By Brad Friedman

The Clippers have garnered themselves more respect in the NBA, and in Hollywood.
Noah Graham/Juan Ocampo/Graham/NBAE/Getty
Dec. 28 -- Lara Flynn Boyle. Chris Rock. Dustin Hoffman. The collection of names read like a lineup for a Tinseltown Red Carpet. But it's also the list of dignitaries that have graced the sidelines this season at the Staples Center for Los Angeles Clippers games. And in a town as image-driven as Hollywood, that's a big change from the days when Frankie Munoz and Billy Crystal were just about the only famous faces willing to be seen rooting for the perenially lottery-bound squad.

But one doesn't have to look far to find out why the Clippers have suddenly become trendy. Coach Mike Dunleavy's squad sits in second place in the Pacific Division with a 16-11 record, and much of their success can be credited to their success on their own turf -- the Clippers have the fourth best winning percentage there in the league.

Back in the days of their 20-win seasons, the Clippers must have felt like Los Angeles was the Lakers' town. After all, the Lakers have collected three championships since 2000; the Clippers haven't even won a playoff game since 1993, when Larry Brown was at the helm, or a playoff series since 1976, when the organization resided in Buffalo and was known as the "Braves."

If either of those streaks snap this spring, it will partly be a result of the Clippers decision to add veterans in the offseason. The entire starting backcourt was revamped with the addition of longtime pros Cuttino Mobley and Sam Cassell, owners of a combined 117 postseason game appearances.

"They're win-tested," All-Star forward Elton Brand said. "They've played so many games. They never get too high or too low. If we go on a two-game losing streak, it's nothing. They don't get upset because they understand the game. They understand what a winning season is. They definitely bring that to our team."

When Cassell was acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves this summer in a trade involving former starting point guard Marko Jaric, the move was questioned by many. Cassell reportedly griped about his contract, and got into the doghouse of Minnesota management. Moreover, the Clippers already had second-year phenom Shaun Livingston seemingly ready to take over the starting quarterback role, so the impact of the exchange could have potentially disrupted team chemistry.

According to Brand, however, Cassell has bought into the new situation from day one, and the confidence he had in his teammates rubbed off on the entire squad.

"All I see are the positives right now," Brand said. "He's a great leader, a great team guy. You may hear some negative things, but that's all I see. His mid-range game around there is just about automatic. When he's scoring points like that and leading the ball club, you're helping out a lot. He takes big shots and he embraces that too."

Hugh Hefner and Playmates pose following a recent game.
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The prime example of that would be in the Clippers Nov. 23 contest versus the Raptors. Trailing most of the game and down by as many as 12, a previous L.A. team may have fallen apart. But Cassell scored 10 consecutive points in the fourth quarter sparking a come from behind 103-100 victory. These Clippers, you see, are focused only on one goal, and that's winning.

"We've had talent (in the past)," said Brand, a member of the franchise for five seasons. "In 2001, we had our own ESPN show, we were in fifth or sixth place at the All-Star break. We imploded at the end because of contracts. We had nine young guys not signed (for the next season). The media was saying 'Candy deserves the max. Elton Brand deserves the max. Andre Miller should get the max. Lamar Odom should get the max. Darius and Q. Rich...' .

"You feel like you're showcasing yourself for other teams because the Clippers never signed any players long-term. This year you have Cuttino who's longer tenured than Maggette or myself. I have a long-term deal. Corey has a long-term deal. Guys see that they can come here, play and get paid so it's totally different."

With stability comes growth. Brand dropped 20 pounds this summer and improved his midrange game. The result is the former Duke pivot owning the top efficiency ranking in the league (30.22) this season in addition to averages of 25.5 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.63 blocks -- Hall-of-Fame type numbers. Small forward Corey Maggette continues to be an effective 20-plus point per game scorer and is shooting a career-high .382 from three-point range. Center Chris Kaman is becoming the rebounder (8.6) and shotblocker (1.74) LA was looking for when it drafted him sixth overall in the 2003 NBA Draft.

"The core group has been playing together for the last three years," Kaman said. "We’re slowing picking up what Dunleavy’s philosophies and principles are more and more. We’re executing them better than we have. I don’t think we play great offensive basketball. We play good defensive basketball which helps us win games. Just the philosophy on defense and everyone playing together and working hard."

Will that defensive strategy enable the Clippers a playoff win, and perhaps even a postseason series?

Only if this story has a Hollywood ending.