Sterling Set Himself Up for This One

From across the country, Elton Brand's agent called out Clipper owner Donald Sterling.

It's all on Sterling now. He can stand up and shell out big dollars. And he can push the mute button on David Falk.

Brand, a restricted free agent, signed a six-year, $82-million offer sheet with the Miami Heat on Wednesday. The Clippers now have 15 days to keep Brand by matching the offer.

But according to Falk, who was in Florida for Brand's business and for Juwan Howard's signing with the Orlando Magic, the Clippers already missed their deadline -- last summer.

The Clippers could have eliminated this entire free-agency saga by signing Brand to an extension then. Two sources have said Brand was willing to accept a $70-million contract last summer. Falk would say only that it was less than the maximum.

Falk said Sterling said he was not prepared to spend that much money, and that he wanted to wait a year.

"We made a gesture last year to take less than the max," Falk said. "I told him, 'Next year there will be no discount.' "

Falk said he told the Clippers repeatedly throughout the season that when the free agent negotiating period began on July 1, if the Clippers did not offer Brand the maximum contract (seven years, more than $100 million), then he would take his services elsewhere.

Because the NBA's collective bargaining agreement allows the "home" team to offer more money and an additional year to free agents, Brand would not be able to make more elsewhere. But Falk said he was confident other teams would offer the most they were allowed.

"The issue's not the money," Falk said. "That was a constant. The only variable was whether he could get the respect [from the Clippers]."

Well, respect sure seems to come in a shade of green. While Falk did discuss work "environments", he also sounded most impressed by Miami's financial largess.

"A team he didn't play for gave him an offer sheet for the maximum amount," Falk said. "The Clippers never made an offer even for six years."

The Miami offer is front-loaded, paying $7 million before this season.

According to the Clippers, they made an initial offer of $65 million over five years, then increased it to $78 million over six years.

Neither one was what Falk wanted to hear.

Falk called his July 1 deadline a "litmus test of whether they're going to be fair."

Later he compared it to a one-time opportunity, like a "lunar eclipse."

Seven years ago it was Falk who cast a large shadow on the NBA landscape. In that free-spending summer he landed nine-figure deals for Alonzo Mourning and Juwan Howard, and signed a one-year deal for Michael Jordan worth more than $30 million -- at the time, the largest single-year contract in sports history.

With Jordan and Patrick Ewing retired, Falk's words aren't nearly as loud. He's been much quieter this year, as has the entire free agent market.

So maybe this is Falk feeling as if this is his lone -- and perhaps last -- opportunity to flex. Brand was the No. 1 pick in 1999 , but recent new stars in the league such as Yao Ming and LeBron James have signed with Bill Duffy and Aaron Goodwin.

Brand is Falk's guy for this summer. So Falk told the Clippers to either max out Brand, or let him leave.

"Elton expects Donald to honor his word," Falk said.

If the Clippers match, "Then he'll have broken his word."

He said the Clippers' free agency limbo last season wrecked the team's work environment. And if they bring back only Brand and Corey Maggette while letting Michael Olowokandi and Andre Miller walk away, it will be another dismal time this season.

If Falk wanted to take the issue out of the Clippers' hand entirely he could have simply accepted the Clippers' one-year offer sheet (a minimum offer they had to make if they hoped to retain Brand's services), then taken Brand on the market as an unrestricted free agent next season.

But that short-term flexibility comes at the expense of long-term security. Olowokandi went that route and suffered a huge financial drop-off. Last year, Olowokandi was talking about a maximum contract. Falling fall short of that, he came back to the Clippers this year, and he just signed a three-year contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves for $16.2 million.

Brand has to be worried about injury. He missed the preseason last year after surgery. During the season, he suffered a stress fracture in his leg that caused him to sit out March, but he returned for the last nine games.

Brand still averaged a double-double -- 18.5 points and 11.3 rebounds -- in the 62 games he played.

That makes him a rare -- and valuable -- commodity in the NBA. And the key player in Falk's off-season as well.

At Falk's peak, he could play chess with owners, as another agent described it. Now he wants the Clippers to take their hands off of this piece, Brand.

"It's time to let him go," Falk said.

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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