LOS ANGELES (AP) -Two years ago at this time, the Los Angeles Clippers were about to begin a playoff run that ended one win shy of the Western Conference finals.
Now, they're headed home for the summer after completing a most disappointing campaign in which they finished 23-59 - their worst record in eight years.
Actually, the Clippers were doomed to also-ran status in the powerful Western Conference three months before the season began when Elton Brand, one of the NBA's better players, tore his left Achilles' tendon during a personal workout. And that was only the beginning for a team that had its players lose an NBA-leading 321 games to injury or illness.
``The injury part of it is the frustration part,'' Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said. ``We probably had close to $30 million of the salary cap on the sidelines every night. If you let me take $30 million off every team we play, I'll take my chances.''
Brand sat out 74 games before returning to action, but by that time, the Clippers, who started 4-0, were out of playoff contention and undermanned as well. They wound up losing their last seven games and 26 of their last 30.
``This was not at all what I wanted,'' Brand said. ``I wanted to come back and get some wins, but the other teams wore us down a little bit. It definitely gave me some piece of mind that I can play. After the summer and working out again and playing again and getting my bearings, I expect to have a great season.''
Brand and leading scorer Corey Maggette can both opt out of their contracts, but both have expressed a desire to return if things can be worked out. The Clippers have only five players on the roster with guaranteed contracts for next season: Chris Kaman, Brevin Knight, Cuttino Mobley, Tim Thomas and rookie standout Al Thornton.
Shaun Livingston, who hasn't played since sustaining a serious knee injury 14 months ago, is due a $5.8 million qualifying offer this summer or he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
``Until you see him play against guys 5-on-5, it's kind of hard to say,'' Dunleavy said regarding Livingston's future with the team. Livingston was the fourth overall pick in the 2004 draft, but hasn't played more than 61 games in a season because of injuries.
Kaman had by far his best season this year, often displaying All-Star ability. But he was limited to 56 games by several injuries.
``If we're healthy next year, it makes us believe that we're as good or better than two years ago,'' Dunleavy said. ``We've got guys like Kaman, Brand, Maggette, Thornton and Mobley who can go for 20 points a night, so we've got a lot of different guys who can break a game open for you.
``We have things to address, certainly, via trade, free agency and the draft, but we've got the tools to do that. We have a lottery pick, so based on that, one way or another, we should get another piece that's going to help us.''
Thornton, the 14th overall pick in last year's draft, averaged 12.7 points and 4.5 rebounds in a team-leading 79 games.
``I think we're better than that team (two years ago) because we have Thornton in the mix,'' Dunleavy said.
The Clippers used an NBA-leading 39 different starting lineups, a factor in what Mobley called a season full of aggravation for him.
``Even though basketball is a love for me, there's things that go with it,'' he said. ``They say `Don't take it home with you,' but you have to take it home as a professional. So having different lineups every single day, no continuity, no chemistry, new guys coming in, things like that, trying to jell fast when other teams already had their guys for years, it's tough, man.
``When I came here, we had the perfect mix. But as you know, guys get hurt and they go down. But hopefully, the blessing will come for us next year. I don't know. We're going to work on our bodies, do what we can do and just pray. There's a lot of hope, but we have to jell together.''
The Clippers were 47-35 two years ago and 40-42 last season.

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