BRAND, 2006 PLAYOFFS CATALYST FOR CURRENT CLIPPERS SUCCESS
There is a small office at the Clippers’ training center with an 8-inch tall bobblehead figurine of Elton Brand sitting in the corner of a cabinet. It is as though it is left to ask, “Remember me?” to whomever shuffles by.
There are no No. 42 banners dangling from any rafters, no framed photographs, and no jerseys affixed on any walls. There are just stacks of old media guides with Brand’s image, some old posters, a few memorabilia items in a glass trophy case and the dusty bobblehead.
The lack of noticeable Brand paraphernalia not at all diminishes Brand’s Clipper legacy or makes it any worse for the wear. Before Blake Griffin was drafted, before Chris Paul was acquired from New Orleans, Doc Rivers was introduced or 27-point postseason comebacks conceived, Brand represented something new for the Clippers, a bona fide star, their first chance at becoming a consistent winner.
“That ’05-06 team, we started Clipper Nation,” said Sam Cassell, who joined the Clippers in the summer prior to their remarkable 2005-06 season. “We started that and Elton Brand was our catalyst. He was our leader. He was our go-to guy. At that time, he was the best power forward in the NBA. The guy did it all. He rebounded for us, he blocked shots, he made big baskets, he got steals. He did it all.”
Jamal Crawford, who played with Brand in Chicago, added: “I think [Brand] helped kind of legitimize what they were doing. For a while, especially, when we were in Chicago and they were out here we were two of the younger teams in the league. We were the ‘Baby Bulls’ and they had a young crew with Q-Rich (Quentin Richardson) and D-Miles (Darius Miles) and Lamar [Odom] and Keyon Dooling and those guys. Bringing [Brand] here kind of brought a bona fide player, like a bona fide stud at that time.”
It’s not farfetched to suggest that Brand, who was acquired from the Bulls in a draft day trade in 2001, was the beginning of the Clippers’ so-called culture change. Brand was perhaps the first to take the team’s mostly two-decade legacy of losing head on, challenge it.
“I definitely think we started it, helped start it,” said Brand, now 34 and a role player on the Hawks, when asked about whether that first season with Cassell may have set things in motion for the franchise’s current success. “We started some of the growth and then we got further than the team has gotten, that’s really a special thing for us.”
And it was a special season for Brand. He made his second of two All-Star appearances with the Clippers, averaged 24.7 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.5 blocked shots, was named Second Team All-NBA and finished seventh in MVP balloting.
“He had a monster year and for a good portion of the year he was in the MVP talks, so it was that transformation by Elton that kind of ignited this positive atmosphere around the Clippers,” Clippers broadcaster Michael Smith said. “I should also mention that that was the year they traded to have Sam Cassell here and I really believe that Sam Cassell brought a confidence and swagger to that team.
“I watched that thing happen from Sammy showing them what could happen if they really dug in and believed and then watching Elton make shots, make clutch shots, take clutch shots that I didn’t see him take before. It’s not that it wasn’t there. It was there in embryo, but with Sammy there and with his urging, Elton blossomed and became a winner and a leader and doggone it almost took that team to the Western Conference Finals.”
Brand and Cassell lost to the Phoenix Suns in round two of the 2006 Playoffs, coming within a game of advancing to a place no Clippers team had gone, nor has since. And it still eats at him seven years later.
“It does, because we played well,” Brand said. “We played well against Dallas that year. We beat Miami and played well against Miami that year, and that’s who the eventual championship teams were, so that definitely resonates in my mind.”
From a numbers standpoint, the following season was nearly on par for Brand, but the Clippers stumbled in the opening month and a half and failed to make up enough ground to earn a top eight spot in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. Less than four months after their season ended earlier than anyone expected, Brand’s career and the Clippers’ trajectory were forever altered.
He ruptured his left Achilles tendon during a regular daily workout with fellow big man Chris Kaman. It would cost him all but eight games in his seventh and final season with the Clippers.
Brand says he was never the same. He never averaged 20 points or 10 boards again and never made another All-Star team.
“I definitely took a step back after the Achilles tear,” he said.
In the offseason that followed the injury, Brand, an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, spurned the city he spent seven of his first nine seasons for the Philadelphia 76ers. The move was met with hostility from Clippers’ fans that likened him to Benedict Arnold at the time, and a seemingly empty feeling within the organization. Brand was supposed to team with Baron Davis to rekindle the team’s success from two seasons prior. Brand was supposed to carry the banner as the face of the Clippers. Instead, he was gone.
The Clippers endured four consecutive losing seasons in the wake of Brand’s defection. But had he stayed it is highly unlikely they would have won the draft lottery that resulted in Griffin’s selection first overall in 2009. Without Griffin, there is likely no trade for Paul. And so on.
Six years, and three teams later, Brand is not forgotten. He is not a trader. He is arguably the best player the Clippers franchise ever knew, ranking in the top three in team history in points, rebounds and blocked shots.
He has turned into a role player in Atlanta, and he knows the end of his career his gaining on him. “[It’s] my 15th year and I’m still enjoying playing,” Brand said as gregarious as ever. “I don’t know how long I’m going to play, but it’s still fun, still competing, just enjoying it.”
Any ill will between Brand and the Clippers has for the most part vanished. He says the last time he saw Clippers owner Donald Sterling the two shared a warm embrace and he continues to regularly follow the team.
“I spent so many years there, and I’m always a fan, so it’s good to see them doing well,” Brand said. “But, when people say that, or say to me, ‘How do you feel about that?’ They still haven’t got further than us, you know, second round, Game 7.
“They’re close, though, and I’m sure they’ll surpass us.”
But until then, Brand can take solace in the idea that he helped start it all. Somewhere his bobblehead is nodding.