor. Dunleavy is nonchalant about his situation, insisting it's a non-issue even though an extension should be automatic. It remains to be seen how long Cassell will follow that lead without getting antsy, but he says he believes in Dunleavy's influence with the boss.
Not that he has gone Silent Sam on us. No chance of that. He'd simply rather talk about turning this sterling start into something that lasts long enough to graduate from surprising.
"We've got to make the playoffs first," Cassell said. "We've got to crawl before we can walk. But the year Seattle had last year? I think we can do the same."
That's a 52-30 season and a trip to the second round of the playoffs.
"I try to temper [those expectations]," Dunleavy said. "It's too early. But I've said all along I think we're a playoff team. If we stay healthy, we can be better than a playoff team. The only thing that worries me about our team is injuries. If we can sustain that part of it, then we can be pretty good.
"This is what I expected to do. I came here with my own expectations. I gave [management] a vision and I told them, 'I can do my part as long as you do your part.' They've done their part."
"From Year 1 to Year 2 to Year 3, every press guy has been in here [saying], 'It ain't gonna happen.' I really believe it's gonna happen."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.