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Inside the NBA | Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Foundation Exists, but Remodeling Continues

November 16, 2003|Mark Heisler

Donald T. Sterling

Sterling World Plaza

Beverly Hills, Calif.

Dear Donald,

Gee, rebuilding again?

Not that this comes as a complete surprise, because this has been the game's longest-running rebuilding project since you moved it here in 1984. To put it in terms you can understand, a developer who has been at it that long should have developed something by now, assuming, of course, he's in the right business.

Not that you haven't had your moments. It's just that more is required, like months, or years.

There was your 1991-92 season, when Larry Brown arrived in January, finished 23-12 and made the playoffs, seeming to signal a new dawn with all the good, young players at hand.

Unfortunately, your dark little corner wasn't ready for such brilliance and promptly ignited. Brown left within a year, followed by the good, young players.

This was only a warmup for your classic in deconstruction after that brief and shining moment in the 2001-02 season, when the basketball gods, perhaps out of boredom, dropped a roster full of budding stars in your lap.

They were exciting, loved being here and playing with one another and made you a lot of money -- $15 million, according to Fortune magazine. Two years later, you're still selling tickets on their buzz, although not as many.

You, of course, stuck to the principles that had made you you, refusing to sign any of them, even the gilt-edged Elton Brand, because you thought you could wait until the next summer.

The next summer, six of your eight free agents left and the other two tried, including Brand.

I know this will astonish you, but that $124 million you spent to keep Brand and Corey Maggette didn't herald a new era.

You're still a longshot to make the playoffs and your key positions, point guard and center, are being manned by committees. Even with $10 million to $12 million in cap space next summer, your big moves are still ahead of you.

Put it all together and it still spells

r-e-b-u-i-l-d-i-n-g; $124 million later, you're stuck in the old era.

But we don't have to dwell on the mistakes of the past, because you may make them again in the future.

The foundation of a program remains. I think a lot of your new coach, Mike Dunleavy. I covered him his rookie season in Philadelphia in the '70s and again when he became the Laker coach in the '90s. So when I heard he wanted the Clipper job last spring, I called him to ask whether he'd lost his mind.

He said he thought he could do it as he had in Portland, running and pressing with your deep roster. By the time I got off the phone, I was thinking he might bring it off.

Of course, after that, the roster got a lot shallower.

Even if you and everyone in your organization wanted Dunleavy, it didn't get done until July 11, three months after the season ended and 10 days after teams began negotiating with free agents.

This was the Clipper Way in action, or more precisely, the Clipper Way: Inaction.

Dunleavy wanted a short-term deal, which should have made it easier, but didn't. By the time you got him to come up from two seasons to three, to the deal he signed (three with a team option for a fourth), it was July 11.

(Not that the issue of a fourth season was meaningless, but none of your coaches has ever lasted that long, and you've had 12.)

Dunleavy's hiring precipitated a burst of euphoria, capped by your unprecedented mandate to spend whatever it took to retain Brand, Maggette, Lamar Odom and, in a shocker, to go after Gilbert Arenas, a happening point guard from the San Fernando Valley who liked the idea of coming home.

Unfortunately, it was already late, as Arenas' agent, Dan Fegan, noted. One bidder, Denver, had pulled out, leaving them high and dry until an unexpected jump in the cap gave Washington enough room to offer $60 million.

When the Wizards put it on the table and demanded an answer, and your negotiations with Odom stalled, keeping you from clearing that much, Gilbert signed.

Meanwhile, Andre Miller, deemed a bust in the chaos of his one season here, was allowed to leave for Denver. When Miami offered Odom $10 million a year, you had to let him go too.

You could have kept Michael Olowokandi for what would have turned out to be an appropriately discounted $5-million salary. Dunleavy wanted him, but Olowokandi had been dangling for so long he opted for a fresh start at a loss after your people beat Minnesota's offer.

Unfortunately, neither Marko Jaric nor Keyon Dooling is the answer at the point yet. Chris Kaman is promising but isn't ready and Brand was hurt in the opener in Japan.

Not that these are the bad old days. With two players re-signed, the rest have hope and the organization has a rarely seen sense of purpose. Just think if you had tried it 15 months ago!

The unsinkable Dunleavy has them playing hard, more young guys like Chris Wilcox are emerging, and with your cap space, you may still have a future.

Better luck with this one.

Devoted as ever,

Mark Heisler

Faces and Figures

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