- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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It's a team and a season that has diluted any lingering notions of a Kobe Hangover.
Elton Brand can say so now, even on the brink of elimination, after a Game 3 that was heartbreaking and a Game 5 even rougher.
"I don't know if I ever really believed he was coming," Brand said of Kobe Bryant's near-defection to the Los Angeles Clippers in the free-agent summer of 2004. "He might have been just flirting with the neighbor a little bit."
"This team we have now," Brand continued, "definitely makes up for it."
That should explain why the prospect of a second-round elimination at home Thursday night, painful as it would be for a team that still can't believe it lost in double-overtime in Phoenix on Tuesday, isn't the worst-case scenario for the Clips and their growing legion of Brand-wagon followers.
Worse would be the breakup of the first group in franchise history to win a playoff series since Dr. Jack Ramsay's Buffalo Braves of 1976. A group that can claim a storybook spot in the Western Conference finals if it can rally out of a 3-2 hole against the Suns.
"You're not trying to think about the future in the middle of a series like this," Brand said. "But we know we have a pretty golden future if we can keep this together.
"I don't want this to be a once-every-30-years kind of a thing. No matter how hard I work out, I don't think I'll be around that long."
Donald Sterling insists that Brand needn't fret. He's vowing to keep this rolling, no matter what his past suggests.
After a well-earned reputation as the most tightfisted owner in professional sports, Sterling has gradually begun to spend since the summer before the Clippers tried to convince Bryant to switch locker rooms at Staples Center. The result? Having mostly spent nothing beyond his 20-plus years in the considerable shadow of Lakers counterpart Jerry Buss, Sterling suddenly has the only basketball team in L.A. still playing -- a first in the Clippers vs. Lakers dynamic -- and a franchise that ranks as one of the league's most profitable.
It all has Sterling feeling so flush that he told the Los Angeles Times' T.J. Simers last week: "There is no shortage of money." Yet questions and doubts persist about how long this can last with so many more big decisions for Sterling to make, starting with the three key situations listed below:
The Clippers technically don't have to do anything with Dunleavy. He's already under contract for next season, with a club option that officially kicks in July 1, meaning that a conversation would be required only if the Clips decide before July 1 that they want a new coach. Which they don't.
They do have to do something no matter what the technicalities are.
Keeping Dunleavy empowered sets the tone for everything else. You can certainly second-guess some of his decision-making in the Phoenix series, and Dunleavy himself has admitted to substitution gaffes after losses in Games 1 and 3, but the best course for the Clippers to maintain their newfound stability is clearly extending Dunleavy's contract for at least two seasons beyond next season. It would be wholly counterproductive, after all Dunleavy has changed in Clipperland, to make him coach in 2006-07 without the reward/hammer of security beyond that.
Just one example of his influence: Dunleavy's ability to spur ownership into action has enabled Elgin Baylor -- after years and years (and years) of ingesting all the bullets and jokes on Lottery Row that should have been Sterling's -- to make (mostly) basketball decisions for the first time in his career. The result? Baylor was just named by his peers the NBA Executive of the Year.
We've said it before, but we'll say it again: Dunleavy and Sam Cassell are the most unusual Clippers in franchise history because they're the first two to say this out loud and then get everyone in the organization to buy in:
This place is good because we're here.
Brand believes in it so strongly that he's convinced Sterling wouldn't have matched the $82 million offer sheet he signed with Miami in the summer of 2003 if Dunleavy -- hired that same summer -- didn't make it a prerequisite for taking the job.
"If it wasn't for Mike Dunleavy," Brand said, "I don't think I'd be here."
Says Cassell: "Mike gets management to listen."
As a former Clippers beat writer in the Sports Arena days and a longtime chronicler of the club's Sterling history, my instinct says that the boss makes a less-than-overwhelming extension offer that a disappointed Dunleavy will reject, leading to a one-year arrangement and needless uncertainty throughout the organization. Sterling countered last week with this pronouncement to Simers: "Dunleavy to me is like Elton Brand and I think that should answer your question."
Guess we'll see. Guess we'll see whether Sterling, as he vows, can surprise skeptical historians yet again.
You don't re-sign Cassell because of Shaun Livingston's crunch-time frailties in the Phoenix series.
You don't re-sign Cassell because, as he proclaimed minutes before the start of the Phoenix series: "I'm the best 36-year-old in the world playing basketball."
You re-sign Sam I Am, if you're the Clippers, because you've never been this credible without him.
He is their closer, their swagger, their leader. Even if you think Livingston will be ready to be a full-time starter next season, and even if Brand improves yet again, the Clippers would still need a playoff-proven presence to guide them. Especially since there won't be a cushy seeding system in 2006-07 to help make one playoff bracket in the West so much easier than the other.
There are certainly valid questions when it comes to committing two years at a high number to Cassell, who wants a significant bump from his current $6.1 million salary to stay in Clipperland. Will his body hold up for two more years? Can he accept a bench role behind Livingston? Is this great season more than a contract drive?
Yet if it were my team, I'd look past all those concerns and offer Cassell a two-year deal worth at least $15 million. I say so even though it's quite clear that none of the teams expected to have any shot at Cassell in free agency will have more than the $5 million midlevel exception to offer -- teams such as Denver, Houston and most notably the Clippers' co-tenants at Staples Center.
Sam I Am, on this scorecard, deserves some extra shekels for what he has already given the club, just like Dunleavy. I also submit that his appeal to playoff hopefuls around the league has been fully restored after he was wrongly blamed for Minnesota's unraveling. Sign Cassell to a two-year deal and then trade him if it's not working out. Even with a year and a half to go on a new contract, I'm quite sure there will be offers in February if the Clips are looking to move him.
Yet rumblings persist that the Clips' best offer would be one year guaranteed with a team option in Year 2. The risk? Sam I Am might be so insulted that he takes the Lakers' midlevel exception.
Which would probably hurt as much as losing a Hallway Series.
And don't think he hasn't thought about it. During the Denver series, when it appeared that we were headed for Clippers vs. Lakers in Round 2, someone asked: "So is it Winner Gets Cassell in the Hallway Series?" He let out a hearty Sam I Am chuckle when he heard that.
For all the angst above, it's only fair to counter with some praise for Sterling. He's earned it after consenting to pay $42 million over five years to Cuttino Mobley last summer and his willingness to sanction a January trade for Ron Artest that only fell through when Indiana backed out over concerns about Maggette's long-term health.
That's why a handful of executives I've surveyed about the Clips expect Cassell to be back and expect the Dunleavy situation to be sorted out in spite of all the stated fears. More uncertainty surrounds the future of Maggette, who is widely considered a lock to be moved after he was so nearly dealt already.
As covered in a May 4 playoff Daily Dime, one theory I keep hearing is that the Clips will try to trade Maggette to a team with salary-cap room for the best draft pick they can get. They wouldn't be taking back any significant salary in that scenario, thereby making Sterling more apt to spend on Cassell and fellow free agent Vladimir Radmanovic.
Don't forget, furthermore, that center Chris Kaman is eligible for a contract extension this summer as well, as one of the top stars from a 2003 draft class headlined by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. Livingston is then eligible for an extension in the summer of 2007.
The Clippers, though, scoff at the suggestion that they would dump Maggette for a pick just to rid their books of the three years and nearly $24 million left on Maggette's contract. They say there's no way Sterling would force Baylor and Dunleavy to part with an asset like Maggette without getting more back. They insist that Maggette won't be swapped for anything less than a player who can make the rotation and contribute.
But this is still Sterling. These might be the new Clips, but he wants them to operate right around the league's salary cap, which was $49.5 million this season. So they're two wins away from the conference finals with a payroll of just under $51 million, which puts L.A. in the league's bottom five.
Perhaps what the Clips settle for is dealing Maggette for a high pick and an expiring contract, in a deal similar to the swap with Minnesota in which they happily took back Cassell and a future pick for the signed-and-traded Marko Jaric. At the very least, banking on a Maggette trade appears to be the safest assumption in trying to forecast L.A.'s offseason.
Unless you're such a giddy Brand-wagoner that you believe Sterling is going to pay Dunleavy, Cassell, Radmanovic, Kaman and Livingston without getting rid of anybody.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.