In dealing for Elton Brand, the Clippers showed there are two
smart teams in L.A.
One of the biggest surprises of the summer is the newfound
respectability of the Clippers. The worst franchise in NBA
history has become one of the league's most intriguing teams, and
the acquisition of 22-year-old power forward Elton Brand from the
Bulls even has the young Clippers talking about making the
playoffs next season. "Why not?" asks 21-year-old co-captain
Lamar Odom. "Elton is exactly what we need."
Here is something no one could have predicted four years ago when
Chicago was winning its third straight title--that the Bulls' best
player would want to become a Clipper. Coach Alvin Gentry says
that initially, he was concerned that the trade might be blocked
by Brand's agent, David Falk, who has had an acrimonious
relationship with Clippers owner Donald Sterling. "[Then] in the
middle of my conversation with David, he put Elton on the phone,"
says Gentry, "and Elton said he was ecstatic about [the prospect
of] the trade."
Brand couldn't join his new teammates at the Los Angeles Summer
Pro League last week (he was running a charity event in his
hometown of Peekskill, N.Y.), but it's not hard to count the ways
he can help a team that finished 31-51 last season. For starters,
Brand will improve the Clippers' rebounding. That will allow Los
Angeles to run more in transition--a dangerous counter to the zone
defenses that will be implemented next season. "People don't know
this, because he played in that triangle system in Chicago," says
Gentry, "but Elton can flat-out run and finish on the break."
In his first two seasons Brand, the top pick in the 1999 draft,
averaged 20.1 points and 10.0 rebounds as Chicago's only inside
threat. The Clippers hope his presence will help center Michael
Olowokandi, the No. 1 choice in '98, turn the corner. The double
teams that Brand is sure to draw should create open looks and
offensive rebound opportunities for Olowokandi, who has averaged
9.1 points and 7.4 rebounds in his first three seasons. Brand
should also create more space for Odom, a forward, and
19-year-old swingman Darius Miles, whose jump shot showed signs
of improvement in the summer league.
While the Clippers were being applauded for getting Brand (whose
salary for the coming year is $3.9 million, a relative bargain),
some around the league were accusing Bulls general manager Jerry
Krause of buying time for himself. The Bulls have averaged a
paltry 17 wins over the last three years, and with his strategy
of signing marquee free agents an utter failure--he didn't get a
single one--Krause was turning to a new game plan. He can now
plead for patience from Chicago fans after getting high schoolers
Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry with the No. 2 and No. 4 choices,
respectively. In Chandler and Curry, Krause has two of the most
coveted players from the most promising high school class ever to
jump to the NBA.
Krause predicts that the 7-foot Chandler will become a power
forward with small-forward skills, like the Trail Blazers'
Rasheed Wallace. He sees the 6'11" Curry, blessed with soft hands
and quick feet, as an inside force. Most promising of all is that
Krause acquired two highly talented big men at a time when size
has become the league's scarcest commodity. "It's an intriguing
move for the Bulls," says former Lakers executive vice president
Jerry West, who escalated the demand for high school talent by
drafting Kobe Bryant five years ago. "If they can play, the Bulls
will have two big guys who everybody will be trying to match up
Rockets Go After Own
One of commissioner David Stern's priorities during the lockout
in 1998 and '99 was to institute a system that would permit teams
to hold on to their favorite players. Stern got his wish, and the
Rockets are the poster children for the collective bargaining
agreement that was hammered out.
Last season it appeared that Houston was gearing up to make a bid
for free-agent forward Chris Webber. But several factors have
prevented free agents from making the huge-money deals that
prevailed in previous summers. Most teams are looking to hold
fast and trim salaries to avoid the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax
to be assessed on payrolls over an estimated $54 million starting
next season. That rookies can now be obliged to spend five years
with their original team is also persuading many teams to build
in the traditional way. Those factors weighed heavily in
Houston's ultimate decision to abandon the pursuit of Webber in
hope of re-signing four players who were crucial to its
surprising 45-win season: forward Maurice Taylor, swingman
Shandon Anderson, guard Moochie Norris and center Hakeem
Olajuwon. When they announced the decision last month, the
Rockets were nearly $17 million under the cap--the equivalent of
Olajuwon's salary last season--and were considering ways to create
more space to sign all four players.
The Rockets would prefer to keep together a young team that
learned to win last season in only the second year of a
rebuilding campaign. Their chances of reaching the playoffs
improved with the acquisition of Eddie Griffin, the seventh pick
in the draft, in a draft-night trade with the Nets. Although
Griffin is a small forward, his strengths as a rebounder and shot
blocker provide the option of playing him inside while Taylor, a
power forward, plays on the perimeter.
Recognizing that negotiations with the 38-year-old Olajuwon could
be sticky--he may have to accept a salary cut of $10 million or
more--coach Rudy Tomjanovich phoned the Dream's house at the start
of the signing period, at 12:01 a.m. on July 1. "He wasn't there,
and I woke up whoever answered the phone," Tomjanovich says. "I
just wanted to tell him how I felt about him. I would love for
him to be with us next year."
In the new tax-conscious marketplace, the demand for elderly
centers isn't great--look at the reported two-year, $5 million
deal that Patrick Ewing accepted from the Magic. Ewing, Olajuwon
and all their colleagues will feel the pinch in other ways as
well: In a provision of the 1999 agreement, every player in the
league must give back 10% of his salary to the owners next
around the Rim
Now that Jason Kidd is running the point in New Jersey, could
Kenyon Martin emerge as the next Shawn Marion? Martin says he has
recovered from his broken right leg and will be ready for
Kings forward Hedo Turkoglu showed up at the L.A. summer league
with a straightened nose. "The doctor tells me my breathing will
be 80 percent better," says Turkoglu, who underwent surgery on
his nose a week after the season. Sacramento coach Rick Adelman
has told Turkoglu to work on his ball handling with the goal of
becoming a point forward in his second year....
Sean Elliott appears to be having second thoughts about
retirement. A close adviser doesn't expect the cash-strapped
Spurs to re-sign him but adds that Elliott might be willing to
play elsewhere in the right situation....
While they consider whether to deal Gary Payton, the Sonics are
moving forward on plans to develop forward Rashard Lewis as
their new star....
Celtics general manager Chris Wallace believes the first pick in
the draft, Kwame Brown (SI, July 16), will succeed in part
because he comes from a small town. Brown, taken by the Wizards,
hails from Brunswick, Ga., and the list of NBA stars from small
towns in the South includes Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Charles
Barkley, Moses Malone, Scottie Pippen, Joe Dumars, James Worthy
and Tracy McGrady. "Players from small Southern towns tend to be
respectful and grounded and have a good work ethic," says
Wallace. "They don't seem to be as twisted and spoiled as kids
from urban areas, who get 'discovered' at 14 or 15."