A Healthier Clip
For the record, the Clippers are the league's most-improved team

Two months ago the co-captain of the Clippers earned his first
driver's license and bought his first car. When he goes home at
night, 21-year-old forward Lamar Odom parks his new Lincoln
Navigator around the corner from the house where the team's other
phenom, 19-year-old rookie Darius Miles, lives with his mother.
"I already had my driver's license," Miles says. "I'm not like
Lamar."

On draft day last June, the Clippers began building for the
future for the umpteenth time. The early returns have been more
than promising: eight sellouts at the Staples Center--two more
than the team had last season--and, with a 25-45 record at week's
end, a greater gain in winning percentage this season (from .183
to .357) than any team in the league. Last week the Clippers
upset the visiting 76ers and Rockets, showing surprising savvy
while spinning their half-court offense around 7-foot center
Michael Olowokandi. The No. 1 pick of the 1998 draft put up a
solid 12 points and 12 rebounds against Philadelphia's Dikembe
Mutombo and followed with a 20-point, eight-rebound, four-block
performance against Houston. "I'm finding ways of being effective
and doing things that help us win," Olowokandi says.

When the Nigerian-born center becomes a restricted free agent
after next season, he will serve as a litmus test of the
Clippers' commitment to building a competitive team in this era.
If another team makes a strong offer, will Clippers owner Donald
Sterling change his stingy ways and come up with the money to
retain Olowokandi? "I feel confident we will keep him here," says
coach Alvin Gentry, buoyed by his conversations with Sterling.
The rest of us can be forgiven, however, if we believe it only
when we see it.

Like Gentry, the players don't want to dwell on the long list of
talented Clippers who took the first exit available. No one could
persuade Odom, Keyon Dooling, Corey Maggette and Quentin
Richardson that they should not leave college after a mere season
or two--or Miles that he should not turn pro straight out of high
school--and no one can tell these players that it's bad to be a
Clipper. "A rap album by Jay-Z called The Dynasty came out the
first day we played this season," says Odom. "That's what we're
trying to create here, a dynasty."

The main building block is Odom. Only two years ago he was trying
to reverse his decision to turn pro and was blowing off workouts
with the teams that were thinking of drafting him. Now Odom,
along with center Sean Rooks, is captain of his NBA team. Odom
recently served a five-game suspension for violating the league's
antidrug program. Sources told the Los Angeles Times that he
tested positive for marijuana and then failed to comply with the
NBA's mandated aftercare program. The setback made clear to Odom
how important he is to his young teammates. "They let me know
that the atmosphere in the locker room was a lot different
without me," says the 6'10" forward, whose sense of humor keeps
the Clippers loose.

Gentry believes the responsibilities of leadership have brought
out the best in Odom. Against the Rockets he recovered from a
terrible start to convert big shots and make key passes. With his
all-around play--he was averaging 17.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.0
assists and 1.75 blocks through Sunday's games--Odom has set an
example for Miles and served as the rookie's shield. There is no
hurry for Miles to deliver big numbers as long as Odom is
producing them.

At 6'9" and 202 pounds, Miles needs to get stronger, learn to
play defense and develop a jump shot. Despite those shortcomings,
he has made an impact in his 25.5 minutes per game this season.
On offense he is a smart player with an uncanny knack for
rebounding, and there is a diving-board spring to his step even
as he jogs upcourt. He looks as if he is following in the
footsteps of his idol, Kevin Garnett, as well as those of his
neighbor Odom. "He can play right now, and not a lot of guys out
of high school can do that as rookies," says an opposing team's
scout.

Maybe the biggest surprise on the Clippers has been Jeff McInnis,
the scoring point guard who was exiled to the CBA during his
second season with the Nuggets, in 1997-98, when he was pegged as
having a bad attitude--a rap players usually earn when they become
Clippers. Since signing with Los Angeles in February 2000,
however, McInnis has proved to be steady (12.7 points and 5.4
assists per game) and durable (through Sunday he had missed only
one game this season). "There are times when Keyon and Quentin
are feeling down about their minutes, and I tell them to keep
their heads up," McInnis says. "I tell them if I had had somebody
to talk to me when I was moping at the end of the bench, I might
not have ended up in the CBA."

Gentry hopes his team will emulate the Mavericks by adding a few
more wins next season and then making a playoff run--with
Olowokandi--in 2002-03. Gentry also has found all sorts of good
signs in losses this season, including nine in overtime and 14 in
which L.A. has blown the lead with five minutes to go. "That's
good for these guys," Gentry says. "The one thing they don't need
to experience is instant gratification."

Tyrone Hill and George Lynch
Philadelphia's Forward March

While Allen Iverson was home in Philadelphia trying to recover
from a left hip pointer last Friday, the 76ers were in Phoenix,
losing their fifth straight game without him. "We've been through
too much, we're too strong to let this get to us," power forward
Tyrone Hill said after the 84-71 loss to the Suns. "This is like
driving with a flat tire: How quick are we going to fix it?"

The losing streak provided a new perspective on the teamwork
Philadelphia has exhibited this season. The 76ers continued to
run their plays, but without their MVP candidate they had no one
to finish them. At week's end they still led second-place
Milwaukee by four games in the Eastern Conference, because for
most of this season Iverson has done his job of scoring as
reliably as players such as Hill and forward George Lynch have
performed their blue-collar duties at both ends of the court.
"Those two guys are indispensable," says Rockets coach Rudy
Tomjanovich.

In putting together these Sixers, coach Larry Brown and G.M.
Billy King thumbed their noses at the NBA's prevailing superstar
culture. Over the last four years they have traded Jerry
Stackhouse, Tim Thomas and Larry Hughes and filled in with such
uncelebrated but driven players as Hill and Lynch. Last summer
Philadelphia even came close to moving Iverson, suspecting he
couldn't match the work ethic of his lesser-known teammates.
After re-signing free-agent forward Toni Kukoc to a $7 million
salary last summer, Brown refused to start him, believing Lynch
(who makes $4.8 million less) would do more to win games. "A lot
of offensive players might not be able to play the way we play,"
says Brown, who dealt Kukoc to the Hawks in February as part of
the Dikembe Mutombo trade. "George and Tyrone and Aaron McKie are
what this team is all about."

"At the beginning of the year, the players around the league
figured the Sixers would be the fifth or sixth team in the East,"
says Lynch, who has played for three teams in his eight-year
career. "We have one or two All-Stars, and we're winning. You
look at the Trail Blazers, they have a team full of All-Stars,
and they have a chemistry problem."

Lynch was grounded in team play by Dean Smith at North Carolina
and by his coaches in high school. Hill traces his influence even
further back. "My dad would get up at 4:30 every day to go work
at the factory to take care of his 13 children, and he did that
for 30-something years," says Hill, who is completing his 11th
season in the NBA. "He taught me to earn everything I get. When I
came into the league as a lottery pick, I asked him to retire,
and he said, 'I've still got three years left.'"

Together, Hill and Lynch were producing 17.9 points and 16.4
rebounds per game through Sunday, numbers that won't earn them
$90 million contracts but that have helped the Sixers to 48 wins
with three weeks still to play. Lynch admits there is a downside
to their selflessness. "We make the extra pass and give up shots
that we probably should take," he says. "Some games it hurts us
that we're not aggressive enough offensively, but that's the way
we are."

Iverson will be more than happy to take care of that problem.

Agents and China's Yao Ming
Fighting over a Very Valuable Import

The recruiting wars among agents have reached a new level of
intrigue in the case of 20-year-old Yao Ming. The 7'6" Chinese
center might be the top selection in the June draft but only if
his club, the Shanghai Sharks, allows him to declare his
eligibility. Competing for the right to represent him are Bill
Duffy, who has spent more than two years developing a
relationship with Yao, and David Falk, who has never met the
player but is confident of signing him because of his track
record as an agent and the relationship he is cultivating with
the team. "Falk is telling people he has got Yao Ming," an NBA
team executive said last week.

Two years ago the Sharks negotiated a contract with
Cleveland-based marketing agent Michael Coyne that would entitle
Coyne and the team to share 25% to 40% of Yao's NBA earnings
through June 2002. According to Duffy, Yao and his parents told
him they don't want Coyne involved because they think Coyne
hasn't done enough to earn that cut. The Sharks, however, are
working with Coyne, and have enlisted his advice in securing Yao
an agent. Because they can decide whether Yao will play in the
U.S. next season, they could force him to pick a representative
of their choosing so that he can gain his release. "The Shanghai
Sharks asked me to help them find the best agent," Coyne says.
"I think it's Falk."

Duffy doesn't share that view. "David Falk is a predator, and
what he's attempting to do is completely against the wishes of
Yao Ming and his family," Duffy says. "I've been told repeatedly
by the family that they don't want to work with Falk."

In a signed letter faxed on Sunday to the union's executive
director, Billy Hunter, and to commissioner David Stern, Yao
made clear that he won't accept having an agent foisted upon
him, promising to take legal action against anyone who tries to
represent him against his wishes. He wrote, "I am on record here
to state that I have never met Mr. Falk, nor have I signed, or
have any intention of signing, any representation agreement with
Mr. Falk...Many kind-hearted people have labored tirelessly on
my behalf, but a few, I feel, have taken the futile path of
enticing or forcing the Shanghai Sharks and my family into an
unfavorable arrangement. I resent such unethical behavior. But
rest assured I will stand up for my rights at any cost."

Falk accuses Duffy of writing the letter on Yao's behalf (a
charge Duffy denies). "This is a very transparent ploy by a
desperate person," Falk says. "Bill Duffy has told the world he
represents Yao Ming. He doesn't. Mike Coyne does."

David Bauman, one of Falk's senior agents at his firm, SFX, was
scheduled to meet with Sharks officials in Shanghai early this
week in hopes of gaining the rights to Yao. Duffy, however,
remains confident he will represent Yao. (Last week Duffy
negotiated the release of another Chinese center, Wang Zhizhi,
who was scheduled to join the Mavericks this week.) "My
understanding is that at the end of the day the club is going to
respect the wishes of Yao Ming and his family," Duffy says. "As
difficult as it has been to adapt to a foreign culture, the only
problems I've had in China have been with greedy Americans."

Outside the Box Score
Big Things in a Small Package

The Mavericks had crushed his team in their first two meetings
this season, but Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders came up with a
surprise weapon when the teams met again on March 21 in
Minneapolis: He had 6'7" Sam Mitchell defend against 7'6" Shawn
Bradley. The idea was to entice Dallas to go inside more and
abandon its potent perimeter offense. "We knew it was going to
give us some funky matchups," said Mitchell, "but we wanted to
make them pass the ball in."

Minnesota exploited those matchups on the offensive end as well.
The 37-year-old Mitchell scored a season-high 20 points, and
6'11" Kevin Garnett, guarded mostly by Bradley, added 28 on
14-of-17 shooting to help the Timberwolves win 109-97 and keep
their grip on the final Western Conference playoff spot.

For scores, schedules and stats, plus the latest news and
analysis from Phil Taylor and Marty Burns, go to
cnnsi.com/basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Odom may be new behind the wheel, but driving is one of his highly refined skills on the court.

Around The Rim

The Illinois team that Lon Kruger left last summer won 27 of 35
games and reached this year's Elite Eight; the Hawks team he took
over had, at week's end, won only 21 of 71. "I've never heard him
reminisce," says Atlanta G.M. Pete Babcock. "For a guy who has
won 21 games, he's remarkably upbeat."...

Jason Kidd poured in 31 points against the Celtics, 32
against the Mavericks and 36 against the Wizards in consecutive
games over six days. Until last week the Suns point guard never
had two 30-point games in a row...

Consider the importance to the Trail Blazers of 7'3" Arvydas
Sabonis, who continues to struggle with a variety of injuries:
Through Sunday the Blazers were 25-7 when Sabonis played at
least 20 minutes and 20-17 when he didn't...

Hoping to inspire Vin Baker to work hard this summer, Sonics
coach Nate McMillan has promised him he will start next season...

Over the last five months of the Lakers' title run last season,
Shaquille O'Neal missed two games and Kobe Bryant only one. This
year O'Neal had already missed eight games through Sunday while
struggling with injuries to both feet, and Bryant, who had sat
out seven games, has ankle ailments that could bother him the
rest of the season...

The Rockets have asked Shandon Anderson to shoot more often, and
the unselfish small forward understands why. "These guys come in
knowing they don't have to play any defense against me,"
Anderson says. "I can just see their eyes lighting up."...

The Bulls, who declared three years ago that they would not
replicate the postchampionship crashes of the Celtics and the
Pistons, were on pace at week's end to win a total of 31 games
over the last two seasons. Chicago's winning percentage (.192)
would go down as the seventh-worst two-year mark ever.

Scout's TAKE

On the title chances of the high-scoring Bucks, who were second
in the East at week's end:

"Right now I'd say Philadelphia and Charlotte are the two best
teams, and Milwaukee is in that next tier, along with New York
and Miami. The Bucks have done well this season breaking down
teams off the dribble. In the playoffs, though, somebody is going
to make them play in the half-court and see how well they
execute. It's going to be interesting. The key will be how
effectively Sam Cassell runs the club: He's a smart player and a
good scorer, but when the Bucks can't run, will he get them to
play the way they need to? Defensively they're giving up almost
98 points a game, which is way too many. I'm not saying the Bucks
aren't capable of playing more physical defense; I'm saying that
getting them to do it will be tough."

New Home, Same Team

On Monday, Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley applied to move the
franchise with the worst alltime record among current teams
(98-352, .218) to Memphis. (The Hornets also made a last-minute
application.) If the Grizzlies end up there, Tennesseans
shouldn't expect too many wins from a team that was 20-52 at
week's end. Of the last five clubs to undergo a major relocation
(that excludes the Nets' trip from Long Island through the
Lincoln Tunnel in 1977 and the Clippers' journey up I-5 from San
Diego in '84), only the 1978-79 Clippers had a winning record in
their first season in new surroundings.

--David Sabino

LAST LAST FIRST FIRST
YEAR YEAR YEAR WINNING
TEAM OLD HOME THERE RECORD NEW HOME RECORD SEASON

Kings Kansas City 1984-85 31-51 Sacramento 37-45 15th
Jazz New Orleans 1978-79 26-56 Utah 24-58 5th
Braves/
Clippers Buffalo 1977-78 27-55 San Diego 43-39 1st
Royals/
Kings Cincinnati 1971-72 30-52 K.C./ Omaha 36-46 3rd
Rockets San Diego 1970-71 40-42 Houston 34-48 6th

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)