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Fresh Faces Are Hoping to Stop the Stale Jokes

Nucleus of young players has talent, but it will take more than that to help team shed its loser image.


It was the third quarter of a meaningless exhibition and the Clippers were stuck in the middle of a scoring drought against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Open shots were missed and bad shots were forced. Nothing seemed to work and Coach Alvin Gentry's new up-tempo offense looked like a dance floor at a rap concert.

Then suddenly rookie Darius Miles took over. A juke here, a crossover dribble there and he was at the rim for an easy layup. The next time Miles touched the ball, he sliced through the open court for an easy finger-roll basket.

Elgin Baylor, vice president of basketball operations, simply shook his head. "That kid has talent," he said about Miles, drafted out of high school by the Clippers with the No. 3 overall pick. "This is the most talent we've had since I've been here."

The Clippers do have a great deal of talent.

Lamar Odom, Michael Olowokandi, Corey Maggette, Tyrone Nesby, Quentin Richardson, Brian Skinner, Keyon Dooling and Miles represent a strong young nucleus to build around. A group of players contractually committed to the Clippers for at least the next two seasons, thanks to the league's new collective bargaining agreement.

So for a franchise that has won only 24 of its last 143 regular-season games, there's reason to be optimistic. But the Clippers have had talent before and still lost.

How well the team does this season will be determined by how much the players buy into Gentry's coaching philosophy. Based on how the team played in going 5-3 over the exhibition season, he's off to a good start.

"Alvin is quick to tell the guys that if all this stuff [the system being implemented by the Clipper coaching staff] works, you guys will get the credit. If we lose, [the coaching staff] will get the blame," assistant Dennis Johnson said about Gentry.

"He's also gotten through to the players for them to accept responsibility for themselves. With everything he's been doing, he's telling them that they have to learn to trust their teammates. . . . He's put an air of confidence in them that they can see."

Confidence and the Clippers? That's a combination that doesn't seem right but it's true. The Clippers are a confident team heading into the start of the 2000-2001 season.

Maybe because the players are too young and naive to understand the challenge they face or they simply don't care about the franchise's losing history, Gentry's Clippers believe they can win now.

"We're looking pretty good," said third-year swingman Nesby. "I hope we can keep it up. Playing hard and not stopping. I like the feeling of winning. It feels good. Even when you might not have a good game, we have enough [talent] to still win and that makes everything better."

After having one of the worst defensive teams in the league last season, the Clippers are dedicated to making defense a priority. Every day, the team goes over some type of defensive drill. Gentry figures the earlier the young players get the basic defensive fundamentals down, the quicker the team will start to win.

A perfect practice for Gentry is when a player like Miles completes as many successful defenses of a pick-and-roll play as dunks.

"Defense is the main thing," Nesby said. "It's something we have focused on more. We have a lot of talent but everyone in the league has talent. I've learned that offense isn't the big thing, it is defense. That's what we've worked on the most and I feel we're starting to do a pretty good job."

Gentry has placed a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of Odom, who is starting his second season in the league. Despite Odom's age--he will turn 21 next Monday--Gentry believes he's ready to lead a team.

"We talk about a lot of stuff that happens off the court that makes you a leader," Gentry said. "We had one good talk over the summer. I got on him pretty good about responsibility and stuff like that. He's done great since that day. At 20, he still has a lot to learn. But he has made an unbelievable improvement. I think he just needed to be told that he was going to be held accountable."

With rookies Miles, Richardson and Dooling expected to play key roles this season, Odom wants to be a good example for them. After playing in the background for most of last season, Odom is determined to prove that he's a winner.

"I think the adjustment is going to be easy for me," Odom said. "I felt like I've been a leader on the team. Especially toward the end of last year. I'm just going to be myself . . . being as vocal as normal."

Whereas Gentry is expecting big things from Odom, he's not placing a lot of pressure on Miles, despite the rookie's strong showing in the exhibition season.

"When you are a great high school player like he was, you didn't go against a player at your talent level every night," Gentry said about Miles' adjustment to the NBA. "But in this league, every night you're going to play against someone as talented as you are.

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