NEW YORK -- Should this summer of Clipper surprises end with the matching of Miami's hefty offer to Lamar Odom, Donald Sterling will have committed some $190 million in long-term salaries to three players.
Yes. That Donald Sterling.
It's a level of spending even Elton Brand struggled to believe at first, even though he's the one Clipper -- the first in franchise history -- who was widely considered a lock to be retained at any price.
"I honestly didn't think they would match on me," Brand said this week at Team USA's training camp at John Jay College.
Brand's six-year, $82 million year offer sheet from the Heat was the first of four Match Game rounds for Sterling. The Clippers matched the Brand offer just three days into the 15-day window allotted, later matched Utah's six-year, $42 million offer to Corey Maggette and let Andre Miller go to Denver in a six-year deal worth $51 million.
Now it's the Odom round. The Clippers have until Aug. 26 to respond to Miami's six-year, $65 million offer, and sources close to the negotiations insist, unlikely as it sounds to Brand and so many more of us, that the Clips will match again. General manager Elgin Baylor and new coach Mike Dunleavy are among those who have told Odom in recent weeks that he should expect to be back in Los Angeles.
If so, the Clippers can only hope Odom eventually accepts the idea the way Brand has. Odom has spent the past week publicly pleading for the Clippers to let him go, hoping that widespread knowledge of his discontent will make Sterling reluctant to write a third big check. Brand admits that he was just as excited about the prospect of playing for the Heat as Odom is now, but he has let the initial disappointment melt away.
"I put it behind me," Brand said. "I'm ready. I'm a Clipper. They matched, so let's go. Let's get this team right. Let's get to the playoffs."
Brand admits that he was stung at the start of the summer when the Clips, who could have offered him a seven-year deal worth in excess of $100 million, offered less than Miami over six years. After signing the Heat's offer sheet, Brand spoke directly to Sterling, asking the owner if he would be set free. Sterling told Brand there was no chance he'd go unmatched, and Brand has since managed to embrace his status as the history-making First Clipper Ever To Be Paid.
"It's not a bad thing," he said. "Hopefully we're headed towards a brighter future."
Of course, that depends largely on how the Odom situation resolves. Losing Odom without compensation, after letting Miller, Eric Piatkowski (Houston) and Michael Olowokandi (Minnesota) leave for free, would be a major blow. Re-signing Brand and Maggette alone account for a club-record expenditure of $124 million, and there were indeed cheaper ways for Sterling to get to the league-mandated minimum payroll of $32.9 million, but the Clippers' summer only will be considered a mild breakthrough, rather than an outright success, if another key player departs.
Yet even if Odom stays, giving L.A. a core of three players with secured futures and an accomplished coach to mold them, plenty of work remains. The Clippers have lost two starters (Olowokandi and Miller) from a team that underachieved miserably and went 27-55. The chemistry should be worlds better next season, with tangible proof in the locker room that Sterling does know the whereabouts of his checkbook, but having a contented and committed Odom is crucial.
"I don't think it's not workable," Brand said, suggesting that Odom won't be the source of a morale problem if the Clippers indeed hang onto him. "If you go back and read some of (agent) David Falk's quotes before (the Clippers) matched my offer, it's very similar."
Brand's good-soldier optimism is also somewhat of a Clipper first, and he knows it's a must. He knows that the Clippers have to establish a positive environment in the wake of last season's debacle if they expect to make any significant improvements, no matter how much talent is on the roster. Brand knows no one will remember, when the season starts, that Sterling was matching other offers instead of offering those big contracts up front.
"When you get paid, you've got to go out there and produce," Brand said. "Simple as that. That's why I want to definitely get the team right."
That's why he wants to see his childhood pal Odom retained, no matter how loudly Odom says he wants to go. Brand is an unerringly consistent 20-and-10 threat, but the First Clipper Ever To Be Paid isn't going to manage much else without sufficient help.