In spite of the Los Angeles Clippers' euphoria on draft day last week, the NBA's longtime doormats have, to date, proved just one thing: They are unquestionably the finest college basketball team in America. Three of last season's big-name NCAA players, Kansas's Danny Manning, Pitt's Charles Smith and Michigan's Gary Grant, will, barring trades, join the Clippers' first-round trio from last June's draft, Reggie Williams, Joe Wolf and Ken Norman.
"We went from sailboats to speed-boats," said Barry Hecker, the Clippers' scouting director. "It was like Christmas," added coach Gene Shue. Said general manager Elgin Baylor, "I can't think of any team in the history of basketball that had a better draft than we had." Down, Elgin, down.
It is useful to remember that the Clippers were also enthusiastic after they landed Williams, Wolf and Norman. Yet none of those players had a particularly successful season. Neither did the team, which finished with the poorest record—17-65—in the league.
Actually, the swapping of several veteran players last week will likely have more of an immediate impact on the NBA than the arrival of any rookies. On June 27, the night before the draft, the New York Knicks sent center Bill Cartwright to Chicago for power forward Charles Oakley. Oakley and Bulls teammate Michael Jordan were in Atlantic City's Convention Center for the Tyson-Spinks fight when they heard the news from the Philadelphia 76ers' Charles Barkley. How did Jordan take it? "Messed up his whole night," said Oakley.
In a complicated three-team swap, Clipper power forward Michael Cage, whose 13.03 average nosed out Oakley's 13.0 for last season's rebounding title, ended up with the Seattle SuperSonics. (Funny how every coach in America swears that rebounding is the most important part of the game, yet the NBA's top two rebounders were traded within 24 hours.) Seattle coach Bernie Bicker-staff would not mind breaking up the Tom Chambers-Xavier McDaniel-Dale Ellis triumvirate, for whom there have never seemed to be enough basketballs Cage does not have a shooter's ego, and he gives the Sonics latitude in their dealings with Chambers, who's a free agent. Chambers is expendable now.
In an exchange of guards, the Atlanta Hawks traded Randy Wittman and the 18th pick to the Sacramento Kings for Reggie Theus. What a terrific break for Theus, who adds versatility-he can play point guard and even small forward-to a team that is now as talented as any in the NBA. What a bad break for Wittman, who goes to a losing club loaded with shooting guards. He'll compete with Derek Smith, Mike McGee and Harold Pressley, not to mention 1988 draft picks Ricky Berry from San Jose State and Vinny Del Negro from North Carolina State.
One can hardly blame the Clippers for being excited about landing the 6'10" Manning with the first pick in the draft. But there are questions about the Clippers' other two acquisitions. Is Smith a 6'10", 230-pound softy? Is Grant mature enough to quarterback a team?
Grant will almost certainly get to prove himself right away, as will Smith and Manning. Smith demonstrated on draft day that he has more than a passing knowledge of his new team. "If we can only motivate Benoit...." he said, referring to L.A.'s enigmatic center, Benoit Benjamin. Kid, Clipper officials have been waxing wistful on that subject since they made Benjamin the third pick of the 1985 draft.
Which brings to mind the Indiana Pacers' use of the No. 2 pick in this year's draft to select Rik Smits of Marist College. Smits went early more because of his position than his talent. With the game moving away from the dominant center, perhaps the Pacers should have gone for a surefire NBA keeper.
Like Hersey Hawkins. An All-America at Bradley, Hawkins was the sixth pick in the draft but was a de facto third. The 76ers, who had the third choice, would have selected him, but they worked out a deal to get not only Hawkins but also a first-round pick in 1989. Philadelphia drafted Smith at No. 3 and then traded him to the Clippers. The Clippers selected Hawkins, whom the Sixers wanted, at No. 6, and traded him to Philadelphia. Seattle drafted Grant, whom the Clippers were after, at No. 15, and traded him to the Clippers. Seattle received Cage from the Clippers and also gave Philadelphia one of its three first-round selections for next year.
Some other observations on the draft:
The Knicks' major achievement was getting Oakley and unloading Cartwright. But the drafting at No. 19 of DePaul's Rod Strickland, the best pure point guard in the draft—including Grant—may prove to be almost as important. Because of its frenetic, pressing defense, New York needs a strong backup for point guard Mark Jackson, last season's Rookie of the Year.
San Antonio did well to acquire 6'7" Willie Anderson, a guard from Georgia, with the No. 10 pick. With a backcourt rotation of Alvin Robertson. Johnny Dawkins and Anderson, and the hiring of coach Larry Brown, the Spurs have set the table for the 1989-90 arrival of the main course—David Robinson.
After trading for Cartwright, the Bulls drafted a center, 7-foot Will Perdue of Vanderbilt. General manager Jerry Krause says that both Cartwright and incumbent Dave Corzine are versatile enough to get significant minutes at power forward. Perhaps, but don't rule out a trade involving Corzine.
The quote of draft day belonged to former Syracuse center Rony Seikaly, whom the Miami Heat, a team that has never played a game, selected at No. 9. "This team can do nothing but get better," said Seikaly. "It can't get worse." An athletic type who will eventually have to switch to power forward because he doesn't have the bulk for center, Seikaly was a good choice for Miami. But the Heat may have done even better by landing Strickland's back-court mate at DePaul, Kevin Edwards, with the 20th selection. Edwards, a shooting guard, could turn out to be the sleeper of the draft.
The Charlotte Hornets, the other expansion team, took Rex Chapman of Kentucky with their first pick. Chapman is anything but a sleeper. He will be expected not only to wrest the ball from new teammate Kelly Tripucka, who arrived via a trade with Utah, but also to do his share of the scoring. The Boston Celtics could have had Notre Dame's David Rivers with the 24th pick. He would have improved their speed, but the Celtics don't like small guards (Rivers is 6 feet). So they opted for 6'6" Brian Shaw of UC Santa Barbara, a do-everything Dennis Johnson type. Picking right behind the Celtics, the champion Los Angeles Lakers then took Rivers in their annual search for a point guard to run the show when Magic Johnson needs a break.
But like other established teams (Boston, Atlanta, the Detroit Pistons, the Dallas Mavericks), the Lakers did not expect, and were not looking for, much help in the draft. That was for the NBA's wish-we-were's, like the other team in Los Angeles. Right now, the Clippers, along with North Carolina, Georgetown and Michigan, look like a good bet to reach the NCAA Final Four next year. As for the NBA playoffs, which the Clippers have not made since 1976 (when they were the Buffalo Braves), management had better give the speedboats a year to learn to navigate the course.