A Refreshing Brand of Player

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006; 3:01 PM

In the often whiny world of the NBA, where players begin to pout or make trade demands at the first sign of trouble, a player like Los Angeles Clippers forward Elton Brand is refreshing. Brand has had numerous opportunities -- or perhaps, the right -- to complain or become disgruntled, with his teams losing almost 67 percent of their games in his first six seasons in the league.

He toiled his trade for the horrific post-Jordan Chicago Bulls, then was traded after two seasons to the horrific-for-decades Los Angeles Clippers, where he consistently posted nights of 20 points and 10 rebounds -- in losing efforts. Through it all, Brand never threw himself a pity party and bit his lip if he ever wanted to throw a fit. He just continued to be an unstoppable, underrated and undersized, 6-foot-8 power forward who plays hard every night. With the Clippers (25-17) off to their best start in almost 30 years, Brand is finally beginning to gain some of the recognition he has deserved for most of his career. "I knew it would come. That's why I wasn't complaining or begging for trades or anything. I was a young guy. I knew eventually I'd be on a team with some players. I was hoping it would be the Clippers," Brand, 26, said with a laugh. "I'm a realist. I understand salary caps. I understand young teams don't win. I understood the hand that I was dealt."

Brand isn't being the mentioned in the MVP race like he was when the Clippers jumped out to an unexpected 14-5 start to the season, but he is averaging 24.6 points and 10.4 rebounds. He's also shooting 52.2 percent from the floor and has helped his team remain relevant in the Pacific Division despite a foot injury that has kept Corey Maggette (21.7 points, 5.5 rebounds) sidelined since Dec. 5. He should at least be a lock to be named to the all-star team -- no matter how loaded the forward position is in the Western Conference. Houston's Tracy McGrady and either San Antonio's Tim Duncan or Minnesota's Kevin Garnett will be named starters on Thursday, with Dallas's Dirk Nowitzki, Denver's Carmelo Anthony, Phoenix's Shawn Marion, Memphis' Pau Gasol and Brand fighting for one of the reserve spots.

"It's a lot of competition, but I definitely feel like I should be a part of that," said Brand, who made his only all-star appearance in 2002 as an injury replacement for Shaquille O'Neal in 2002. "My team is winning. Prior years, I understood that you have to win. I was averaging 20 and 10 but we weren't winning. I learned that early in Chicago. I was averaging 20 and 10, but Dale Davis got the nod, averaging 9 and 8, but he was on a first-place Indiana team. So, I understood that and I still understand. The coaches should vote me in."

Brand is one of four players averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds this season -- Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Shawn Marion are the others -- but he is the only player on the list who has yet to make a playoff appearance. Since he has always been the best player on his lousy teams, Brand has often been unfairly branded as a loser, a player unable to lift his team above mediocrity, a player who racks up meaningless statistics because somebody has to score and rebound -- even on bad teams. But players around the league recognized that Brand was among the league's elite, even when his teams' records said otherwise.

"When I was playing in Minnesota," Clippers point guard Sam Cassell said, "it was two guys that Kevin Garnett got up for -- Elton Brand and Tim Duncan. He's in that class."

Before this season, the best chance Brand had to make the playoffs was the 2001-02 season, when the Clippers finished 39-43 with a talented team that included Maggette, Lamar Odom, Darius Miles, Quentin Richardson and Michael Olowokandi. That exciting squad was the subject of a reality series on ESPN and featured the flash and dash of Odom and Maggette, the head-tapping of Miles and Richardson, the unfulfilled potential of Olowokandi and the consistency of Brand. But Brand admits that team was ready for primetime. "We didn't have any players signed with contracts, so we imploded," Brand said. "Eleven players didn't have contracts, so guys said, 'Hey, you can't get a contract here.' We were all selfish. We were all auditioning for other teams."

A knee injury limited Brand to just 62 games the next season, and the Clippers plummetted to a disappointing 27-55 record. Brand was a restricted free agent that summer, with one foot out of the door as he signed a six-year, $84-million offer sheet with the Miami Heat. "I didn't think the Clippers would match. They haven't signed any player longer than a three, four-year deal besides Eric Piatkowski," Brand said, chuckling. "And, I didn't think it would happen. But once it did, I didn't want to alienate my teammates or the fans. I wanted to turn this thing around."

Almost two years later, the turnaround has just begun. Why the sudden change? "Not to be funny, but we got two vets, myself and Sam, coming in, helping EB out. Simple as that," said guard Cuttino Mobley, who signed a six-year, $42 million contract last summer. "He's been doing it his whole career, 20 and 10. Now you have myself and Sam with him, and [our opponents] won't pay as much attention [to him]. If they do, then we'll punish him. It's an overall team thing."

Brand is scoring at a career-high clip -- 4.5 points more than his previous best -- and he credits most of his success to finally being able to work on improving his game and his body last offseason (in the past two summers, Brand had to spend his summer rehabilitating from knee and foot injuries). This season, Brand has improved his defense (he's averaging a career-high 2.6 blocks per game) and his ball-handling (he's averaging a career-low 2.05 turnovers). He also lost 12 pounds, which has made him quicker and more mobile. He displayed his newfound agility Friday night in Denver, when he caught the ball at the top of the key and sprinted to the rim for a dunk before the Nuggets had time to react. "Nothing he's doing is surprising," Cassell said. "He's our horse, so how far we go, he's going to take us."

Steve Nash, the MVP

Reigning league most valuable player Steve Nash has surpassed Detroit Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups as the front-runner for the MVP award at the season's midpoint. Billups has done nothing to damage his candidacy for the award -- especially with the Pistons on a pace to win 72 games this season -- but he is obviously a member of the most solid starting five in the NBA, meaning Detroit can still win if he doesn't have a great night. The Phoenix Suns cannot make that same claim. Without Nash scoring, setting up and putting everyone else in position to succeed, the Suns are barely staying afloat. What Nash has done to elevate the Suns to first place in the Pacific Division has helped separate him from the pack.

The Suns (28-16) have been running and winning without three starters from last year's team (Quentin Richardson, Joe Johnson and Amare Stoudemire) and Nash is actually having a better season than last year, averaging 19.1 points and 11.5 assists. He could become the first player since Magic Johnson in 1989-90 to average at least 19 points and 11 assists. Nash's scoring could take a dip if and when Stoudemire returns from microfracture surgery on his knee, but his value doesn't come from putting the ball in the hole -- it's from making his teammates better. Every significant player on the Suns' roster is having a career season -- Shawn Marion (21.5 points, 12 rebounds, 1.95 blocks), Boris Diaw (11.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists), Raja Bell (14.2 points), Leandro Barbosa (13.3 points), Eddie House (10.4 points) and James Jones (10.1 points) -- and they can all attribute their success to Nash's ability to improvise (with his passing and uncanny vision) and initiate (with his penetration and dishing). Marion was an all-star before Nash arrived in Phoenix, Barbosa is finally coming into his own, but Diaw, Bell, House and Jones have either bounced around the league or been disappointments in their previous stops.

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