14 Los Angeles Clippers They've got a new arena and a new stud, but they're the same old NBA punch line

November 01, 1999

The comedy of errors that is the Clippers is back and coming to
an arena near you. The cast of characters is slightly different,
but the plot is essentially unchanged: A bumbling team tries to
transform itself from a punch line into a powerhouse with the
aid of a lottery-pick rookie who it hopes will develop into a
superstar. Folks in Hollywood haven't seen this many bad sequels
since the Police Academy films. This year the role of the
hotshot newcomer is being played by 6'10" Lamar Odom. Los
Angeles can only pray he'll do more with the part than former
first-round choices Benoit Benjamin, Reggie Williams and Bo
Kimble.

The versatile Odom appears to have the skills to be a leading
man. In the preseason the Clippers played him at every position
but center, and he performed well at them all, validating the
opinions of those who said he was the most talented player in
June's draft. But he also has a past that's harder to follow
than a Bergman film, which suggests that he, and this year's
version of the Clippers, could wind up as yet another flop.

The good news for Clippers fans--aside from the team's moving into
the new, 18,694-seat Staples Center after serving a 15-year
stretch at the L.A. Sports Arena (which, considering the paltry
crowds, nearly qualified as solitary confinement)--is that they
won't have to sit through anything worse than last year's 9-41
disaster. That was not only the Clippers' 18th losing record in
21 seasons but also the 15th time in those 21 years that they
finished 20 or more games below .500. Another losing season seems
inevitable, but the Clippers have reason to believe they will at
least be more competitive this year. They're counting on a much
bigger contribution from 7-foot center Michael Olowakandi, the
top pick of the 1998 draft who was hindered by a string of
injuries during his rookie year. In Olowakandi and Odom, L.A. has
visions of double-O heaven. "My knees were bothering me last
year," Olowakandi says. "But I figured with a 50-game
[lockout-shortened] season, I could make it through the year and
then get the knee fixed." He did that, and now that his left knee
is healthy after arthroscopic surgery, the Clippers will be
expecting more than the 8.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game he
gave them last season.

As important as Olowakandi is to the Clippers' future, he's old
news now that Odom has arrived. Odom, however, never arrives
anywhere without baggage. He was headed to UNLV in 1996 until the
school informed him he wouldn't be allowed to enroll after a
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED story called his ACT score into question. He
wound up at Rhode Island, where he sat out a season, then
declared for the draft after his freshman year, dazzling pro
scouts enough for many of them to predict he would be the first
player chosen. But Odom changed his mind and decided he wanted to
return to school, only to be told it was too late because he had
signed with an agent. Odom dropped out of sight, failing to
attend the predraft scouting combine in Chicago and missing
scheduled workouts with the Hornets and the Bulls. He eventually
reversed his field and worked out for several teams, but by then
he had persuaded more than a few NBA people that he was too much
of a flake to take a chance on.

"I know that I led everyone to believe I was some kind of rebel
who wasn't showing up because I had problems," Odom says. "Sorry
if I offended anybody in that process. But I was a young man
going through a lot. I handled it the way I thought it needed to
be handled. I guess it wasn't the best way."

Odom lasted until the fourth pick of the draft, which the
Clippers believe was the best luck they've had in years--not that
there's much competition for that distinction. "He's going to be
a terrific player," says general manager Elgin Baylor. "There may
be some people who have questions about him, but once they get a
look at him on the court, I don't think they'll have doubts for
very long."

The best-case scenario for the Clippers is for Odom and
Olowakandi to fulfill their promise and for a pair of undrafted
gems the team discovered last year in the CBA, point guard Troy
Hudson and forward Tyrone Nesby, to continue to develop. If that
comes to pass, coach Chris Ford will have a great deal of
flexibility, since he envisions Nesby playing guard as well as
forward; Derek Anderson, acquired in a trade with the Cavaliers
for forward Lamond Murray, playing both guard spots; and Odom
playing just about everything. But even if all those pieces fit
together, there could still be trouble. Third-year forward
Maurice Taylor, the Clippers' leading scorer, may not be in their
employ much longer. Last month Baylor and team owner Donald
Sterling turned down Taylor's request for a long-term contract
extension for the maximum of $70.9 million over six years, which
means that Taylor will be a free agent at the end of the season
unless the Clippers deal him before then or work out a
compromise. The former seems far more likely than the latter.
"I'm basically here to play the last year of my contract and then
become a free agent," says Taylor, whose attorney, David Falk,
requested a trade after the Clippers decided against the
extension.

That's business as usual for the Clips: One potential star
arrives as another heads for the door. You get the feeling that
L.A. won't make any real progress until Sterling figures out
that on those rare occasions that his team does discover a
big-time talent, it would be wise to hang on to him. Unless that
happens, it's a safe bet that even if Odom is as good as
advertised, it won't be long until the Clippers are holding
auditions for the next would-be marquee player to plug into
their tired plot.

--P.T.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH TEMPORARY EMPLOYEE His contract demands rejected, Taylor may soon be gone. COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN CLIP 'N' SAVE In the versatile Odom, L.A. may finally have a first-rounder who doesn't bomb.

STARTING FIVE [2 1/2 stars]
BENCH [1 1/2 stars]
COACH [2 1/2 stars]
FRONT OFFICE [1/2 stars]
CHEMISTRY [2 stars]

By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 9-41 (13th in Western Conference)
Coach: Chris Ford (second season with Clippers)

1998-99 PER GAME POINTS FG% REBOUNDS TURNOVERS
AVERAGES (rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)

CLIPPERS 90.4 (19) 42.7 (21) 39.2 (27) 15.9 (T-19)
OPPONENTS 99.2 (27) 47.4 (29) 42.9 (T-22) 15.6 (T-12)

In Fact

Though they had one more victory than Vancouver, the Clippers
were last season's most overmatched team. Twice L.A. endured five
consecutive double-digit defeats en route to a league-high 24
losses of 10 or more points.

Projected Lineup

STARTERS PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

SF Lamar Odom (R)[#] 49 17.6 ppg 9.4 rpg 3.8 apg 48.2 FG%
Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year and Tournament MVP last season

PF Maurice Taylor 75 16.8 ppg 5.3 rpg 1.5 apg 46.1 FG%
First Clipper since 1995-96 to have a 20-point, 20-rebound game

C Michael Olowakandi 111 8.9 ppg 7.9 rpg 0.6 apg 43.1 FG%
Led his team--and all NBA rookies--in boards per game last year

SG Derek Anderson[#] 96 10.8 ppg 2.9 rpg 3.8 apg 39.8 FG%
In two seasons has averaged 1.29 steals in just 27.1 minutes per
game

PG Troy Hudson 149 6.8 ppg 2.2 rpg 3.7 apg 40.0 FG%
Averaged 15.2 points and 9.3 assists in six starts last season

BENCH PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

F Tyrone Nesby 106 10.1 ppg 3.5 rpg 1.6 apg 44.9 FG%
Had higher scoring average in NBA than in CBA (10.0) last season

G Eric Piatkowski 172 10.5 ppg 2.9 rpg 43.2 FG% 39.4 3FG%
Passed Brent Barry as Clippers' alltime leader in three-pointers
(334)

G Eric Murdock[#] 231 7.9 ppg 2.3 rpg 4.4 apg 39.5 FG%
Nets won just one of eight games he started at point guard last
year

F-C Brian Skinner 259 4.1 ppg 2.5 rpg 46.5 FG% 60.6 FT%
A 57.5% career shooter in four seasons at Baylor (1994-95 to
'97-98)

C Keith Closs 280 2.1 ppg 1.7 rpg 52.2 FG% 0.60 bpg
Holds NCAA record for career blocked shots per game (5.87)

[#]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 102)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)