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Next Step Is to Chart Course to Playoffs

Clippers: Young crew navigated through uncertain waters, but there's room for improvement for all hands.


Now that the Clippers' most encouraging season in years is finally over, the franchise must zero in on taking the next step.

And maybe the most important aspect of their off-season is that owner Donald Sterling can do what he does best, which is usually nothing, and his team still has a great chance to improve.

"If we can continue to work and put in the time working on our individual weaknesses, we can come back and be a better team regardless of what kind of personnel changes we make," Coach Alvin Gentry said. "We have a lot of young, talented players, but it's important for them to keep working hard."

The Clippers really couldn't have asked for a more exciting season from the second-youngest team in the league. Thanks to their core of budding young stars led by Lamar Odom, the Clippers finished the season as one of the NBA's hottest teams, winning 13 of their final 16 games at home.

"I've been in the league 13 years . . . and I've had the most fun ever," said Gentry, who completed his first season coaching the Clippers. "It's been because everyone has been so focused in on what we're trying to get done. But we also know there is a huge gap from where we have to get to."

The Clippers more than doubled their win total from a year ago, but with 31 victories, they still have much to overcome. Despite their strong season, the Clippers finished at least 12 games behind Seattle and Houston, two other teams that didn't make the playoffs in the top-heavy Western Conference, where seven teams had 50 or more wins this season.

"When you talk about your goals, you always have to start with the playoffs," said Elgin Baylor, vice president of basketball operations. "You can't get to the next level unless you get to the playoffs, and once you get there, anything can happen."

Before the season, the Clippers didn't really know what to expect. With five players 21 or younger in a 10-man rotation, Gentry knew his team would have growing pains.

But in the process, former Continental Basketball Assn. guard Jeff McInnis led the team in assists and was second in scoring and Eric Piatkowski set a personal single-season best with 119 three-point baskets.

Darius Miles,

Michael Olowokandi, Corey Maggette and Odom also had promising seasons. Throw in the solid play of rookies Keyon Dooling and Quentin Richardson along with veteran role players Sean Rooks and Cherokee Parks, and it's easy to see why the Clippers are so optimistic about next season.

With Parks and backup power forward Zendon Hamilton, who spent nearly the entire season on the injured list, being the only unrestricted free agents for Sterling to make a decision on, the Clippers probably will have the same team back next season.

Because Sterling is not expected to pay top dollar to lure franchise players such as Chris Webber, Michael Finley or Dikembe Mutombo, the Clippers probably will not be too active in a thin free-agent market. The Clippers also will not have their traditional high lottery pick in the draft, thanks to having one of the best records among non-playoff teams.

"We're not going to just go after anybody," Baylor said. "If we can, we want to get a player who can have an impact and wants to be here. When you look at this team and the potential of this team, the player has to be able to fill a need.

"You have to be careful on who you get. You want a veteran player with five or six good years left. You don't want a guy on the downside. And with the draft, we don't have an idea of who's going to be there yet."

The Clippers haven't ruled out trading their pick and maybe a current player on their roster, but they will be cautious.

"We have to be selective because we don't want a quick fix," Baylor said. "You want someone who is part of the building process and can help us for years to come."

So don't plan on the Clippers being as active making deals as they were last off-season, when Baylor was able to draft Miles and Richardson along with picking up Dooling, Maggette, Rooks and veteran Derek Strong in trades.

The key to the team's progress is Odom. Although he led the Clippers in scoring, rebounding, steals, blocked shots and minutes played, Odom is only 21 and has plenty of room for growth.

Odom, who played through numerous injuries this season, must get stronger and improve his game.

"With Lamar, we have to work on his perimeter shooting," said assistant Rex Kalamian, who along with Igor Kokoskov will work with players individually this summer. "We know what he can do off the dribble. We have to get him where his mid-range jumper is automatic. We also have to get him to start finishing with his right [hand] to help him become a more complete player."

Miles also must work on his perimeter game and strength. After jumping to the NBA straight from high school, Miles spent a season learning on the job as a power forward. Despite his thin frame, Miles played well and made a late push for the league's rookie-of-the-year award. But he's well aware of what he has to do this summer.

"I'm not going to take any days off," said Miles, who finished among the league leaders in field-goal percentage. "I've learned if you play hard all of the time, good things will come to you."

Odom and Miles are not the only players who need to improve. Because Maggette, Dooling and Richardson had to fight for playing time this season, the Clippers consider this off-season the time for them to break free of the logjam of perimeter players.

"Everyone has to work hard this summer in order for us to improve," Baylor said. "That goes from the coaching staff to the players and everyone else. There are a lot of things we need to do in order to get to the next level."

Now it's up to them to get it done.

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