TrueHoop: Cuttino Mobley

Elton Brand and Chris Kaman come home

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
11:44
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Brand and Kaman
NBAE/Getty Images
These two guys once occupied the Clippers' frontcourt, and the hopes of Clippers fans.
When Elton Brand positions himself for a rebound, he’s usually not the first guy to leave his feet.

Those are luxuries afforded to younger men, but not a 33-year-old who ruptured his left Achilles tendon back in 2007. These days, when Brand wants a rebound, he has to outwit opposing centers, which often means letting them sky toward the glass while Brand squeezes his way through the throng of bodies to a spot, then times his modest jump for the ball precisely.

Brand was never much of a leaper and during his prime with the Los Angeles Clippers he was often referred to as an undersized power forward with average athleticism. Back in 2006, he was arguably one of the 10 best basketball players on the planet, before that Achilles injury downgraded him to serviceable 'n' scrappy.

His partner in the Clippers’ frontcourt was a young center named Chris Kaman, who looked like a Great Pyrenees after a bath, but had the footwork of Fred Astaire.

At 26 and 23 respectively, Brand and Kaman were penciled in as the Clippers’ tentpoles up front for years to come. Reliable frontcourt tandems are a rare commodity in the NBA, but the Clippers had a solid one. Brand and Kaman bullied opponents on the glass, could both play the pick-and-pop, and were the stalwarts of an eighth-ranked defensive unit that carried a below-average offense to within one game of the 2006 Western Conference finals.

On Wednesday night at Staples Center, Brand and Kaman return together as Dallas Mavericks to face the Clippers. Both are essential cogs in Dallas’ makeshift, but oddly effective, frontcourt rotation.

The effect will be surreal for longtime Clippers fans who remember that the current Chris Paul-Blake Griffin Administration wasn’t the franchise’s first foray into contention. The Brand Era Clippers showed all kinds of promise and were the kind of good Clippers fans pined for. While the Lakers were embroiled in high drama in 2006 with charges that Kobe Bryant tanked a Game 7 against Phoenix, the Clippers quietly went about their business.

At the time, I wrote, “For Clipper fans, 2006 is Year Zero in Los Angeles basketball, and the long shadows of the Lakers championship banners are receding. In fact, the Clippers' success this year is a direct result of not emulating the Lakers. In the summer of 2004, Kobe Bryant passed up Clippers owner Donald Sterling's huge contract offer to re-sign with the purple and gold. At that moment, the Clips cemented their image as a team of relatively uncharismatic, unselfish role players. It's a perfect match for a fan base that sees itself as middle class and not so gullible about Hollywood stardom.”

As it turns out, ditch-digging can get a team only so far without superstars. Brand lost his powers, Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley got old, Corey Maggette became disgruntled, Shaun Livingston went down and Kaman shuttled between the injury list and the court, where he faced stifling double-teams while Brand was on the mend. After their 2006 playoff run, the Clippers wouldn’t finish a season above .500 until Paul arrived more than five years later.

Brand and Kaman occupy a curious place in the collective memory of Clipper Nación. You won’t find a Clippers fan who isn’t giddy about the current state of things, but a warm nostalgia exists for those mid-aught Clippers teams. Those fans saw something of themselves in Brand’s anonymity and Kaman’s imperfections.

Still, some residual resentment lingers over the way Brand skipped town in the middle of the night to sign with Philadelphia. Kaman was part of the deal for Paul, but his flakiness had started to wear a little thin. Clippers fans miss Kaman the way you’d miss an eccentric housemate who moved out. The behavior you can gladly live without, but there was comfort in the familiarity. Kaman was a big dufus, but he was our big dufus, many would say.

Brand and Kaman haven’t shared the court together much for Dallas in recent games, but if they do find themselves on Wednesday night as a tandem patrolling the paint, taking turns on Griffin and working the side pick-and-roll with the Mavs’ guards, it will be a trippy sight for Clippers fans who have grown accustomed to a new way of seeing the game, but for many years saw these two below-the-rim blue-collar stiffs as the embodiment of their identity.
DeMar DeRozan was the headliner and only active NBA player at the 1:15 p.m. game on Saturday at Drew League -- but former Rockets and Clippers guard Cuttino Mobley was the entire story.

Mobley scored 37 points for Go H.A.M. (whose logo oddly resembles the Piggly Wiggly, if the pig had a basketball in its mouth). He beat defenders with his crossover, mercilessly posted up smaller defenders for easy buckets, drained rainbow 3s, hit ridiculous leaners, went right with a vicious drive and-1, pulled the chair out on his man to force a turnover, swatted the ball away on a one-on-one break, flew in to the basket area and followed a DeRozan miss, thread the needle in traffic to his big man, then iced the game with a big shot inside of two minutes.

The PA announcer at Washington Park's gym offers a running commentary of each game. As he said over the mic, "Get a professional to do the job!" On the far side of the gym, an old-timer squawked, "They took his ass out of the nursing home and look at this!"

We caught up with Mobley after the game to discuss his three-year quest to return to the NBA.

Mobley discussed his frustration with the New York Knicks, whom he feels unfairly precipitated his retirement, NBA labor issues and his newest cause: trying to open a marijuana dispensary in Providence, RI and educating the public on the issue. Mobley says medical marijuana is about compassion and health. He feels passionately that the biggest hurdle in framing the conversation is the stigma carried by marijuana, one he feels historically has racial overtones and is widely misunderstood.

Our postgame conversation with Mobley:

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

The last time Quentin Richardson was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, the Clips were a promising, young squad that included Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Bobby Simmons and Chris Wilcox. Next week, Richardson will be shipped back to Los Angeles as nothing more than filler in a deal that will send Zach Randolph from the Clippers to Memphis. It's a seemingly inequitable trade -- the 20/10 in Randolph for gimpy, marginal Richardson -- until you look beneath the surface: 

    Richardson & Randolph 

    Two Clips passing in the night.
    (Ray Amati via NBAE/Getty Images)

  • The player that matters most in this trade is neither Randolph nor Richardson, but the Clippers' No. 1 pick, Blake Griffin. Randolph is a single-minded post scorer who likes to work on the right block -- precisely where Blake Griffin is slated to build his NBA career as a monstrous big man. For the Clippers, moving Randolph clears the way for Griffin, where he'll play alongside Marcus Camby, Chris Kaman and Griffin's pal, the intriguing DeAndre Jordan.

  • For the Clippers, moving Randolph isn't just about clearing minutes -- it allows the franchise to press rewind on what was a disastrous cultural acquisition in Randolph. Although Randolph's selfishness, disinterest on defense, and questionable off-court character were no secret, Mike Dunleavy felt he had to find a frontcourt scorer after the Clippers lost Brand to Philadelphia. He pushed all in on Randolph, absorbing three years and approximately $45 million in exchange for a couple of 2010 expiring contracts (Tim Thomas and Cuttino Mobley). Randolph put up his usual solid offensive numbers, but the Clippers still finished the season with a horrendous 19-63 record.

    Worse, the team descended into a lazy funk. Though the blame can't be attributed solely to Randolph, the Clippers had to endure Randolph's sucker punch to Louis Amundson (resulting in suspension) and a drunk driving arrest (also resulting in suspension). For an organization that did an admirable job reshaping its image the preceding half-dozen years or so, 2008-09 was a disheartening setback -- and Randolph was at the crime scene.

  • By shipping Z-Bo out of town, the Clippers move the remaining two years and $33.3 million of his contract. Richardson stands to earn only $9.35 million in 2009-10, and his contract expires at the end of the season. He might get some burn on the wing. With his bad back, he might not. For the Clips, it's of little import. The move gives them significant cap room for the summer of 2010, when both Marcus Camby and Ricky Davis will also come off the books -- nearly $20 million.

  • That brings us to the obvious question: If Randolph is so inimical to an NBA team's rebuilding effort -- as determined by the Clippers, and New York and Portland before them -- why does Memphis want him? The answer, as it was for the Clippers in November of last year, is that there aren't a lot of available power forwards who can score and rebound the way Randolph can, and the Grizz need some production down low.

    If you want to take a glass-half-full approach, you can look at a couple of mitigating factors in Memphis. Randolph's worst qualities on the court are his ineffectual interior defense and his tendency to become a black hole in the offense. With Hasheem Thabeet, Memphis has a big man who can protect the rim and compensate for Randolph. And in Marc Gasol, they have a complementary big who knows how to move the ball out of the high post. In addition, if there's one team in the NBA without cap concerns, it's Memphis, which has only $17 million committed in salaries after next season. 
The NBA's salary cap structure is usually unforgiving of teams that made the kind of miscalculation the Clippers did on Randolph last season. But the Clippers have been leading a charmed existence over the past six weeks. First Blake Griffin lands in their lap, and now they find a willing sucker for Zach Randolph.

This is a few days old, but I'm seeing it for the first time today (via Neil Paine). Very interesting indeed:

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

The Los Angeles Clippers probably don't deserve the top pick in the upcoming draft, not after piling up 61 losses in disreputable fashion, but they need the pick just the same. It's not that the Clippers lack talent -- they don't. Nor do they have a hole at power forward, not with the immovable human millstone, Zach Randolph, entrenched for another two seasons and $33.3 million. The pick isn't about need.

People who don't follow the team haven't sensed the inertia Clippers fans and the organization felt in the years following 2001, but it was real. Ownership was spending money to retain talent, something that didn't happen during the Clippers' first 19 years in Los Angeles. They built a sleek, sexy training facility in Playa Vista, a gym Lakers' playoff opponents have raved about after practicing there this spring. The seasons immediately following the 47-35 campaign in 2005-06 were setbacks, but there was still an impression that the team's culture had turned a corner and that the Clippers were capable of respectability.  

Things deteriorated after Elton Brand jilted the Clippers for Philadelphia last summer. The team stumbled out of the gate 2-13, and Baron Davis seemed disinterested. Then Mike Dunleavy bet the farm and dealt for Randolph, and little by little, the franchise started to take on an entirely different complexion. Gone were the gritty competitors who, for their many failings, always put in the work. Corey Maggette wasn't the headiest forward to put on a Clippers' jersey, but he never dogged a single possession. Cuttino Mobley, aptly described by John Hollinger as "the Steve Trachsel of the NBA," still gave you 120 pitches a night and 220 innings a season. Shaun Livingston, before his injury, desperately wanted to fulfill expectations, even as he fell short of them. Elton Brand's persona before he slithered out in the middle of the night exuded professionalism and class.

By January, the 2008-09 Clippers were careless and obnoxious. The old bromides were released, as the Clippers again became a punch line -- only this time it wasn't just the losing that fueled the ridicule. The Clippers displayed incompetence off the floor, and laziness on it. Basic basketball tasks such as inbounding the ball beneath the opponent's basket after a made field goal couldn't be executed. Davis fell victim to a few injuries, and rather than compensate with extra effort and a determination to stay in top form, Davis sulked at the inconvenient reality that he couldn't perform the way he wanted to. Meanwhile, Randolph's behavior was predictable, with a series of distractions ranging from a sucker-punch to Lou Amundson's jaw, to being arrested for driving drunk. In March, owner Donald Sterling unleashed an ill-timed tirade in the locker room that quickly became a public embarrassment. 

Blake Griffin can't possibly rehabilitate the franchise on his own, and his addition presents some complications, given the money and bodies the Clippers have tied up in the frontcourt. In addition to Randolph's contract, the Clippers are carrying Chris Kaman for another three years and $33.9 million. They also have Marcus Camby returning for the final year of his deal. Moving Randolph is an impossibility. The organization would like to move Kaman, but Camby's reasonable expiring contract is far more attractive to suitors (as it is to the Clippers). 

I'm not entirely sold on Griffin's prospects as a superstar because there are too many holes in his game to offer any guarantees. The NBA is now a point guard's league, and idea of Ricky Rubio igniting the franchise is exciting. That he presents a greater risk than Griffin makes him even more alluring.

Even if Griffin has a ceiling, the Clippers took their first step back to respectability in nearly a year. Griffin is a charismatic, appealing jokester with a wide-ranging presence. The inside-out threat he and guard Eric Gordon could present could be devastating. Griffin, unlike the stoic Gordon, has the capacity to make the team his, a responsibility Baron came to realize he didn't want to endure. And someone -- anyone -- needs to translate capacity into desire for the Los Angeles Clippers.

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