Brand-less Clippers seek new identity

PLAYA VISTA, Calif. – This was supposed to be Elton Brand’s home. All 42,500 square feet. The two regulation-sized basketball courts. The 2,600-square-foot training room. The state-of-the-art theater. Even a pool and sauna.

The Los Angeles Clippers had finally joined the rest of the NBA and built themselves a private practice facility. Brand, presumably, would be the anchor tenant. For seven seasons, he had served dutifully as the cornerstone of the long-suffering franchise. Through the good times, which consisted of him leading the Clippers within a win of the 2006 Western Conference finals, and the bad, which included everything else, he was the model professional. Early to arrive, late to leave. Chin up, win or lose, he’d deliver his 20 and 10. With last season already long lost, Brand returned from an eight-month absence following surgery on his Achilles tendon just to play the final eight games.

Once Golden State Warriors point guard Baron Davis hit the free-agent market this summer, Brand helped coax him into committing to a contract with the Clippers while also seemingly setting himself up to take a long-term extension from the team. Center Chris Kaman and talented young forward Al Thornton were returning, promising rookie guard Eric Gordon was arriving and construction on the long-awaited workout site, initially scheduled to be completed some two years earlier, was just about done. The Clips looked more legit than ever.

“Unfortunately,” Kaman said, “it didn’t happen.”

What happened was the surprise of the offseason. Brand left. Encouraged by agent David Falk, the Philadelphia 76ers put a five-year, $80-million contract on the table. Miffed the Clippers hadn’t already come with their best offer, Brand packed his bags and flew east.

So when the Clippers opened training camp this week in their new practice facility, the man who should have been running first through the door was nowhere to be found. Absent Brand, Davis, who initially thought he was returning to his SoCal roots to complement the All-Star forward, suddenly found himself as the leader of a team for which he has yet to play.

“I’m a little nervous myself, being a new guy,” he said.

Davis isn’t the only person in need of an introduction. Of the 18 players on the Clippers’ training-camp roster, all but five are new. And that doesn’t include point guard Jason Williams, who signed with the Clippers in August then retired without taking a single dribble.

“I thought when I came here there would be at least one guy I’d played with in my 13 years,” said Marcus Camby, who was acquired from Denver to help replace Brand. “There hasn’t been.”

“Every time you pick up the paper,” Davis joked, “you find out you get a new teammate.”

Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy has a reputation for blending talent – he once guided the Portland Trail Blazers to the Western Conference finals with Isaiah Rider and Jim Jackson on his roster – and he’ll need that skill to mold the motley crew he’s assembled. Dunleavy has already declared he’ll be disappointed if the Clippers can’t approach the defensive success of the 2006 team, which ranked near the top of the league. That’s quite a challenge for a group comprised primarily of offensive-minded players. Ricky Davis, Tim Thomas, Cuttino Mobley (the team’s best perimeter defender), Kaman, Thornton, not to mention noted chucker Baron Davis, all averaged at least 11 shots per game last season. If the rookie, Gordon, also becomes an important part of the rotation, as Dunleavy hopes, than someone (or a few someones) is going to have to live with fewer touches.

“Who knows how it’s going to jell?” Kaman said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that have done stuff on their own in this league and been very successful and now we’ve brought them together. We’ll see it how goes. Only time will tell.”

Kaman could benefit from playing alongside Camby, who ranked third in the NBA in rebounding last season and is one season removed from being voted Defensive Player of the Year. Though not a strong position defender, Camby is a good shot blocker, and his mid-range jumper could help space the floor for Kaman to grind in the post. Given that both have had trouble staying healthy, the Clippers are hopeful they’ll be able to at least keep one quality big man on the floor.

After Brand left, Dunleavy passed on making a big offer to restricted free agents Emeka Okafor and Josh Smith, instead using the salary-cap room to land Camby in exchange for the right to swap 2010 second-round picks with the Denver Nuggets. Camby still sounds bitter about the trade. As much as he says he’s moved on, he spent media day telling anyone who’d listen how his old Nuggets teammates keep calling to say they miss him. It seems, like many Clippers, he’ll also need some time to adjust to the quirkiness of Kaman, who rankled his employers with his decision to play for Germany in the Olympics.

“He’s a little different,” Camby said, “but I guess he’ll grow on me.”

The Clippers will grow only as much as Baron Davis allows them. They shuffled through Brevin Knight, Sam Cassell, Dan Dickau and Smush Parker at the point last season, so the opportunity to land someone who can break down opposing defenses certainly appealed to Dunleavy.

“We’re going to lean on him beginning of the season, middle of the season, end of the season,” Dunleavy said.

Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who invested $65 million in Davis, can only hope the knees of his new star can support that kind of responsibility. Davis played in all 82 games last season for the first time since 2002, but Warriors coach Don Nelson constantly fretted about finding a way to spell him. With Golden State trying to make a push for the West’s last playoff berth, Davis shot 36.6 percent in the final seven games and was benched by Nelson for the second half of a critical loss to the Phoenix Suns. Dunleavy would like to keep Davis in the 35-minute range, but, as of now, Jason Hart is the only other true point guard with NBA experience on the Clippers’ roster.

At 29 years old, Davis remains one of the league’s most dynamic guards, evidenced by the 21.8 points and 7.6 assists he averaged last season. Having returned home where he starred at Cornerstone High School and UCLA, he’s energized to again play in front of his family and friends. He’s also, in the words of Dunleavy, looking “lean and mean” after shedding 19 pounds. Ever the entrepreneur, Davis enrolled in Jenny Craig to help with his weight loss, landing an endorsement contract in the process.

“This,” Davis said, pointing to himself, “is definitely the ‘after’ picture.”

Davis could have been speaking about the Clippers as a whole. Three months ago, he figured he was headed to Los Angeles to join Brand. The Clippers thought so as well.

“We have to move on,” Kaman said. “You can’t be mad at him. …You’ve got to look out for your family. If you can get an extra five to seven million, get it. Get what you can and get out.”

Davis said he contacted Brand a few weeks ago to ask how he was doing in Philly. “I’ll probably find out on ‘SportsCenter’ or something like that,” he joked, a playful jab at Brand for not letting him know sooner he was leaving.

Davis smiled. The Clippers will be pressed to even challenge for a playoff spot in the stacked Western Conference without Brand, but he’s optimistic. “The possibilities,” he said, “are endless.”

Life could be worse. Davis is back in L.A. and he has a new $65 million contract. Yes, this was supposed to be Elton Brand’s home. But it’s his now.

Johnny Ludden is the NBA editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Johnny a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Oct 4, 2008