To the average NBA fan in Los Angeles, the midseason standings look pretty much the way they usually do. At week's end the Lakers were 33-11 and in first place in the Pacific Division, while the Clippers were 20-25 and stumbling around in Lottery Land, down there with other perennially mismanaged flops like the Sacramento Kings and the New Jersey Nets. So it was for much of the 1980s, when the Lakers won five league titles and the Clippers were the only team, excluding the four most recent expansion franchises, not to make the playoffs. And so it will continue in....
No, wait a minute. Stop! This is where the script changes. Positively, absolutely. No one can say whether the Lakers will still be dominant in five years—for that to happen Magic Johnson, who wants to be an owner someday, must remain more interested in running the offense than in running a team—but the Clippers will certainly be a playoff team, maybe even a very good team.
After years of false starts and overblown projections of their talent—mostly by their wild and crazy owner, Donald Sterling—the Clippers are finally doing the right things to become a winner. Moreover, they have enough draft picks (they get their own first-rounder plus Cleveland's in the June draft) and youth (they're the league's youngest team in both age and experience) to do a lot more.
"They remind me of what we were back in '79-80," said Pat Riley after the Clippers beat the Lakers 121-104 on Jan. 30 at the Sports Arena. "I call it the 'innocent climb' period. They're just beginning to believe in themselves, and it's fun for them. Before, it was only lip service when they said they were better."
Let's not, as Billy Joel is warning us these days, go to extremes. At this point, the Clippers are kind of like a colorful Thanksgiving Day float that can't quite make it out onto the main parade route. Every time they accelerate, something happens and they stall. The latest blow was the broken ankle that point guard Gary Grant suffered Friday night in Miami. It likely will keep him out for the rest of the season. That bit of bad luck followed the knee injury (torn anterior cruciate ligament) that shooting guard Ron Harper suffered on Jan 16. Even if his rehabilitation from surgery goes well, Harper, who arrived via a Nov. 16 trade with Cleveland, probably won't play again until this time next season.
Then, too, the Clippers still find their path blocked by the grandest float in the parade, the one painted purple and gold. Not only have the Clippers been doing a banana-peel act since 1978-79, the last time they had a winning season, but every time they have picked themselves off the ground they also have seen their crosstown counterparts tsktsking from on high. "Systemwise, traditionwise, organizationwise, coachingwise, talentwise, Magicwise," says Clipper coach Don Casey, "the Lakers are just better than everybody else. Need any other reasons?"
Those will do for now, Case. Indeed, the Lakers have slid seamlessly into the post-Kareem era. You do remember the balding center who could score a little (page 34). Riley, never one to miss the lessons of history, researched the fate of teams following the departure of franchise pivotmen, and his findings were scary enough to dry the mousse on his hair. Boston (Bill Russell), Los Angeles (Wilt Chamberlain), New York (Willis Reed) and Portland (Bill Walton) all slipped considerably, and Riley, as he told his players during training camp in Hawaii, didn't want that to happen to them. So far it has not.
Ah, but the Lakers without Magic? Now we're talking slippage. They recently were reminded of their vulnerability when a case of the flu forced Magic to miss a Jan. 29 game at the Forum against San Antonio. Without him, the Lakers couldn't execute a half-court or transition offense, and the 86-84 loss would have been far worse if James Worthy, who scored 32 points, hadn't played brilliantly. "When Magic's out it's like they're missing four guys," said San Antonio's backup frontcourtman, Caldwell Jones.
A still-ailing Magic was back the next night against the Clippers, but, he said, "it felt like I was going 20 miles an hour and everybody else was doing a hundred." Particularly Grant, who twice stole a Magic pass in the backcourt—something that almost never happens—and finished with his first triple double (22 points, 11 rebounds, 17 assists) in that 121-104 rout. The Clippers downplayed the win. Smart move, because the next morning they boarded a plane for Salt Lake City, where Karl Malone and the Jazz destroyed them that night by a score of 120-101.
"Let's face it," said Kenny Norman, a natural small forward who has been playing shooting guard in Harper's absence, "we don't get up for other teams like we do the Lakers."
Everyone gets up for the Lakers, yet here they are, after weekend victories at the Forum over Atlanta (112-106) and New Jersey (121-105), still possessed of the NBA's best record. And there they were on Jan. 21, handing the defending champion Pistons a 107-97 defeat in Detroit. And there they were in New York two nights later, routing the Knicks 118-97. At one point Magic walked past New York guard Trent Tucker while tapping his finger against his head. He was telling Tucker and his teammates to start thinking. It was as if Magic were pleading, "Look, get better! We need the comp!" Few observers thought the Lakers would slide precipitously after Kareem's departure, but was there much reason to suspect that they would be better? Are they?
"Not right now," says Riley. "But unlike a lot of previous Laker teams, we have a chance to be a lot better. To a certain extent, you knew what you were getting from us in the past. Sure, it was effective, but it was somewhat limited. Now we have more versatility. We're not as predictable. We have potential."
That was the needle that the master psychological acupuncturist stuck into his charges during training camp: Be a balanced team, a team on which several players step forward, a team that can find its true identity now that Kareem has departed. Their record notwithstanding, the Lakers are still struggling to do those things. Too often, for example, being versatile and balanced has meant Magic playing all five positions. "He's like a politician's promises this season—all over the place," says center Mychal Thompson. Cooper has referred to Magic as "a shepherd, bringing in his sheep." Dick Harter, who was fired last week as coach of Charlotte, calls Magic a "point pivot."
Byron Scott, who as of Sunday was shooting .470 from the field, is struggling with his jumper. A.C. Green is an excellent defender and ferocious rebounder but fails to finish too many offensive opportunities. Thompson is also a solid post defender, but unlike his begoggled predecessor, is not a guy to go to when the shot clock is winding down.
Nevertheless, the Lakers are better defensively—they can switch and trap with more abandon now that they don't have to protect the lead-footed Kareem—and with the addition of 31-year-old point guard Larry Drew from the Italian League and 22-year-old center Vlade Divac from Yugoslavia, they are deeper, too. Shortly after the Lakers lost last season's championship series in four straight games, general manager Jerry West said the team needed two things—a center to spell Thompson and a creative player who can shoot to spell Magic. That's exactly what he got.
Drew has been, well, better than adequate. If that is to damn him with faint praise, then we should also emphasize that he is far better than Wes Matthews, Mike McGee and David Rivers, L.A.'s backcourt bench vassals of recent vintage. However, the 7'1" Divac is easily this season's MVF (Most Valuable Foreigner) and probably would be the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year honors were San Antonio's David Robinson not around.
Various Laker coaches and scouts ticked off the obvious dangers of picking Divac—different culture, communication problems, etc.—when he was still available as the 26th pick on draft day. But West ended the discussion by saying, "Look, we're taking Vlade Divac. Period." West's skill at evaluating personnel is still the best-kept secret about the Lakers.
All things considered, these Lakers have the potential to be as formidable as some of their championship teams of the last decade, provided Magic stays healthy. Still, there is a "softness" about the league this season (if that's another word for parity, so be it), and one must wonder if that's the reason the Lakers are looking down on everyone else. In the East, Chicago has yet to prove it's better than Detroit, which has been up and down; a ready-for-prime-time New York would surely have performed better against the Lakers at home than they did in that Jan. 23 game; and the Celtics get frisky only when the spirit moves them. In the West, the teams challenging the Lakers for supremacy, Portland, Utah and San Antonio, are eminently capable of performing postseason swan dives. Yes, the parking lot at the top of the NBA, at present anyway, is big enough to accommodate at least a half dozen cars, be they Rolls-Royces or Yugos.
And how long before the Clippers pull in? Hard to say, considering their sorry track record in years past. But when Harper, who was scoring 23.0 points a game for the Clippers, was healthy, a lot of players, coaches and front-office personnel thought they were a playoff team, superior to Golden State, Seattle and Houston, the teams with which they would have been battling for the seventh or eighth spot in the West. Clipper general manager Elgin Baylor has had some misses, but Bill Russell he ain't. Baylor landed Charles Smith, a versatile inside player, in a complicated three-way deal on draft day in 1988, and he fleeced the Cavaliers when he got Harper and three draft picks, including a first-rounder in '90 and '92, for one guy who didn't want to play for the Clippers (Signor Danny Ferry, who is playing in Italy) and another who evidently can't play for anyone (Reggie Williams). "It was our trade of the decade," says Casey.
Grant looks like a keeper at point guard. "He doesn't seem so erratic anymore," says Magic. Forward Danny Manning is a whole lot more than a keeper. He seems rather like another Larry Bird, using his wits and a variety of duck-unders. scoop-ins, fadeaways and running one-handers to do his damage. If Benoit Benjamin can show he's anything more than the second coming of Walt Bellamy, i.e., a guy who shows just enough talent and effort to keep a coach salivating but never enough of either to lift a team over the top, and if Harper and Grant are 100% when they return, the Clippers will be a powerhouse. All right, make that a potential powerhouse.
One can only wonder if Casey will be around to coach it. Sterling gushes about the job Casey is doing, but he is wont to gush about the job the Sports Arena icecream vendors are doing, too. What Sterling has not done is give Casey a contract beyond this season (plus one option year). Do it, Donald. Casey is perfect for this team.
Though he has been spotted at Spago, the trendy West Hollywood eatery, Casey is a Philadelphia native with a loosey-goosey, cheese-steak way of looking at the world, the perfect blue-collar foil for Riley in role-conscious L.A. During one preseason practice, Casey showed up in a gray T-shirt with a message in red lettering that read: HOW AM I COACHING? CALL 1-800-748-8000. (That's the Clippers' office number.) He still has his sense of humor, but with all the injuries and without the backing of management, he's rapidly losing it.
It's too early to predict if the City of Angels is ready to accept, or even acknowledge the existence of, a second NBA team. The fans at the Sports Arena are ready, though. Once upon a time the Lakers were the putative home team when they faced the Clippers at the Sports Arena, just as more fans at Brendan Byrne Arena cheer for the Knicks than their own Nets. But a few boos were detected when the Lakers were introduced on Jan. 30, and while the fans seemed to root for both teams at times, the Clip Joint was rockin' like the Forum when the Clippers pulled away in the fourth quarter.
"I was listening to see who they were cheering loudest for," said Smith after the game. "You have to think about those things when you've played for the Clippers for a while. You learn pretty quickly around here what it means to be a Clipper. Like, for example, how you see plenty of Laker stuff all over the city, but you can't buy a Clipper T-shirt anywhere." He smiled and sighed. "Yep. we're still a long way from being the Lakers."
Then again, so are most other teams.