LOS ANGELES - Cuttino Mobley's eyes narrowed as he pondered the question: What in the world was he thinking when he joined the Los Angeles Clippers last summer?
"To change the perception," he replied, a bit of a growl in his voice.
And the perception?
"That they were losers."
That's certainly not the case right now. And if the first 10 games of the season are any indication, those days are behind them.
The Clippers, one of the true laughingstocks in professional sports through most of their existence, lead the Pacific Division with an 8-2 record, tying them for the top spot in the Western Conference with the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs entering Monday night's action.
"I've been on good teams, so it's no biggie for me," Mobley said. "I didn't come here to be on a losing team. We can be really good."
Seldom has the word good been used to describe the Clippers. This is a franchise that's made the playoffs only six times in 35 seasons and won only one postseason series - in 1976 when the franchise played in Buffalo.
The Clippers entered this season with an overall regular-season record of 1,017-1,821 including 572-1,118 since moving from San Diego to Los Angeles in 1984.
They've had only one winning season in Los Angeles, going 45-37 in 1991-92, and haven't made the playoffs since 1997.
All that history doesn't mean a thing at this point. The 8-2 start is the best in franchise history.
"I think the biggest thing is the past is the past," forward Corey Maggette said. "It's good that the team's playing well. We don't want to get cocky - it's still early. We just want to keep doing what we're doing."
The 26-year-old Maggette is part of one of the NBA's best young front lines, along with 26-year-old Elton Brand and 23-year-old Chris Kaman.
The 30-year-old Mobley and fellow newcomer Sam Cassell, 36, make up a veteran backcourt that knows how to win close games - which has been a struggle for the Clippers.
For example, they were 9-21 last season in games decided by five points or less. They're 2-1 in such games so far this year.
As Maggette pointed out, it's early.
"We're just much better with the guys they brought in," Brand said. "They're really tested. Now we have guys who have won, been successful. I think the thing that's different is the contract situation is taken care of for most of the guys. We used to implode at the end because we had 11 guys without contracts. Guys aren't worried about that now. We only have to think about winning."
For the first time in their history, the Clippers made expensive, long-term commitments in the summer of 2003 when they matched the offer sheets received by Brand from the Miami Heat (six years for over $80 million) and Maggette from the Utah Jazz (six years for $42 million).
Then, they signed Mobley to a five-year, $42 million deal last summer and acquired Cassell in a sign-and-trade deal with Minnesota. Cassell can become a free agent next summer, but has already expressed a desire to remain with the Clippers.
"We have such great chemistry," Maggette said. "We have good leadership, and Elton's been playing tremendous."
Brand, playing better than ever, is averaging 24.1 points and 10 rebounds. Maggette is close behind with a 20.5-point average, and Mobley and Cassell are combining to score nearly 33 points per game.
The team is playing much better defense, too.
The Clippers had the best November in franchise history last year, going 9-6 before fading to finish 37-45. They appear to be a cinch to better that record this month, with the obvious hope being they don't fade as they've done so often in the past.
"As long as we just concentrate on what we have to do, we'll be OK," Mobley said. "It's as simple as that. I have confidence in myself and my team. The intensity's going to have to step up."
The Clippers have usually had high first-round draft picks, so they've had some talented players. But not like this team.
"This is the most talent that we've had, the most depth," said Elgin Baylor, one of the best players in NBA history who's been the Clippers' general manager since 1986.
"The chemistry, the camaraderie, has been excellent," Baylor said. "I like the spirit of this team. They believe they can win. It's a different mind-set this year. They believe they're going to win close games."
Third-year coach Mike Dunleavy said before the season began that he believed the Clippers would make the playoffs if they stayed healthy.
He feels the same way now.
"I like coming to work every day. We have a good group," he said. "If we stay healthy, we're going to have a good team. Every game is a statement game for us. We want to make the playoffs."
Dunleavy said Cassell has made a tremendous difference.
"He's been great, not only from a playing standpoint, but a leadership standpoint and a chemistry standpoint," the coach said. "That's where he's surprised me the most. He and Cuttino have really amazed me, the way they've dealt with the other players."
Dunleavy believes the Clippers will be even better when 2004 first-round draft pick Shaun Livingston returns to action. Livingston hasn't played this season because of back problems. It's hoped he'll be playing within a month.
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