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He Still Wants to Opt In

Richardson says he likes where the Clippers are headed, but Bryant situation makes it interesting

March 17, 2004|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Guess which high-scoring, headstrong, free-agent-to-be shooting guard said again this week that he absolutely, positively would like to spend the rest of his NBA career playing his home games in Staples Center?

Hint: It's not the one with the three championship rings.

Quentin Richardson, who in four NBA seasons has yet to participate in a playoff game, says he would like to remain a Clipper for life.

"I like it here," he says. "I like my teammates. I like the coaching staff. I like the people in the organization. I'm comfortable here."

The Clippers, he says, are "moving in the right direction."

His days with the team, however, could be numbered -- not because the Clippers don't want to spend the money to retain him, usually the first thought when the Clippers are involved, but because they might want to spend it on somebody else.

His future could become intertwined with Kobe Bryant's this summer, when Richardson, 23, becomes a restricted free agent and the Laker guard becomes an unrestricted free agent.

The Clippers seemingly have plotted for months to make a play for Bryant, declining to make significant changes -- and take on additional salary -- during a going-nowhere season. But to make a serious bid for the six-time All-Star while also fitting his contract under the salary cap, they probably would have to shed Richardson.

The issue could become more clouded July 1, when both players become free agents, because Bryant could still be awaiting trial in his sexual assault case in Eagle, Colo. If Richardson signs an offer sheet with another team after the initial two-week negotiating period, as teammates Elton Brand and Corey Maggette did last summer, the Clippers will have 15 days to match it and retain him, at which time, Bryant's status might still be in limbo.

So the Clippers might have to decide: Do they let Richardson walk, taking a gamble not only that Bryant will be acquitted but that they'll also be able to sign him? Or do they take the safer route, match the offer sheet and retain Richardson, keeping intact their core group of Brand, Maggette and Richardson?

Of course, in their best-case scenario, they'd fit both Richardson and Bryant under the cap, which would add another wrinkle: They play the same position.

That could be resolved by playing Bryant at point guard.

It's a lot to think about, but Richardson says he's unmoved.

"If it's something that's going to happen, it's going to happen," he says. "But it doesn't weigh on me or anything. I don't really think about it at all. I deal with things when they happen. I'm just waiting to see what's going to take place, and then deal with things and move forward."

It's an attitude that has served him well. He has averaged nearly 18 points and seven rebounds in his first season as a full-time starter, establishing himself as a player any number of teams probably would consider pursuing.

Richardson listened and learned last season, as the Clippers imploded, determined not to repeat the mistakes of self-centered predecessors.

"I've always been a good observer," he says. "Going into this season, I knew I was going into a contract year; anybody who says they're not thinking about it, they're lying. Of course, I'm thinking about it; it's my career.

"But at the same time, I know and I understand there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it. And, basically, I just wanted to commit to the team and go about it the right way and not go out trying to play selfish, bad basketball."

Forever motivated, it seems, by falling out of the lottery in 2000 -- he was the 18th pick, still a sore subject -- Richardson wanted to establish himself this season as "somebody that could definitely contribute to any NBA team."

Mission accomplished?

"Absolutely," Clipper Coach Mike Dunleavy said. "He gives you a lot of different ways to score. On a given night, if you've got a good size matchup, he can post up. If not, you can take him outside, having him come off screens."

Utilizing his versatility and strength, the 6-foot-5, 238-pound Richardson is the Clippers' most explosive scorer, not only the team's top outside threat but also a determined rebounder and inside presence. He scored a career-high 44 points against the Denver Nuggets, took a career-high 16 rebounds against the Atlanta Hawks. Mostly a post player in high school and at DePaul, he is neither an accomplished playmaker nor a great perimeter defender, but he's the Clippers' best three-point shooter at 36% and the club's No. 2 rebounder.

His only regret about his breakout season: His mother, Emma, won't see him reap its greatest rewards. A former high school basketball player who taught Richardson how to play the game in their native Chicago, she died of breast cancer in 1992, during an eight-month period in which Richardson, in the seventh grade, also lost his grandmother and the oldest of his three older brothers. His grandmother, Ada, died of natural causes. His brother, Bernard, was shot and killed by robbers.

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