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Remembering Elton Brand and the Baby Clippers

We’ve been reminiscing about Lob City, but this week, Elton Brand brought back some fond (and not-so-fond) memories of the Clippers in the early 2000s.

Brand, Odom celebrate Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Clipper legend Elton Brand hopped on “The Lowe Post” with ESPN’s Zach Lowe Wednesday to discuss his new job as the General Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, and the two naturally ended up spending some time talking about Brand’s time in Los Angeles, where he played from 2001 to 2008.

Brand had one of the great Clippers careers, including one memorable playoff run in 2006, the year that he was named to the All-NBA second team. He was the team’s only All-Star of that decade (technically, because Chris Kaman was an injury replacement in 2010) and brought some credibility to what, at the time, was one of the league’s moribund franchises.

Brand spoke of his Clipper tenure in two separate stints, one pre-2003 and one post. The first stretch, the famous Baby Clippers, were known for Brand, Michael Olowokandi, Lamar Odom, Corey Maggette, Darius Miles, and Quentin Richardson. Although they never even made the postseason, those Clippers have their own chapter in NBA lore. No one can forget the iconic Slam Magazine cover or the headband fist pound celebration popularized by Miles and Richardson.

“Hitting the head with the first, the headbutt fist thing—people come up to me still and do that, and I’ve never done that, that was the young guys’ stuff,” Brand said. “I definitely miss that team. That was a great team, great bond.”

Brand’s second phase of his Clipper career was marked by a little more team success. They made the playoffs as the sixth seed in 2006, where they beat the Denver Nuggets in the first round before falling to the Phoenix Suns in seven games in the conference semifinals.

That series was arguably Brand’s last moment as a top player in the league, since he tore his Achilles the next year. Nevertheless, he went out in style, scoring 40 points in Game 1 when Steve Nash was presented with his MVP trophy, and earning a few admirers from the Phoenix bench in the process.

According to the book Seven Seconds or Less, which Lowe quoted on the podcast, the Suns thought their major advantage heading into game 7 was that they played harder than the Clippers. But former Clipper head coach, and then-Suns assistant, Alvin Gentry said, “Elton brand is going to play like an SOB for every second he’s on the floor in that game.”

After the Suns advanced and prepared for a game 7 against the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals, Mike D’Antoni told his team, “Alright guys, we got Dirk now, and I’ll tell you one thing right now: I don’t know if he can play any better than Elton just played against us.”

Brand came agonizingly close to not even being on the Clippers after 2003. He signed with Miami for 6 years/$82 million as a restricted free agent that summer, and fully expected then-owner Donald Sterling not to match the contract, given that the largest deal Sterling had given at the time was for was 5 years/$15 to Eric Piatkowski (Brand remembered it as 4 years/$12 million). But the Clippers kept Brand around.

“There was no way [the Clippers] were matching,” Brand told Lowe. “I’m at the Mandarin Oriental looking over the ocean in Miami, and there was no way that they were matching, but then they matched.”

There were a lot of reasons for Brand to want out of Los Angeles, most of them having to do with Sterling. Brand refrained from taking any shots at his former employer during the interview, but he did say that he felt like he and the other Clippers were auditioning for other teams by the end of their contracts. That’s why he was so shocked when the Clippers retained him in restricted free agency.

Even though he didn’t leave the Clippers on the best of terms, Brand spoke glowingly about his former teammates, especially Odom and Maggette.

Odom and Brand had a relationship dating back to high school, when they played on the same AAU team with Ron Artest. After Odom helped him develop into a McDonald’s All-American, Brand said he continued to be motivated by Odom in the NBA before he joined Lamar on the Clippers.

“I’m with the Bulls, and I’m a rookie, and [Brand] has a triple-double tonight, and threw a bounce pass off the backboard through his legs to Darius for an alley-oop, and all this stuff,” Brand said, laughing. “It’s like, okay, what do I need to do next week. It’s just competitive spirit. You always have your eye on him. It was a positive thing.”

Maggette and Brand were also teammates before the Clippers, having played together at Duke, and Brand is still incredibly proud of his fellow Blue Devil.

“Corey’s a beast, he’s still a beast, MVP of the BIG 3, they won the championship,” Brand said. “I went to scout a younger player for the G league, and Corey and Cat [Cuttino Mobley] are both working out harder than all the young guys there.”

The Clippers of the early aughts will largely be remembered for their entertainment value and also their unfulfilled potential. Brand seemingly maximized his talent during his time in Los Angeles, but the rest of the team wasn’t able to rise to his level. Sterling’s ownership was a giant anchor for the Clippers, and ultimately, the fun vibes couldn’t translate into on-court success.

It’s refreshing to think about the Clippers now, with a new pair of fresh-faced lottery picks, and the franchise as healthy as it has ever been (per Doc Rivers), beginning a new era. The Baby Clippers are beloved by the fan base, but they left no mark on the NBA record books. We’ll see if this new iteration can.

All quotes courtesy of Zach Lowe’s interview with Elton Brand on The Lowe Post. You can listen to the full podcast here.