The Bad Ol' Days are back for the Los Angeles Clippers. Whether they're back for another long stretch is a good question.
The worst organization in recent pro sports history -- heck, maybe ever -- is counting down the days of another forgettable season. The Clippers are 21-48 going into Tuesday's game at Dallas, and any thoughts of the playoffs have long ceased to exist.
|Coach Mike Dunleavy praises rookie Al Thornton: 'We know he's going to be a good player.' (Getty Images)|
Yes, the Clippers made the postseason two years ago under coach Mike Dunleavy, then in his third season of a reclamation project that was the NBA's version of Ground Zero. From 1978, when the franchise moved to Southern California from Buffalo, through Dunleavy's arrival in 2003, the Clippers reached the playoffs three times -- twice under Larry Brown (1992, '93) and once under Bill Fitch ('97). Cumulative record: 4-9. Playoff series won: None.
But Dunleavy made the Clippers relevant for once, taking them from 28-54 in 2003-04 to 37-45 in 2004-05 to 47-35 in 2005-06, when they beat Denver in a first-round series and took Phoenix to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.
With young talent Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and Chris Kaman up front and Shaun Livingston and veterans Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley holding forth in the backcourt, the future looked bright enough to require shades. No longer would the Clippers spend more time with the lottery than a problem gambler.
Last season, though, Cassell and Livingston went down to injuries that limited Dunleavy's options at point guard and contributed to the Clippers' 40-42 record -- two games out of the playoffs.
The injury situation has been much worse this season.
Last August, during his usual daily workout, Brand ruptured his left Achilles' tendon. The Clippers were already without Livingston, who in March had undergone reconstructive surgery to repair a gruesome knee injury.
Cassell bailed on the Clippers a month ago, forcing a buyout that led to him signing with Boston, and Kaman has been in and out of the lineup the second half of the season because of back problems. The Clippers have fielded an NBA-high 30 different starting lineups, with no continuity and not enough top-end talent to be very competitive.
Brand and Livingston have been by far the biggest losses. The 6-foot-8, 255-pound Brand, a two-time All-Star who has proved himself as one of the game's top power forwards, was the team's best player and spiritual leader.
"With Elton, you're missing the numbers he gives you, but he's also a guy who practices every day and leads by example with his work ethic," Dunleavy said.
Drafted out of Peoria (Ill.) High in 2004, the 6-7, 180-pound Livingston showed promise of developing into a premier point guard before he went down to injury.
"Shaun has an IQ for the game that is difficult to teach," Clippers assistant coach Jim Eyen said. "He had it coming into the league at a very young age. That's where you start with him -- his ability to see things and be a play ahead of things. You see that from great players in the past."
What does the future hold for the Clippers?
Winning ways return
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Livingston -- who was averaging 9.3 points, 5.1 assists and 3.4 rebounds in 29.8 minutes before getting hurt -- had been a major factor in the Clippers' playoff success in 2006.
"Shaun showed us -- and it was kind of a surprise -- that he can defend," Dunleavy said. "He helped us in the Phoenix series with being able to guard Steve Nash and Leandro Barbosa. He's a great playmaker and passer who was making big-time strides as a scorer when he got injured. Losing that aspect has hurt us, for sure."
Dunleavy has made the best of the remaining cast. Fifth-year center Kaman ranks third in the NBA in rebounds and blocked shots, and forward Al Thornton should make the All-Rookie team.
"Once we learned E.B. and Shaun were going to be out, we knew Kaman had to take the next step up, which he has," Dunleavy said. "He's a center you can pencil in on any championship team. Al started the season with back-to-back ankle injuries that didn't get healed until the middle of December, but from that point on, he's peppered in some big-time games. He still has a lot to learn, but we know he's going to be a good player."
Brand and Livingston continue to travel with the team, and while Livingston will not return this season, it's not inconceivable that Brand could play before the final game. Brand said the Achilles' tendon is "totally healed. It's strong, and my one-leg power is back."
But the Clippers' roster is so thin, and the schedule this time of year so thick, that the team has been unable to practice five-on-five to prepare Brand for duty.
So he sits and watches his teammates.
"It's just been ... impossible," he said, searching for words. "Very frustrating, especially with the great playoff run we had two years ago. Even last year, with the injuries to our point guards (Livingston and Cassell) ... if they don't get hurt, that would be two years in a row in the playoffs for our organization. You take a drop like we've had this year, it's tough to watch. You look at Coach (Dunleavy) ... seeing him down and the season ticket-holders down, that's what really makes it tough."
Livingston had hoped to return by now but was set back by a bout of tendinitis to the knee.
"I'm in a recuperation stage, letting the tendinitis calm down," he said. "It's just minor. It'll get better when I stay off it a little bit. We're not ruling out (a return this season). If it starts to feel better, we'll see. But chances are getting less likely as the season comes to a close."
Livingston admits to being affected by the losing.
"It's tough watching it, tough being around it," he said. "I feel like I could prove a valuable asset to the team by being in there. But I can't do it while watching from behind the bench."
It's not a given that either will be back next season. Livingston, a restricted free agent, said he would like to return, "but we'll have to see how that plays out."
Brand, meanwhile, can opt out of a contract that calls for him to make $16.44 million next season.
"I'm not sure about the (financial) landscape of all the teams and what they're doing," Brand said. "I'm letting my adviser (David Falk) go out there and see what the business aspect of it will be. It's not impossible I won't be back, but this is where I want to be."
Dunleavy expects both to return along with Maggette, who also has an opt-out on his $8.4 million deal next season. If it all comes together, the front line could feature Kaman, Brand and Maggette, with Mobley and Livingston in the backcourt and Thornton coming off the bench along with the Clippers' lottery pick from the 2008 draft.
"There's light at the end of the tunnel," promised Brand.
We'll take his word for it. But we won't bet the mortgage on it, either.