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THE NBA: WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN 1985-86 SEASON : . . . It'll Be Hard for Clippers Not to : Maxwell, Wilkes Are Latest Attempts to Build From Without

October 25, 1985|SAM McMANIS | Times Staff Writer

The Clippers, still seeking their first appearance in the National Basketball Assn. playoffs under their current name, location and ownership, continually try to surround themselves with people who previously have been accustomed to winning.

Maybe they figure success can be contagious.

In any event, the cast now includes:

--Don Chaney, starting his first full season as the coach, but best remembered as a player on two NBA championship teams in Boston.

--Newly acquired power forward Cedric Maxwell, who played on two of Boston's recent championship teams.

--Small forward Jamaal Wilkes, who was cut loose by the Lakers after last season. He has played on four championship teams in the last decade.

But it seems that once players join this well-traveled franchise, starting its second season in Los Angeles after largely undistinguished stints in Buffalo and San Diego, they learn how to lose quickly and with regularity.

Ask Marques Johnson and Junior Bridgeman, who never dreamed of a 31-51 record when they were traded to the Clippers by Milwaukee before last season.

Despite a lineup that also included Norm Nixon and Bill Walton, two more players who wear championship rings, the Clippers failed to make the playoffs, marking the ninth consecutive season of frustration for the franchise in any of its various home cities.

Undaunted, Chaney figures the Clippers eventually will have so many players who are used to winning that they're bound to become a good team. It sounds logical, but the Clippers will have to overcome their losing history to make it reality.

Their 82-game quest for a playoff spot will begin tonight at 7:30 when they open the season against the newly relocated Sacramento Kings at Sacramento.

"I don't care about history," Chaney said. "This is a different team under the same name. It's like a restaurant that's failed. You bring in new management and start again. It's a different era, different team, different players."

That's food for thought, but a lot of questions will have to be answered positively if the Clippers want to avoid a recurrence of the indigestion that comes from losing:

--Will the Clippers sign free-agent point guard Nixon, who, depending on which side you ask, is seeking between $225,000 to $300,000 more than owner Donald T. Sterling is willing to pay?

--Failing that, will they be able to arrange a trade that will bring them another first-rate point guard?

--Will Johnson rebound from the worst season of his career and become the productive small forward the Clippers traded Terry Cummings for?

--Can Maxwell, who Chaney says has fully recovered from knee surgery, adjust to not winning every night and remain a quality player?

--Can 7-foot Benoit Benjamin, the club's first-round draft pick, adapt to NBA play quickly enough to make a major contribution this season?

If even a couple of those answers are no, the Clippers will most likely find themselves out of the playoffs--again.

Franklin Edwards will start at point guard in Nixon's absence, and that has to be considered the Clippers' most glaring weakness, considering that Chaney is planning to use primarily a fast-break offense and a trapping defense.

Chaney will have Johnson--does he realize he has Marques, not Magic?--move over from forward and help with ballhandling duties. Lancaster Gordon, an off-guard whose game was merely off last season, will also play some at point guard.

"It's going to be tough without Norm," shooting guard Derek Smith said. "I've had dreams about Norm. I go to bed at night thinking we need him and wake up thinking we need him."

One way or another, Nixon's situation will be settled by Nov. 6. NBA rules say that if a free agent does not receive an offer after 150 days--Nov. 6--his old team can present him with the same contract he had last season and prevent him from negotiating with other teams until after the season.

So, Nixon's options after Nov. 6 will be to simply sit out the season, at considerable cost to himself, or return and try to catch up.

Meanwhile, the Clippers are still trying to trade Nixon, and Fred Slaughter, Nixon's agent, is seeking an offer sheet. According to Slaughter, there is nothing new on either front.

With Nixon, the Clippers seemingly have a solid starting lineup. But then, people thought the same thing last season.

Smith was the Clippers' best player last season, averaging 22 points, and he is expected to be the top offensive weapon again.

Nixon's absence, however, will have a negative effect on Smith's performance. Not only will Smith be called upon to handle the ball more in the backcourt, he will no doubt miss the lob passes near the basket that Nixon often fed him last season.

At power forward, Maxwell will be asked to play a total game for the first time in several years. At Boston, he gave up offense to concentrate on defense and rebounding. Chaney wants it all.

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