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07-30-2002, 05:58 AM

Tuesday, July 30, 2002
Miller puts L.A. in playoffs, but Clips need playoff vet

By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com

Alvin Gentry is officially on notice. If the Clippers don't make the playoffs next season, he's going to get cashiered.

But I suspect he'll take his chances, now that he has one of the five best point guards in the game.

The only point guard in the Western Conference I would definitely take over Andre Miller right now is Gary Payton. For my money, Miller is the equal of Mike Bibby (Bibby is the better shooter; Miller the better playmaker), the Starchild (Stephan Marbury is the better scorer; Miller the better defender) and Stevie Franchise; a little more complete than Damon Stoudamire and Steve Nash; quicker than Old Man River in Salt Lake City; stronger than Tony Parker; superior to Derek Fisher (in the regular season, anyway) and Jason Williams, and much, much better than whoever the Nuggets are going to suit up at the one.

For three years, Miller has been the best player on a bad team. It's easy to put up big numbers with such squads -- you get all the shots and a precious few in your home whites can put the rock in the basket. But it's hard to be a big assist man on such a team. Not only do your teammates have a scoring deficiency, but also at the game's end, who can you count on to make a bucket? All this, and Miller led the league in assists and finished just as strong as he started.

The Clips got the better of this deal. If you didn't see the effect that an upgrade at point has on a team, you weren't watching the Kings in the playoffs. And as good as Jeff McInnis was for L.A. last season, Miller is an upgrade. The Clippers should now be able to win games with defense as well as their explosive, above-the-rimness.

A month ago, the Clippers were on the verge of moving Lamar Odom and their two first-round draft choices (which turned into Chris Wilcox and Melvin Ely) for Miller. Now, they get to keep Odom, who is still their best all-around player, and both of their talented, youngsters everyone assumed were trade bait for Cleveland. One could argue that one Darius Miles is just as good as those three forwards; for all his talents, Odom has some obvious off-court issues that have left him one toke short of a seriously long suspension, and Wilcox and Ely are rookies with potential, but not proven. The Cavs wanted Miles all along, and they held out until they got him.

And the trade gives Miles a real opportunity to shine. He'll have all the minutes and shots he can handle for the electricity-starved Cavs, who now have two young firebrands in Miles and Dajuan Wagner to try and fill their achingly empty building. In the East, Miles will have a chance to be an all-star, something that just wasn't going to happen any time soon in the forward-heavy West. Who would he have beaten out there in the next few years? Duncan? Webber? Nowitzki? Wallace? And if Cleveland turns out to be, well, not everything he'd hoped for, Miles is only obligated to be there two years, after which he should be a free agent.

I still think the Clips got the better of the deal & if they sign Miller to an extension.

Will he demand the max to stay on L.A.'s JV team, as he did in Cleveland? If he does, will Donald Sterling, at long last, authorize his various VPs to spend whatever it takes to keep the nucleus of his team together? The Clips' case for not maxing out Miles was easy; he isn't even a full-time starter yet. Odom's multiple suspensions have made denying him the max easy. Even Quentin Richardson isn't an automatic max.

But that still leaves Elton Brand, Miller and Michael Olowokandi, each of whom expects to get paid. Given Sterling's history, if one of them gets the loot, it would be an upset. Plus, the Clips might have to smooth things over with Richardson, who is no doubt upset this morning, having lost Miles, his close friend and running buddy. (Now, of course, we will never know the meaning behind the pair's fists-upside-the-head gesture.)

But if you're the Clippers, you do this trade a hundred times out of a hundred. You get Miller, you make the playoffs, and maybe for more than one round, and you worry about the future later. You have a year to convince the L.A.-born Miller that this is the place for him, that he can make a lot more money off the floor in L.A. than just about anywhere else.

The Clips can now start Miller, Richardson, Odom, Brand and Olowokandi, with Keyon Dooling, Marco Jaric, Eric Piatkowski, Corey Maggette and Wilcox or Ely in reserve. But why stop there? The Clips still need a veteran mind, who can teach some of the kids a thing or two about working hard and having a team concept instead of degenerating into the individuality that Olowokandi railed about last season. They can accomplish this in two ways.

First, they should use some of their still-succulent cap room on a guy like Bryon Russell or Sam Mitchell, each of whom could step in and play bigger minutes if necessary.

Second, they still have more than enough depth to be a player in possible deals. For example, could a package including Odom ($3.55 million next season), Dooling ($1.76 million) and Wilcox ($1.6 million) loosen Wally Szczerbiak and Anthony Peeler from Minnesota?

By approving this deal -- one that will be unpopular in L.A. with the departure of the crowd-pleasing Miles -- the Clippers' owner has chosen substance over splash, real expectations over long-shot hopes. Is it the dawn of a new day? Or one more false hope for the league's most star-crossed franchise? It is up to D.T. Sterling. Making the playoffs doesn't have to be a once-a-generation occurrence.

David Aldridge is an NBA reporter for ESPN.

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