By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008
LOS ANGELES -- It may have been odd for some to see Los Angeles Clippers forward Elton Brand come back in the 75th game of another lousy, lottery-worthy season. But to Brand, there was no alternative.
When he ruptured his left Achilles' tendon during a workout last August, Brand vowed to come back in six months, with the expectation that he would help his teammates make a playoff push.
It didn't work out that way. As Brand worked feverishly to heal, the franchise he helped lead to a rare playoff series win two years ago began to unravel before his eyes.
The Clippers piled up losses and player injuries. Coach Mike Dunleavy feuded with owner Donald Sterling over who was to blame. And point guard Sam Cassell skipped town to chase a championship ring in Boston.
"It was hard seeing everything crumble," said Brand, whose team missed the playoffs for the 13th time in 15 years. "That definitely bugs me."
Although his team couldn't keep its end of the bargain, and Brand needed eight months to come back from a potentially career-ending injury, he still wanted to play. This season. With his team 34 games below .500.
"Why wait?" Brand said recently. "I talk to the fans after every game. They have something to say. If I'm healthy, I owe it to them. I'm not there at the level I'm going to be at, but I'm pretty good."
Brand hasn't shown many signs of rust or fatigue, averaging 19 points and eight rebounds, but his return hasn't necessarily damaged his team's standing in the NBA draft lottery. They are 1-5 with him, with two games remaining.
It hasn't helped the Clippers (23-57) play the role of spoiler in the Western Conference playoff race, either. Their lone win with Brand came in his season debut April 2 against lottery-bound Seattle.
But Brand's better-late-than-never return is viewed as glimmer of hope for some within the Clippers' organization. Dunleavy said that if the team been in the playoff picture, Brand would've come back in March. But with nothing to play for, Dunleavy said, the team wanted to take a more conservative approach with its most identifiable player the past seven seasons.
"A lot of organizations would've probably held him out," Denver Nuggets Coach George Karl said. "But I love it. I think too many of our decisions are based on business. I think we take the love out of the game."
Brand said he isn't back, as widely speculated, to showcase his talents and increase his market value should he decide to opt out of the final year of his $82 million contract and become a free agent this summer. "I'm pretty sure teams know what I can do in this league," Brand said with a laugh. "That has no merit."
Should Brand opt out, he and the Washington Wizards' Gilbert Arenas would be the most coveted talents in the free agent market this summer. One team source felt confident that Brand wouldn't leave, saying that he doubts that Brand would walk away from the $16.5 million he would earn next season.
Few teams other than Memphis and Philadelphia will have the money under the cap necessary to sign a top-tier free agent this summer. The Miami Heat, which signed Brand to the offer sheet that he currently plays under, could be interested in pursuing Brand again if Shawn Marion makes the unlikely decision to opt out of his $17.8 million salary. If anything, Brand sounds more likely to scrap his current deal and sign a contract extension and remain with the Clippers.
"I'm not a quitter," Brand, 29, said. "I want to be here. I came to this organization to turn it around and we were doing it for a while. We were on the right path. I kind of want to get back to that level of the playoffs and competing for championships.
"We'll see where the business side takes me. My agent David Falk, he'll take care of that and advise me either way. I know there are not a lot of opportunities [or] places to go to," Brand said. "As the season is ending, I'm thinking about [my future] more and more."
Brand has already committed himself to getting ready for next season, informing USA Basketball that he has no intention of participating in the Olympic tryouts this summer. "I hope they get the gold," Brand said. "I just have to get right for the NBA season. It's tough to sacrifice [a gold medal], but I feel like I owe it to the NBA first."
"I know what I'm going to have to do for us to compete. It starts with the star player. I'm going to have to be at the top of my game and every one is going to have to follow."