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There's Hope, Uncertainty

Though success won't come quickly, rare big-money contracts and a proven coach give Clippers possibilities.

October 29, 2003|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Halfway around the world, in an arena about 30 minutes outside Tokyo, the Clippers will open their 20th season in Los Angeles on Thursday night -- at 2:30 a.m. PST Thursday -- against the Seattle SuperSonics.

They're hoping it won't be like all but a few of the previous 19.

Since moving from San Diego before the 1984-85 season, the Clippers have compiled a winning record only once and made the playoffs three times, once with a .500 record and once with a record 10 games below .500.

Not surprisingly, they've shown the same propensity for losing overseas. In November 1994, in their only other visit to Japan, they were 0-2 against the Portland Trail Blazers, kicking off a 16-game, season-opening losing streak.

Nothing so horrific is envisioned this season. But nor are the callow Clippers, with only two players on the opening-night roster older than 25, expected to challenge for a playoff spot under new Coach Mike Dunleavy.

They were 27-55 last season, lost three starters through free agency over the summer and watched as the Western Conference powers bulked up.

Still, there's reason for hope.

Owner Donald Sterling, reversing decades of tightfistedness, opened his wallet over the summer, lavishing big-time free-agent contracts on Elton Brand and Corey Maggette that should keep them around through the 2008-09 season.

To replace Michael Olowokandi, who was their starting center for five seasons before signing with the Minnesota Timberwolves, they drafted Chris Kaman, an ambidextrous 7-footer who not only is the center of the future but might be introduced as a starter as early as Thursday night.

In Quentin Richardson and Keyon Dooling, they've got starting guards bent on proving during their contract years that only injuries held them back in previous seasons and they're worthy of more lucrative, long-term deals.

And in Dunleavy, they've got a coach who guided the Lakers to the NBA Finals in 1991 and twice took the Trail Blazers to the Western Conference finals.

"You're always optimistic about the start of a season," Dunleavy said today from Tokyo. "I'm optimistic that our guys are working hard and they're going to improve. I like our guys and their approach to where we're going."

In the opener at Saitama Super Arena, Dunleavy said he would start Dooling at point guard, Richardson at shooting guard, Maggette at small forward, Brand at power forward and either Kaman or Predrag Drobnjak at center.

Although Richardson, Maggette and Brand were locks, the starting center and point positions were up for grabs throughout training camp.

Dooling, who has started only two NBA games, got the nod over Marko Jaric at the point because, "I just think he and Q played fine together," Dunleavy said.

"It's not an internal war or anything like that," Dooling said last week of his competition with Jaric, who started 12 games as a rookie last season, mostly at shooting guard. "Ultimately, we're on the same team."

At center, Dunleavy said his ultimate decision might come down to which player is most sound. Kaman and Drobnjak, who played two seasons in Seattle before the Clippers traded for him last month, have battled nagging injuries.

The Clippers and SuperSonics will play again Saturday -- Friday night Los Angeles time -- before returning to the U.S. on Sunday.

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