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Coming Into Focus

In the immediate aftermath of this debacle, I assumed it would be a very, very long time before we would know - I mean really know - what happened; how exactly it went off the rails.

Amazingly, we're only in day two after the moratorium and already I feel like it's becoming pretty clear.  I'm connecting some dots, I'm reading between the lines, and obviously I could be wrong.  After all, I've been wrong pretty much continually this calendar year.  But I'm not discouraged.  I figure the odds are now in my favor.  You gotta admire my spirit.

As is the case in almost any disagreement in any endeavor, mistakes were made by all involved.  There is some blame to be shared.  But it's pretty hard to look at what happened, and what is now being said, and not place the lion's share of culpability on Elton Brand and his agent David Falk.

I've listened to Elton's interview on 570 AM.  I've seen the quotes from his press conference in Philadelphia.  I've seen the statements in today's papers from David Falk.  And here's the thing.  If you swallow their side of the story hook line and sinker with absolutely no reservations, because, you know, Saint Elton would never lie to us, Brand still comes off as disingenuous and childish.

"What you want when you're a franchise player you want to feel that you're wanted. Elton didn't feel wanted?  Well boo hoo.  Tell me Elton, exactly how much respect DO you deserve?  The Clippers offered you the money that they had under salary cap rules, while allowing for the signing of Baron Davis, and also keeping some assets to help the team get better (which, as I recall, was part of the plan from the beginning). 

"[The fact that the Clippers negotiated directly with Brand] is probably the reason that the deal fell apart."  This one fascinates me, and quite frankly fits so perfectly with Adrian Wojnarowski's vision of Falk as Svengali.  Falk is the one using this as a way to deflect blame, and he still comes off as control freak and a jerk.  Um, whose fault is it that MDsr spoke directly with Brand?  I assume that MDsr knows his phone number after being his coach for 5 years.  So here's how that goes.  The phone rings and Elton answers it.  "Hey, Baron said yes, isn't that great?  You wanna talk about your contract now?"  Elton Brand now has two choices.  He can say, "Yes."  Or he can say, "No, let's wait and do it with my agent."  How exactly is MDsr disrespecting ANYONE by talking to Elton Brand?  Elton is 29 years old, he went to Duke, he produces movies, he was nominated for an Oscar, for FSM's sake.  Is he capable of having a conversation without his agent  or isn't he?  More to the point, is he capable of making that decision on his own?  And if he does have a conversation, how in the world is that the Clippers' problem?  I can see Falk saying, "Hey, Elton, I'm your agent.  You really shouldn't discuss your contract without me.  Let's get them back on the phone and go over this again."  But instead it seems that Falk said "Bad Elton!  Bad!  I've told you time and again!  No talking without me.  Go to your room.  Oh, and give me that phone.  You've lost talking privileges.  I'll handle this from here, and you can kiss your precious Clippers goodbye.  Go behind my back, will they?  I'll show them!"

By the way, before I leave this one, can we all agree that this is a bald-faced lie?  Here's the full quote from Falk:

I didn't know it then, I know it now.  I know it after the fact. It's probably the reason that the deal fell apart.

You didn't know it then?  What do you mean?  You didn't know it while the conversation was happening?  Well, obviously, that goes without saying.  the implication of 'after the fact' is that you didn't know it until after a deal with Philadelphia was done, i.e. after it was too late.  So, you're suggesting that Elton did indeed talk directly to the Clippers, but then he never told you about it?  Seriously Falk.  How stupid do you think we are?  If he talked to them, you knew it soon after, and you took over with a vengeance.

"The owner wouldn't take our calls."  I'm not going to defend Donald Sterling on this if you accept it as true (and given our understanding of the man, it certainly could be).  But here's the thing.  Elton Brand has been a Clipper for seven years.  Donald Sterling has been the owner, Andy Roeser has been his right hand man, Elgin Baylor has been the GM, for all of those seven years.  Dunleavy has been the coach for five.  Sterling is pretty clearly dealing with some severe personality disorders at the very least.  And as the ClipperWife says, "Assholes tend to hire assholes and yes men."  That would be Roeser and Baylor, respectively.  After dealing with this admittedly dysfunctional organization for seven years, Brand was nonetheless sending very clear messages that he intended to stay with the team.  He was not a 'quitter'.  His 'intention' was to sign with the Clippers.  He wanted to retire from the Clippers.  The examples are too numerous to mention.  No one would deny, that through June 30th 2008, every statement from Elton Brand indicated that he was going to remain a Clipper.  So, suddenly, in the course of seven days, Sterling and company are now unbearable, where they were completely bearable for seven years?  It makes no sense.  One is left with the impression that Brand is either an idiot (for not realizing that he wanted out before), a liar (he knew he wanted out all along), a petulant child (he made a decision based on one perceived disrespect instead of based on seven years of evidence) or a puppet (Falk was always the one in control of the situation).  None of these are good things to be.

"It's not about the money."  How handy that Golden State made a big offer, so Brand and Falk can point to it and say, "See, we're not greedy."  The only problem is that it was at least partially about the money, right?  I mean, they forced Philadelphia to weaken their team to GET HIM MORE MONEY.   (No matter what you think about Calvin Booth and Rodney Carney, the Sixers had to trade away a future first round pick in order to get that deal done.  That is Elton Brand and David Falk picking money over team in a neat little package with a bow on top.)  By the way, when someone says, "it's not about the money", it's usually about the money.

There are various other small clues in what's being said.  For instance, Elton brought up the Miami offer sheet from five years ago more than once to Vic the Brick.  OK, sure EB, the Clippers didn't actually offer you that contract, they just matched Miami's.  True statement.  It happened five years ago, and if it's been bugging you this much, why were you so adamant about remaining a Clipper until July 1?  No one is saying that Donald Sterling isn't a bad owner.  We're saying, you lied when you said you intended to stay.  You can't use something that happened five years ago to justify breaking a promise you made a week ago.

Taken together, this has all the earmarks of a pure ego trip, whether on the part of Falk or Brand or both.  The two of them asked the Clippers to jump through some hoops, and the Clippers didn't do it, or didn't do it the way they wanted, or didn't do it fast enough, or didn't do it with a smile on their face, or whatever.  The Sixers on the other hand jumped through the hoops in a most pleasing manner.  It's stupid to make this decision based on which team's management did a better job of sucking up in the last seven days.  But that would appear to be exactly what happened.


Like I said, all of the above is based entirely on the Brand/Falk side of the story.  Even if it's all true, Brand comes off looking very bad.  Now consider that Mike Dunleavy and the Clippers say it's not true. 

MDsr says the Clippers responded to every request.  That they gave him everything he asked for.  And most damning of all, he says they had a verbal agreement, and that he's got the text messages to prove it.

Now, let's be clear.  Not all verbal agreements are created equal.  For instance, Baron Davis' agent announced to the press that he had a verbal agreement with the Clippers on July 2nd.  Even if he had reached an agreement with Brand, Dunleavy knew full well that it was not the same as reaching an agreement with Brand and Falk.  He might reasonably assume that Brand can speak for himself, and that there should not be significant disagreement between the player and the agent.  But still, he certainly knows the difference.

But this storyline fits really well with the perceived injustices that came next.  Of all the insults that Brand says he had to bear, clearly the biggest one, the one that keeps getting talked about, is the alleged 'take it or leave it' ultimatum.  (I should also point out that Dunleavy denies anyone ever said that.)  But imagine the conversation after the Clippers felt like they had a deal with Brand.  They do not have infinite flexibility under the salary cap, as has been well documented.  Brand and Falk are now asking for more.  More money.  More options.  We still don't know exactly what, but more something.  The Clippers, believing Brand had already agreed to a deal, are thinking, "Come on guys.  We've been through this.  We got Baron Davis, there's a fixed ceiling on how much we can pay Elton, we had a deal.  A deal's a deal."  How those thoughts got verbalized is the next question.  I've said before that a smart negotiation position would have been to put Elton in the driver's seat (bearing in mind that any offer the Clippers made to Baron Davis was definitely cleared with Brand first since it was coming out of his money).  "Whatever you want Elton.  Here's the CBA.  Here's what we agreed to with Baron.  If you can find yourself some more money without gutting the team, great."  Elton's stated goal was to help the team improve.  He could have proven that he was sincere.  If instead the Clippers allowed their (justifiable) frustration with the situation to show through, it's incredibly simple to imagine someone (*cough* Roeser *cough*) uttering the phrase 'Take it or leave it.'  Do cooler heads prevail, or do a couple of tough negotiators dig their heals in and allow seven years of partnership to be irrevocably lost in seven days (or seven minutes)?


It's also worth re-visiting the money, because it's clearly an important part of this, regardless of what Elton says.  We also know that the Clippers initial offer was around 5/$70M, but eventually they came back to Brand with an offer 'close' to the Sixers' deal of 5/$82M.  So if indeed someone said 'Take it or leave it' it was a bluff, since the Clippers did eventually find more money.  And if the Clippers initially plead 'salary cap restrictions' as a reason that they could NOT increase the offer, well that wasn't completely true either as they eventually found some more.

So where did the extra money come from?  That's a pretty good question.  Reports in the media talked about renouncing Shaun Livingston, Dan Dickau, Smush Parker, James Singleton, Boniface NDong, Quinton Ross, Marcus Williams and Nick Fazekas to free up more money.  There was also the question of waiving Josh Powell, and the only other option would be a trade - say a Brevin Knight and a future first rounder to a team with cap space.

Livingston, Dickau, Parker, Singleton and NDong are complete no-brainers.  My concern there is that if the Clippers front office DIDN'T realize initially that they needed to renounce those guys in order to free up money, they are significantly too stupid to run an NBA team.  Livingston's cap hold represented a LOT of money, and in fact renouncing him could never have been in question (we're talking about $6.6M dollars in starting salary to Elton).  As for the others, non of them figure in the Clippers plans, and they should certainly have been removed from the books.  I find it hard to believe that they got any additional money from those sources.  If it's true, it's incredibly depressing.

Ross, Williams and Fazekas are a little less obvious.  The team is going to have to fill out the roster SOMEHOW.  None of them make much money, so the cap hold for Ross, and the QO's for Fazekas and Williams, aren't going to make a huge difference to Brand's offer.  There's also the question of cap holds for roster spots, which I must admit I understand poorly.  It's possible that renouncing minimum salary players and taking your roster to below a total of 12 is a wash in terms of additional cap space.  Whatever the answer, the Clippers position with Elton should have been clear.  "Here's what we can do.  We can renounce these guys, which may hurt our team depth next season, but would get you a little extra money.  Is that what you want us to do?"

That conversation becomes even more blunt in the case of waiving Powell or trading someone.  "Here's the thing, EB.  We can waive Josh Powell, who started 25 games for us last season, did a good job, and is currently penciled in as the first big off the bench.  It would allow us to pay you more, but we feel it would hurt team depth.  Or we could trade away some salary - we'd get nothing in return, and we'd even have to throw in a future draft pick to get it done.  It hurts our depth, and it hurts our future.  But we'll do it if you want more money over a winning team."

We've talked a lot on this blog about the question of Bird rights.  It's INCREDIBLY important.  A 5 year contract starting at $12M per season with 8% annual increases (the maximum duration and increases for a non Bird free agent, i.e. if the Clippers renounced their rights to Brand) works out to a total contract of $70.4M, with a fifth year salary of $16,325,868.  A 5 year contract starting at $12M per season with 10.5% annual increases (i.e. the contract they could offer without renouncing him) works out to a total almost $74M, with a fifth year salary of $17,890,825.  That's an extra $3.6M from the bigger increases alone.  Add a 6th season at almost $19.8M, and you are talking about 23.5M extra total dollars by retaining his Bird rights.  (By the way, Ramona Shelburne of the Press Telegram/Daily News responded to my question about this on her blog today - thanks Ramona.)

Given that the Clippers initial offer was reported at 5/$70M, that looks suspiciously like a starting salary of $12M and 8% increases, doesn't it?  Which again begs the question, did the Clippers simply not understand the CBA well enough to figure out that they could add $3.6M without changing their cap situation and without adding years, simply by doing things in a different order? 

Philly's offer has been reported as 5/$82M, which works out to a starting salary of $14M.  The Clippers could have far exceeded that offer by adding a sixth year to a $12M offer and using 10.5% increases.  So the question of renouncing Brand is a vital element in all of this, and I wish I understood exactly what was going on there.


As I've said, clearly there is blame to share in this situation.  A number of things that the Clippers leadership allegedly did, if true, are completely inexcusable.

Did someone say 'take it or leave it'?  Bad call.

Did Sterling refuse to talk to Brand?  Ouch.  Of course, this is the same guy who didn't take his own coach's phone calls for several weeks last winter, forcing the coach to lie about it, and then hung him out to dry when he did.  They guy's interpersonal skills need some work.

Did this really blow up over an Early Termination Option?  This is almost unfathomable (and for the record, I don't believe it).  The Clippers had already given Brand an ETO in the prior contract.  An ETO after year 4 of a 5 year contract for a 29 year old, quite frankly, is in the interest of the team.  You want to end that contract when you're 33?  Um, OK.  If the Clippers really said no when they asked for this, it's one of the all time mistakes.

Did the Clippers really misunderstand the CBA so thoroughly as to make multiple salary cap mistakes?  The question of renouncing Brand, the question of finding money by renouncing NDong and Singleton - this is all covered in "Salary Caps for the Complete Idiot."  If you can't get these things straight, hire Citizen John R and ClipperSteve to run the team.


Still, even accepting that the Clippers may have made some mistakes, the situation was salvageable.  It is clearly Elton Brand and David Falk who blew up the legacy of Brand and the Clippers.  In the process, the reputation of arguably the most squeaky clean player in the entire NBA has been damaged forever.  And for what?  For more money?  Not much.  For a better team?  That would be no.  (Go through the other 4 starters one by 1 - the Clippers with Brand beat the Sixers with Brand handily in 3 of the 4.)  To be closer to family?  Fine.  But if this was always about family, that should have been made clear from the start.

In the final analysis, Elton Brand is either a liar or a fool.  Or maybe a little of both.