Seriously, Clippers one of NBA’s finest

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LOS ANGELES (AP) – For years, the Clippers were mostly dreadful, the laughingstocks of the NBA.

Not anymore.

A team once synonymous with losing, mismanagement and ineptitude on every level is now simply one of the league’s best.

“I don’t want to go back to what it was. I’m just enjoying the moment,” said Elgin Baylor, the team’s vice president of basketball operations since 1986 who was recently voted Sporting News NBA Executive of the Year.

“That’s kind of a blur, to think about the tough days,” star forward Elton Brand said. “Everyone is talking about the Clippers. This is great to see.”

The Clippers are one win – dare the words be spoken – from their first berth in the Western Conference finals. They’re tied 3-3 with the Suns entering Game 7 Monday night in Phoenix.

This is the same franchise that entered the season with one winning record since moving to Los Angeles in 1984 – three years after Donald T. Sterling took over ownership. The Clippers were 572-1,118 in the past 21 seasons and made the playoffs only three times without winning a postseason series.

That’s before they went 47-35 this year – the second-best record in the 36-year history of the franchise – resulting in their first playoff berth since 1997.

The team’s playoff history can be found on page 96 of the media guide.

That’s right, one page. And that includes eight seasons in Buffalo and six in San Diego.

The Clippers have gone so wrong in so many ways: They drafted poorly; they passed on free agents who were snapped up elsewhere; they failed to improve themselves through trades.

And there was always the annual rite – a fancy draft lottery party about this time every year. Guess what? There won’t be a party when the lottery is held Tuesday. And there might not be another one for some time. The team that’s played in the Lakers’ shadow for so many years is now No. 1 in Los Angeles.

“We’re a young team, the future looks bright,” Baylor said. “It’s very gratifying, it’s very satisfying. I’m just happy for the people who have been around and the fans that stuck with us.”

In Brand, the Clippers have one of the NBA’s emerging superstars. Brand (27), Chris Kaman (24), Corey Maggette (25), Quinton Ross (25) and Shaun Livingston (20) gave the Clippers a good, young nucleus that was supplemented last summer with Sam Cassell (36) via trade and Cuttino Mobley (30) via free agency.

With the acquisition of 25-year-old Vladimir Radmanovic during the season, the Clippers appear to have what it takes to be among the NBA’s elite teams for some time, assuming everyone sticks around.

Baylor, one of the NBA’s great players, seemed to have his hands tied when it came to spending for many years. But Sterling’s attitude on money appeared to change three years ago, when coach Mike Dunleavy signed a four-year, $10 million contract. The Clippers have a one-year, $2.5 million option for next season.

By the time Dunleavy came aboard, the Clippers had played in Staples Center for four years, increasing revenues significantly. Before that, their home was the dank Los Angeles Sports Arena.

Kaman had just been drafted with the sixth overall pick. And shortly after Dunleavy’s hiring, the Clippers matched rich offer sheets signed by Brand with Miami and Maggette with Utah.

A year later they made a serious run at Kobe Bryant, offering him a maximum contract before the superstar re-signed with the Lakers.

“The understanding when I came in was that we needed players, and some of them you already had,” Dunleavy said. “You had a nice base, a nucleus that I liked. And I basically said I have to have Elton Brand, have to have Corey Maggette, and I need to know that you’re going to go after another free agent this year as well, and be willing to spend up to the cap where it’s prudent.

“And Mr. Sterling said he was absolutely willing to do that. He told me, “There haven’t been any free agents that have left here that we felt like we haven’t spent the money on that we should have spent the money on.’ … There’s nobody that jumps out.”

The Clippers went 37-45 last season, losing 14 of 17 games decided by three points or less. Adding Cassell and Mobley were perfect antidotes.

While Cassell said he knew the Minnesota Timberwolves were going to trade him, he was unhappy at first when he learned his destination.

“I got traded here and really didn’t want to be a part of this whole makeup,” said Cassell, known for years as one of the NBA’s best clutch players. “I wasn’t sure if the Clippers’ organization wanted to win. I didn’t know.”

After meeting with Dunleavy and checking the surroundings in training camp, Cassell had a different take.

“I said, “OK, this can work.’ I said in October we could be in the playoffs and (the media) said I was crazy,” he said.

Mobley was signed to a five-year, $42 million deal – by far the most the Clippers paid for a free agent from another team.

“You’ve got to take chances in life,” Mobley said. “I said it when I signed, that we were going to make the playoffs. I don’t care what people think. They don’t pay my electric bill.”

Retaining Cassell and Dunleavy seems crucial to the Clippers.

“Oh, absolutely, no question,” Baylor said. “They’ve both done a great job.”

And they are not alone.

AP-ES-05-20-06 1519EDT

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