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CLIPPER PREVIEW : They Have New Coach; Cage Returns

November 06, 1987|CHRIS BAKER | Times Staff Writer

The new-look Clippers may look a lot like the old model, whose 12-70 record last season was the third-worst in National Basketball Assn. history, when they open their season tonight at Denver.

The Clippers have a new coach and six new players but they also have a lot of old problems.

They will play their first game without power forward Michael Cage. However, Cage, the sixth-leading rebounder in the NBA last season, agreed in principle to a new contract Thursday night. He will sign this morning and will be in uniform Saturday night.

The Clippers led the NBA in injuries last season and suffered a major blow Wednesday when point guard Norm Nixon was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon.

Nixon, who sat out last season with a knee injury, looked sharp in training camp, and the Clippers were hoping that he would be able to motivate 7-foot center Benoit Benjamin.

Benjamin, after showing late in his rookie season that he can play in the NBA, displayed almost none of that talent and determination last season and didn't look a whole lot better in recent exhibition games as the Clippers went 2-6, losing their last five.

Journeyman center-forward Earl Cureton, who has been in camp less than a week, could start in place of Benjamin tonight. Cureton, who signed a one-year contract for a reported $265,000 last week, started the last 10 games of the 1986-87 regular season.

The Clippers, desperate for experienced help in the front line, are also negotiating with veteran forward Scott Wedman, 35, who tried out Monday. They are having problems signing him, though, because of salary-cap restrictions.

But time, tide and the NBA season wait for no man--or team--and Coach Gene Shue said: "Ready or not, here we come. That's the way it works."

Shue is regarded as an expert at turning around losing teams. And he says he's such an optimist that he'd have kept smiling if he'd been the captain of the Titanic--"as long as I could get off."

He took over as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1973, the season after the 76ers posted the worst record in NBA history, 9-73. Shue had the 76ers in the NBA Finals four years later.

His first rebuilding job was with the Baltimore Bullets. They had the worst record in the NBA before he came, and he had them in the finals before he left.

But Shue, a two-time NBA Coach of the Year, may find the Clippers his biggest challenge.

This is his second stint with the Clippers. He coached them in San Diego from 1978 to 1980, and the team hasn't been above .500 since he left. The Clippers were 43-39 in Shue's first season and 35-47 the following season.

Shue, understandably, isn't predicting immediate success for the Clippers, who are trying to rebuild with six rookies, including first-round draft choices Reggie Williams of Georgetown, Joe Wolf of North Carolina and Ken Norman of Illinois. The Clippers will be one of the youngest teams in the league with an average age of 25.2.

Williams, the fourth player picked in the draft, is being touted as a candidate for Rookie of the Year. Shue tried him at small forward but said he'll probably use him at big guard.

Shue, however, still doesn't have a regular starting lineup.

Larry Drew will replace Nixon at point guard, with Darnell Valentine coming off the bench. Drew, who missed 22 games last season with hamstring and ankle injuries, played well during the exhibition season.

Shue said he will wait until tonight to decide whether Benjamin or Cureton will open at center.

Wolf will start at power forward in place of Cage. Wolf, 6 feet 11 inches and 230 pounds, impressed observers in training camp until he suffered a groin injury that hindered his progress.

Mike Woodson, who led the team in scoring last season with a 17.1-points-a-game average, will start at small forward or big guard. If Woodson plays forward, then Quintin Dailey will start at guard.

Clipper Notes

The other rookies on the Clippers' opening-night roster are forward Tod Murphy of UC Irvine, 7-2 center Martin Nesley of Duke and forward Norris Coleman of Kansas St. . . . The Clippers will open their home season Saturday night against Portland. NBA Commissioner David Stern will attend that game. . . . Norm Nixon underwent surgery to repair a torn right Achilles' tendon Thursday. He'll be in a cast for at least six weeks. . . . The Clippers had a 3-2 record against Denver last season, winning all three games at the Sports Arena. Otis Smith, a second-round draft pick last year, will start at guard for the Nuggets tonight. The other Denver starters are guard Fat Lever, forwards Alex English and Calvin Natt and center Wayne Cooper. The Nuggets cut journeyman forward Hank McDowell to open a spot for rookie forward Andre Moore, a second-round draft selection from Loyola of Chicago. . . . Nugget guards Maurice Martin (knee surgery) and Mike Evans (jammed left shoulder) have been put on the injured list.

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