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First of all, go over and read Kevin's post on ClipperBlog right now.  This post is striving to cover the same ground, and I'll no doubt use more words, as is my wont, but Kevin, as usual, gets the essence just right. 

Now read this.  (Sports Illustrated only recently put all of their magazine archives online in what they call the SI Vault.  It is an astounding resource.  A Smithsonian of American sports, right here at my finger tips.)  When I re-discovered this article from 2000 naming the Clippers as the worst franchise in pro sports, I immediately began formulating a post about how far the franchise had in fact come.  At the time though, it was unclear what the denouement would be.  It may be a tad premature to declare victory over mediocrity before Baron Davis has even donned a Clippers uniform, but I'm prepared to at least pronounce that it's a turning point in the off the court perception of the team.

At the time of the article in April 2000 Elton Brand was a Chicago Bull.  Eric Piatkowski had just signed the most lucrative contract in the history of the franchise in August of 1999 at 4 years and $12M (OK, read that sentence again).  And no external free agent of any note had EVER signed with the Clippers.  Certainly no full time starter - I'd venture to guess no player that had ever had a single NBA start.  The Clippers continually had the lowest payroll in the league, and invariably had to scramble to avoid getting in trouble with the league's salary cap.  Not the maximum mind you - the minimum.  Here's a trivia question:  what was the last NBA team of new Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro?  That would be the Clippers, who traded for an already retired Del Negro in November 2001 in order to get above the league's minimum salary.  They cut him the next day.  They also got some cash in the deal.

Perhaps because of the move into Staples Center, perhaps for some other reason, things began to change shortly after the 'Worst Franchise' article.  (Hell, maybe Donald didn't like the fact that his was just called the worst franchise.)  The trade for Elton Brand might have been the starting point.  Not that any overall philosophy had changed at that point.  Elgin Baylor, god bless him, certainly continued to try to put good teams on the court year in and year out.  When Jerry Krause said he'd trade EB to the Clippers for the 2nd pick of the 2001 draft, Elgin must have thought he had a bad connection.  So the trade itself wasn't really the watershed event.  After all, other Clipper trades had worked out well - Ron Harper for the draft rights to Danny Ferry comes to mind.  No, the change agent on that day seven years ago wasn't the trade or the trador - it was the tradee.

Elton Brand brought a professionalism and level of excellence to the franchise that simply hadn't existed before.  Danny Manning was a great player and a nice guy.  But Elton Brand is truly special.  I believe that Donald Sterling saw Elton Brand working hard on the basketball court, and he realized that he simply owed it to the guy to give him a chance to win.

In June 2003, the Clippers re-signed both Elton Brand and Corey Maggette, for $82M and $42M respectively.  (Remember, the most expensive contract to that point had been Pike's $12M.)  In July 2003, the Clippers hired Mike Dunleavy Sr, a big boy coach, to whom they paid big boy money.

From there, the franchise firsts just kept coming:

  • In 2003, they made a serious offer to free agent Gilbert Arenas, the first major free agent they'd even pursued.
  • In 2004, they made a maximum offer to free agent Kobe Bryant, the only maximum offer they've ever made to an external free agent.
  • In 2005, they signed Cuttino Mobley, the first significant external free agent to ever sign with the team.
  • In 2006, they signed Tim Thomas, the second significant external free agent to ever sign with the team.
  • In 2006, they re-signed Sam Cassell.
  • In 2007, they extended the contract of Chris Kaman, the first time they'd ever extended a player rather than allowing them to become a free agent.
  • In 2007, they extended Dunleavy.

It's important to note that it took some time for the rest of the NBA to recognize that the Clippers were serious.  Arenas and Bryant both turned done Sterling's money.  But Mobley and Thomas accepted it.  And despite a dismal, injury-ravaged 22 win season, Elton Brand, the guy who started it all, slowly realized that the Clippers were a serious NBA organization.

I can't help but think how close the team was to the abyss.  Did Elton in fact save them from themselves?  No trades involving Brand could be undertaken until he had made a decision about the final year of his contract.  If not for that, it's entirely possible that the Clippers might have pulled the trigger on a 'start over' trade for Miami's second pick on draft night.  Boston was contemplating starting over a little over a year ago, as were the Lakers.  Memphis, who had a better record than the Clippers in 2006-2007, has started over to a ridiculous extreme.  How close did the Clippers come to becoming Memphis?

One thing that helped is that Los Angeles is not Memphis.  When people talk about big market destinations for NBA superstars like LeBron James and Chris Bosh, they focus on New York and New Jersey / Brooklyn and Chicago and LA - but only the Lakers, not the Clippers.  Or sometimes they talk about the warm weather or the party atmosphere in Orlando or Miami.  Well, LA is warm.  LA is a big market.  LA is the media capital.  The simple fact is, as long as the franchise is not a joke, the city is a major draw.

Baron Davis was born and raised in LA.  He went to Crossroads High in Santa Monica.  He went to UCLA.  And he has a burgeoning movie production career.  I guess it should not have required a 'perfect storm' of reasons to get a major external star to sign with the Clippers.  But at least it happened.

And it proves that, with Elton Brand's influence, all Donald Sterling really had to do was start behaving like a normal NBA owner in order to build a winner in LA.  You have to be really, really good and really, really lucky to build a winner in San Antonio.  Who knows if they can ever build a winner in Memphis.  But it's a lot easier in LA, even if you're NOT the Lakers. 

The Baron Davis signing does not guarantee the Clippers a championship.  Hell, it doesn't even guarantee a playoff series win, not in the Wild, Wild West.  But it is the latest step in the rehabilitation of the Clippers from worst franchise in pro sports, to relevant NBA franchise in the second largest US market.