A Brand New Clipper

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the 24 hours before Wednesday's NBA draft, the Clippers had reason to be nervous. Elgin Baylor, vice president of basketball operations, knew he was on the brink of pulling off his second consecutive draft-day steal, but things had to go just right.

In order for the Clippers to complete a trade with the Chicago Bulls that included their No. 2 pick and power forward Brian Skinner for power forward Elton Brand, they needed Chicago native Eddy Curry to be available for the Bulls to take with their No. 4 pick.

"I didn't really want to go to sleep because I didn't want to dream about it and blow it," Clipper Coach Alvin Gentry said. "I didn't know if it could get done. I just thought it was an unbelievable situation."

The key to the Clippers' draft came when the Atlanta Hawks worked out a trade with Vancouver for Shareef Abdur-Rahim that included the Hawks' No. 3 selection. So when the Grizzlies picked 7-footer Pau Gasol of Spain after Washington drafted Kwame Brown No. 1 and the Clippers nabbed prep standout Tyson Chandler of Compton Dominguez at No. 2, the deal was on.

"This trade brings us to another level sooner than we anticipated with the addition of Brand," Baylor said. "If we had kept [Chandler], we would have gotten a young unproven player, who I think is going to be a terrific player someday but how soon, I didn't know.

"But with Brand we have to be excited because he is a proven player. He's 22 years old with plenty of upside."

Brand, the No. 1 overall pick in 1999 after playing two seasons at Duke, was co-rookie of the year playing for the lowly Bulls. In two consistent seasons with Chicago, Brand averaged 20.1 points, 10 rebounds and 1.61 blocks.

By picking up Brand, Baylor not only put himself in position to win NBA executive of the year next season, but he also should be in line for a hefty raise from owner Donald Sterling.

Since the close of the 1998-99 season, Baylor and Jeff Weltman, the team's player personnel director, have changed the Clippers from a ragtag collection of players to a respectable team.

"If you look at last year, we wanted to accrue a lot of talent and we said, 'It doesn't matter what position or their age,' " Weltman said. "We just wanted to get as much talent as possible and we really felt that we crossed a threshold this [last season].

"We went into this year thinking that we were at the point where we thought we could shake some things up and add certain pieces. So we said, what do we need to get to the next level? Defensive rebounding was one of our weaker attributes and we addressed that."

The Clippers now have three of the most promising versatile players around in Lamar Odom, Darius Miles and Brand to go with other key components such as Corey Maggette, Eric Piatkowski, Jeff McInnis and Michael Olowokandi.

And this comes after the Clippers improved from 15-67 in 1999-2000 to 31-51 last season.

"When you see moves like this being made, it's clear that we're trying to get better now," said Odom, a close friend of Brand since the two played AAU basketball together in New York City when they were teenagers.

Because Brand did not figure to re-sign with Chicago when he became an unrestricted free agent after the 2003-2004 season, the Bulls wanted to get younger now and start with Chandler and Curry.

Brand, however, said he could have envisioned re-signing with Chicago.

"If we had improved, of course I would have stayed," he said. "I think the 18-year olds have a lot of potential, a lot of upsides. Of course downsides, also. You just have to wait and see."

By adding Brand, the Clippers instantly become a much tougher team. They have the physical power forward to help inside with Olowokandi and a proven leader the Clippers needed to join Odom.

"We were very excited about the talent we got last year and now we're excited about getting a player like Brand," Baylor said. "We were looking for size at four [power forward]. It's not like Miles [who played the position as a rookie], can't still play there, but now he can play multiple positions. He can play the three too.

"Brand also gives us more rebounding. He's a good shot blocker and can run the floor also."

Although the Western Conference is loaded with strong teams, Baylor believes the Clippers can challenge for their first postseason appearance since 1996.

"I hope [Gentry] doesn't feel any pressure and just tries to do the best job that he possibly can," Baylor said. "[Making the playoffs] is our goal. We know that in order to get into the playoffs in the West, you need a winning record. . . . But we want to do whatever it takes to get into the playoffs."

Winning will not only be important for Gentry, who is entering his final guaranteed year in his contract unless the Clippers pick up the option for the last two years before training camp, but it will also be for the Clipper players.

Under Sterling, it's doubtful if they will be re-signed when they become free agents unless the Clippers win now.

"Things have a way of working out," said Andy Roeser, Clipper executive vice president. "We like the guys we have and we know how talented they are. We consider them special players and we intend to find a way to keep them."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The trade between the Clippers and the Chicago Bulls:

COMING . . .

* Elton Brand, 6-8, 275-pound forward

. . . AND GOING

* Rights to Tyson Chandler, 7-0, 228-pound forward

* Brian Skinner 6-9, 255-pound forward

BRAND AT A GLANCE

* 2000-01 Statistics--

20.1 points, 10.1 rebounds

47% shooting

* Career Statistics (two years)--20.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 47% shooting

Lineup Comparison

Clippers' projected lineup for 2001-2002 season and the one they used at the end of the lockout-shortened 1999 season:

STARTERS

*--*

2001-2002 Position 1999 (Projected) Record: 9-41, .180 Lamar Odom Small Forward Tyrone Nesby Elton Brand Power Forward Maurice Taylor Michael Olowokandi Center Michael Olowokandi Eric Piatkowski Shooting Guard Eric Piatkowski Jeff McInnis Point Guard Sherman Douglas

*--*

*

RESERVES

*--*

2001-2002 (Proj.) Position 1999 Corey Maggette Small Forward Lamond Murray Darius Miles Power Forward Rodney Rogers Derek Srrong Power Forward Lorenzen Wright To Be Determined Power Forward Brian Skinner Sean Rooks Center Keith Closs Keyon Dooling Shooting Guard James Robinson Quentin Richardson Shooting Guard Charles Smith Earl Boykins Point Guard Troy Hudson To Be Determined Guard Darrick Martin

*--*

Unsigned Free Agents: Injured List

*--*

Cherokee Parks Forward-Center Stojko Vrankovic Zendon Hamilton (F) Other Position Pooh Richardson (PG)

*--*

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