|Young Clips not ready for Miller time|
By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2
Pity the poor Clippers, sharing the same city and the same arena with the Lakers. Second-class citizens in their own hometown, living and performing in the vast shadow cast by the mighty champs. Yet it wasn't so long ago that the Clips enjoyed their own glorious moments in the media sunshine.
During last season's drive to the playoffs, the Clippers became nothing less than the darlings of basketball fans from coast to coast. The Clips were young, athletic and oh-so-exuberant. Ultimately, the Clippers' stretch run came up short, but many seasoned NBA watchers looked forward to the likes of Darius Miles, Corey Maggette, Quentin Richardson, Keyon Dooling, Lamar Odom and Elton Brand all growing up together and becoming a powerhouse team that just might eclipse the dreadnaught Lakers.
But alas and even alack, the sad truth is the Clippers are much more likely to be shipwrecked on the rocky shores of Lottery Land.
The primary villain of the piece is the head Clipster Himself, owner Donald T. Sterling. This guy made his fortune first as a big-time lawyer, and later as a real estate magnate with vast holdings in Beverly Hills. In this latter incarnation, Sterling's game plan was simple: "Buy ... and hold."
In 1981, he purchased the nearly moribund San Diego Clippers for an estimated $13 million. Sterling then moved the team to Los Angeles in 1984, held on tight, and saw the value of the franchise increase (according to Forbes magazine) to $175 million.
So, the outcome is that Brand, the Kandi-man, et al. are not necessarily playing for the glory and advancement of the Clippers, but rather to accumulate the kind of numbers that will attract a long-term, high-bucks deal from some other team. Hey, what does Sterling care? The less money he spends the more he makes -- especially with the $10 million he'll palm when Charlotte is readmitted into the NBA as an expansion team.
Even worse, Sterling fancies himself the George Steinbrenner of the NBA, deeming himself a better judge of talent than his hired help. His insistence that the team cut rugged 6-foot-8 power forward Mike Batiste, who had been signed as an undrafted free agent, outraged his coaching staff. Batiste had sufficient skills for him to be coveted by the Lakers, but was snatched off the waiver list by the Memphis Grizzlies.
Blame Sterling for tarnishing the Clippers' otherwise gleaming future.
The general perception in the media is that the Clippers are blessed with a rosterful of talented players -- yet nobody is quite sure what the sum of the parts will add up to. Whereas Sports Illustrated predicted that the Clips would be the Western Conference's 10th best team, ESPN The Magazine foresaw a fifth-place finish and a trip to the playoffs. So, let's take a closer look at the Clippers and try to determine the team's true destiny.
Should the Clippers stumble early in the season, bet that Olowokandi will be the first player to abandon ship and set off on his own journey to fame and fortune. The kicker is that the Clips will be contractually unable to deal him if-and-when the Kandi-person becomes unduly disruptive.
Richardson: 6-6, 223 pounds ... young, strong and athletic ... quick to the ball and quick off the floor ... likes to post up, back in, then spin and shoot TAJ ... forces low-percentage 3-balls ... strictly a one-on-one mentality.
Maggette: 6-6, 218 ... active, athletic, runs the floor ... always plays hard ... looks to drive middle ... improving perimeter shot ... hustles on defense ... definitely a winner.
Piatkowski: 6-6, 217 ... a hard-worker with limited quickness and footspeed ... lacks midrange but is excellent 3-point shooter ... liability on defense ... needs structure to be effective ... defenders are advised to stay home on him and make him pass or dribble ... would be useful role player on a better team.
Brand: 6-7, 260 ... dating back to his undergraduate career at Duke had poor practice habits, which was real reason why Chicago moved him, but has begun to practice with intensity in L.A. ... effective post-up player with his long arms and low center of gravity ... relentless offensive rebounder ... doesn't work as hard on defense.
Dooling: 6-5, 192 ... lean and wiry ... quick to penetrate middle ... likes to drive and kick, also drive and pull up ... poor hand mechanics make his long-range shooting erratic ... wild and undisciplined ... keeps both teams in the ball game.
The brightest new face on the team is Andre Miller: 6-2, 200 ... the league's assist-leader secured from Cleveland for Miles ... has great court vision ... terrific drive-and-kick game ... quick first step ... good finisher ... great spin moves ... uses lots of pump fakes ... likes to belly-up on defense and draw charge but is average defender ... has range to 18 feet and 3-point shooting is suspect ... except for a tendency to shoot too quickly in transition, is extremely unselfish player.
It's Miller who holds the key to the Clippers' fortunes. He has the savvy and the patience to calm down the young guys and induce them to play under control. Ah, but early in the season, the coaching staff is concerned that the Clippers' hooplings lack the concentration and the willingness to submit to Miller's orchestrational genius.
If burn-on-burn defines the game plan of too many of the Clippers, then Miller must gain their respect by proving he can also play in-your-face basketball. In the Clippers' third game of the season, Miller and Brand ran several screen/rolls against the ferocious Pistons defense with Miller gliding to the top of the key, searching the weakside for a teammate who'd presumably run a proscribed pattern and should be emerging unguarded from the nether side of a staggered pick. But no. The play had been aborted, and Miller was on his own. OK, Mister Savior. Show us what kind of junk you got in your trunk.
That's exactly why Miller is taking more shots that he wants to take. (Against the Pistons, Miller shot 1-for-12 and had nine assists.) And whenever Miller was foolish enough to inbound the ball after Detroit scored, somebody was bound to toss up an irresponsible jumper before he reached the time line.
Miller is much too cagey to directly admit his teammates have the wrong part of his game on trial -- and that they don't trust him with the rock because they expect everybody to be as selfish as they are. When these possibilities are presented to him, Miller just nods and mutters, "Yeah," pointedly refusing to disagree with the obvious.
Will the wild bunch give up running and funning? Not with so many of them bound for free agency.
Pity coach Alvin Gentry, one of the hardest workers in the league. An excellent game tactician, credit Gentry's decision to abandon a man-to-man defense for a 1-2-2 (and then a 2-3) zone that enabled the Clips to beat Detroit for their first win of the season.
Behind his characteristic self-deprecations, Gentry is smart enough to understand that after last season's joyride, he'll undoubtedly walk the plank should the Clippers' season end on April 16. The odds of Gentry getting fired during the season are slim -- only because Sterling is reluctant to pay two coaches at the same time. But whatever does happen, Gentry will survive because he's already learned an important lesson from Sterling -- to hold on to his money.
Nothing much will change hereabouts -- La-La Land will go ga-ga over the Lakers, and the Clippers will return to obscurity. Jack Nicholson will headline a cavalcade of movie stars to the courtside seats when the Lakers play, while the Clippers' biggest celebrity fan is Elliot Gould. The Lakers will be contenders, the Clippers will be pretenders. And yet, the Clips have at least one sizeable advantage over the Lakers that is considered extremely important in sunny So-Cal: Their troupe of hip-hip-hooraying professional virgins (The Clipper Spirit) lead the league in cleavage.
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."