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Here's a First ...
All the criticism weighed on Elton Brand. Throughout most of his six-year career, the 6'8" Brand has been applauded as an overachiever who outhustles bigger power forwards for his 20 points and 10 boards a night. In recent years, however, he has started to hear negative (and usually anonymous) whispers that blamed him for the poor performance of the Bulls, his original team, and the Clippers, for whom he has played since 2001. He wasn't a leader. He couldn't elevate his team. His stats were overrated. "I didn't like it," says Brand. So he set out to do something about it.
This year he has begun to transform--with the help of a long-awaited strong supporting cast--the image of Sports' Favorite Punch Line. Five years ago the Clippers were named by SI as the worst franchise in the four major sports, and they lived up to that label in the past four seasons. With their 11--5 record at week's end, however, the Clippers were the runaway leaders as the season's feel-good story. The turnaround begins with Brand, who might have pouted about the criticisms directed his way but instead took a critical look at himself. At a meeting in early July, Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy asked Brand to show more leadership. Not only did Brand agree to the request, but he also astonished Dunleavy by ticking off a list of his own defensive weaknesses, which he hoped to rectify. "A lot of guys get in somebody's face for missing a defensive assignment," says Brand, "but that's inappropriate if you're missing assignments. I wanted to have my game so tight that I could get on a rookie, or anybody messing up."
You want tight? Through Sunday, Brand was averaging career highs of 24.1 points (ninth in the NBA), 2.56 blocks (fourth) and 55.5% shooting (fifth) to go with his 10.6 rebounds per game (eighth). He has been the anchor at both ends of the court for an uptempo team that ranked fifth in scoring (99.5 points per game) and, more remarkably, was first in defensive field goal percentage (40.9%), an astounding feat when you consider that four of the five Los Angeles starters have made their reputations as scorers. With the Clippers on pace to win 56 games, Brand is on the short list of early MVP candidates.
These are the Clippers, of course, so a lot can still go wrong. Potential obstacles include an increasingly difficult schedule. Then there is the recent history of back trouble for 36-year-old point guard Sam Cassell, who missed 23 games last season. Surprisingly for a team that has rarely had a Plan A, the Clippers have a promising Plan B should Cassell go down in Shaun Livingston, a pure point guard who has yet to play this season because of a lower-back injury, but is expected back by next week.
Dunleavy insists that his team can play even better, but he is pleased with the Clippers' balance, particularly on offense, where Brand, Cassell, Cuttino Mobley and Corey Maggette are happily sharing the ball. "We get the rebound, and the first person they're looking at is me," says Maggette, the best transition scorer of the group. "If that doesn't work out, we're going to our [half-court] sets, and that means we're going to Elton. If that doesn't happen, we've got Cat [ Mobley, a 33% shooter from beyond the arc] trailing for a three; and if that doesn't happen, Sam knows what he has to do."
That abundance of offensive weapons has opened up breathing space for Brand, whose ability to score in the low post and in transition is trumped only by a healthy Amar� Stoudemire. "People were double-teaming him, but now they can't do that," says Cavaliers forward Donyell Marshall. "He has a lot more energy because he doesn't have to do everything himself now."
Brand, in turn, praises Dunleavy for persuading skinflint owner Donald T. Sterling to open up his checkbook. When he interviewed for the Clippers job in 2003, Dunleavy says he was struck by Sterling's sincere desire to upgrade the franchise. Dunleavy's faith in his owner was rewarded this summer, when Sterling okayed the signing of Mobley (five years, $42 million) and the trade for Cassell (he's getting $6.2 million this year) from Minnesota.
Dunleavy is zealously determined to ensure a sound return on the investment. On the first day of training camp he told his team, "Nothing is going to get in the way of winning--egos, families, nothing. If you don't play that way, I'll work my hardest to get rid of you or I won't play you."