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Big Hopes Bring Big Ifs

Stalled negotiations, injuries and egos raise questions about Clipper season that could be a franchise best.

October 29, 2002|Elliott Teaford | Times Staff Writer

No question, the Clippers have been discovered. No longer are they mentioned in the same sentence with the words "sorry," "pitiful" or "woebegone." What they do, how they play, what they say, has become increasingly significant from coast to coast.

ESPN found them midway through last season, trailing them 24/7 while producing an MTV-style documentary of a up-and-coming NBA team struggling to find its way.

The Clippers were news wherever they went, and more often than not it was for the right reasons. Power forward Elton Brand averaged 18.2 points and 11.6 rebounds and played in his first All-Star game. The team finished with a 39-43 record, good for ninth place in the Western Conference standings, and was only five games out of a playoff position.

However, the Clippers' best season in a decade was followed by an off-season of mixed results that was followed by an injury-riddled training camp that tempered any swagger the team might have developed going into a season many predict will be the best in franchise history.

Brand underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Sept. 26 and sat out most of training camp.

Center Michael Olowokandi suffered tendinitis in his left knee and sat out almost a month.

Shooting guard Quentin Richardson sprained his right knee and played in one of eight exhibitions.

Small forward Lamar Odom will start the season on the injured list because of a badly sprained right ankle and won't be fit to play until Christmas, Coach Alvin Gentry said.

"If we're healthy, we should have a chance to get to the playoffs," Gentry said. "We're more experienced. We're another year older. It all comes down to commitment. We've got to be committed to each other and do what's necessary."

To make it to the postseason for the first time since 1996-97, "some guys are going to have to make sacrifices," Gentry added. "Everyone is not going to be the star."

If it all happens as Gentry hopes, if the Clippers jell with new point guard Andre Miller leading by his unselfish example, then the team might push the 50-victory mark for the first time since the franchise began play in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1970.

If not, if the Clippers succumb to more injuries and allow thoughts of contract uncertainties to overwhelm them, they could just as easily threaten the 50-loss barrier for the umpteenth time.

So much promise, so much talent, so many opportunities to crumble under the weight of increased expectations and the fear of the unknown after this season.

The Clippers bricked an opportunity last summer to lock up Olowokandi and Brand to long-term extensions, which would have removed two potential headaches before training camp began.

Olowokandi has made it clear he intends to have a standout season. If the Clippers won't pay him a so-called "max-out" deal approaching $100 million, he'll seek it elsewhere. Brand, Miller, Odom and forward Corey Maggette also are eligible next summer for lengthy (and lucrative) extensions.

Plus, this is shooting guard Eric Piatkowski's final season under contract. Piatkowski has been a career-long Clipper, spending all nine NBA seasons with the club. Richardson is set to replace him in the starting lineup, however.

Knowing a potential powder keg when he sees one, Gentry imposed a gag order on his players. There will be no contract talk this season -- not on the team's chartered plane and certainly not in the locker room in the presence of reporters.

"We've all talked about it," Gentry said. "Michael and I talked the other day. We both want to keep the focus on the task at hand. We want to get ourselves into a situation where we get ourselves into the playoffs."

Still, the future is on the minds of every Clipper, including Gentry, who can be a free agent after this season. The team has an option on the 2003-04 season, but Gentry isn't banking on it.

Brand would like to see the core group of Clippers stick together for the next few seasons, knowing full well it takes time to build a championship-caliber team.

He's doubtful that his teammates would take less money to stay with the Clippers beyond the 2002-03 season, however.

"Some guys might consider it if we have a great season," Brand said. "I don't see guys taking a 20% or 30% pay cut just to stay in L.A., though."

"I feel I should be right up there with those guys who are All-Stars and All-Star-caliber players," he added. "My deal wasn't up, so I wasn't upset at all."

Miller could be the glue that keeps the Clippers from splintering when times get tough. The Clippers gave up Darius Miles, a 20-year-old with remarkable potential, to acquire Miller from the Cleveland Cavaliers on July 30.

Miller led the NBA with an average of 10.9 assists last season and that figure could rise with the more skillful Clippers in 2002-03. Gentry and his assistants have heaped praise on Miller, whose tranquil demeanor differs from the fiery Jeff McInnis, who signed with the Portland Trail Blazers in the off-season.

What's more, the Clippers didn't have to deal Cleveland one or both of their first-round picks to seal the deal for Miller. The Clippers kept forwards Chris Wilcox, taken eighth overall from NCAA champion Maryland, and Melvin Ely, selected 12th from Fresno State.

Elgin Baylor, Clipper general manager, also signed point guard Marko Jaric, a second-round pick in the 2000 draft. Only days before joining the Clippers for his first NBA training camp, Jaric helped Yugoslavia win the gold medal at the World Championships in Indianapolis. Jaric and Miller moved the ball at a dizzying pace during the exhibition season.

"I think we're all looking forward to a great season," Brand said, fulfilling his role as resident optimist. "I think we can do some big things. There's a lot to prove."


Season Opener

Cleveland at Clippers, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

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