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Keeping Olowokandi in Fold Is Pivotal Decision for Club

April 18, 2001|LONNIE WHITE

Traditionally, whenever the Clippers seem to be on the right track, it doesn't take long for things to fall apart because of owner Donald Sterling's reluctance to keep his team together.

Although the Clippers do not have to worry about losing any of their core players to free agency this summer, Sterling could take a major step toward keeping his latest collection intact by trying to lock up a long-term deal with center Michael Olowokandi, who will become a restricted free agent after next season.

"Everybody is always saying, 'We'll see what will happen with the Clippers when it's Lamar's turn [to be a free agent],' " co-captain Lamar Odom said. "But Mike is the first step. In the NBA, you need a center. There are only a few centers in this league who can run and weigh at least 300 pounds and Mike is one of them. We definitely need Mike here with us."

There's no doubt that several players selected after Olowokandi was picked No. 1 overall in the 1998 draft have had bigger impacts with their teams (Toronto's Vince Carter, for example) but that doesn't mean Olowokandi isn't the key to the Clippers' future.

Olowokandi's inconsistent play over his first three seasons certainly does not make this an easy decision for the Clippers. But the NBA has become a slash-and-dunk league and, as Odom said, there's a serious lack of players who want to be traditional post-up centers.

How else can you explain Boston's Vitaly Potapenko, who will make $21.8 million over the next four seasons despite averaging only 7.4 points and six rebounds this season, and Golden State's Erick Dampier, who will earn $40.8 million over the next five seasons although he's averaging only 7.7 points and 5.8 rebounds this season?

"He may not be putting up big statistics now, but he could easily become a 13 [points] and a nine or 10 [rebounds a game] player next season," said a Western Conference coach, who asked not to be identified, fearful of being punished by the league for tampering. "If [Olowokandi] puts up numbers like that, he'll be a big-time player because in a couple of years, most of the older centers like [San Antonio's David] Robinson, [Seattle's Patrick] Ewing and [Portland's Arvydas] Sabonis will be retired and there's really no Shaq [the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal] on the horizon."

Under the league's collective bargaining agreement, teams can open negotiations this summer on contract extensions for 1998 draftees. And despite Olowokandi's meager numbers of 8.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots a game, he is considered an asset around the league.

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