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01-12-2003, 07:46 AM
It's Farce of Habit for Clippers
Mark Heisler

January 12 2003

Do not go, Gentry, into that good night.

Alvin Gentry's coaching career flashed before his eyes last week as General Manager Elgin Baylor came downstairs to talk to the players about Xs and O's, which, in the midst of their lost season, meant Gentry's tenure had reached its wind-down phase.

Not that this came as a surprise after months of farce, which were sure to require a scapegoat.

This had been coming since August, when contract talks with Elton Brand and Michael Olowokandi broke off and it dawned on all the team's young players, who had never paid attention to those Clipper jokes, that they might not be jokes.

When the season started, with several players hurt and the organization in a funk, Gentry was in trouble. By Christmas, he had been downgraded to, "You still here?"

History is being revised internally: They're not only underachieving now, they supposedly did so last season.

Of course, you may not have noticed in the midst of that six-month highlight show they put on, when Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles were doing their fist thing and got their own Spike Lee-directed Nike spot, Clipper merchandise flew off shelves and attendance hit record levels as the team went 39-43.

The Clippers, who'd won 31 games the season before, and 15 the one before that, were in the playoff race until April, when they lost at Utah and Olowokandi said contracts were messing up their heads. This prompted the organizational meltdown in which Olowokandi was fined $50,000, starting a week-long controversy ... before the fine was rescinded.

The team finished 2-8, although it's not clear that coaching was the problem.

To that point, owner Donald T. Sterling hadn't had to make a major commitment in four seasons of rebuilding, with young players bound by the five-year rookie scale, but his turn had come.

Happily, if you were a Clipper fan, he could begin gradually, just by signing the rock-steady Brand, who was not only willing to take less than the maximum to stay, but less than the sub-max deals Mike Bibby and Steve Francis got.

Unhappily, for you suckers, er, fans, it didn't matter.

Negotiations with Brand, as well as Olowokandi, went nowhere, leaving Brand perplexed and Olowokandi the only top-five pick in his '98 draft class who hadn't been locked up.

The gloom was so widespread in the organization, it was easy to see trouble coming, as it did, starting on opening night with a loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers.

It isn't clear that coaching was a problem then, either, and it certainly wasn't the problem.

Of course, as a Clipper official asked the other night, "What about the players' accountability?"

That's a fair question, although, in the Clippers' case, they can never get to it.

If the owner isn't committed to winning, it's hard to get to the shortcomings of the players, coaches, the GM or the executive vice president, Andy Roeser.

The question of commitment doesn't even arise in good organizations, it's a given.

Take the Lakers, where Shaquille O'Neal grudgingly came to grips with the fact that management left them thin this season. On the other hand, they're the Lakers so this is regarded as a mistake rather than a deliberate choice. Everyone believes that when Jerry Buss sees it's the difference between winning and losing, he'll spend whatever it takes, as when he signed Phil Jackson for $30 million, or $29 million more than he would have had to pay Kurt Rambis.

Sterling is in a mega-market, just turned two profitable seasons in which he is said to have made at least $10 million, and has windfalls coming: $7 million in returned escrow money, $10 million in expansion money.

He's still the one and only Donald, impenetrable, locked away in his own reverie, actually enjoying his notoriety, convinced he errs only in being too kind to his basketball people, who give him so much bad advice, which is why he disregards it.

Back in the world, his people insist they'll ride this season out with Gentry. Of course, with a schedule crunch coming, he could be on the beach in February, or sooner, ordering margaritas for everyone with the last of Sterling's $1.25 mil, while the rest of the franchise has to stay.

At this point, it's safe to conclude their honeymoon is over and the transition to whatever comes next has begun.

Everyone, including Olowokandi, is reconciled to the fact Gentry is gone. Andre Miller, who must be dismayed at what he walked into, has struggled, and they like Marko Jaric, who can play the point and costs way less.

Brand, their linchpin, is so positive, he's still looking for reasons to stay. For what it's worth, team officials say they'll absolutely sign him this summer.

Gentry isn't a giant in the biz but the players responded to him and, young as they were, there was no mistaking their progress.

There are lots of horror stories about young powerhouses blowing themselves up -- the Chris Webber-Latrell Sprewell Warriors, the Webber-Juwan Howard Wizards, the Jason Kidd-Jamal Mashburn-Jim Jackson Mavericks -- but this crew was not only spectacular but professional. With the vast profits and bright promise they represented, all management had to do was lock them up and party till 2010.

Now the decisions get harder and involve tens of millions of dollars, a problem when the franchise record is Eric Piatkowski's five-year, $15-million deal. (Piatkowski, by the way, will be a free agent and wouldn't he look good in the Laker triangle?)

Shaq is making $23.6 million this season, but he's in another league, literally and figuratively.

Faces and Figures

Amazing but true, Scottie Pippen, 37 and averaging 10 points, is still considered one of the most valuable Trail Blazers, still a great help defender and now running their offense as their point guard. They're 14-4 when he plays 30 minutes, 7-9 when he doesn't.

Oh, and he'll be a free agent who may have worn out his welcome by ripping the Blazer front office and could conceivably rejoin Jackson, who tried to get Pippen three seasons ago when he went to Portland.

"I would have to be loyal and say my first choice would be here [Portland]," Pippen said. "On the other hand, I will have to see what is best for me at this stage of my career."

Gee, thanks, or more on your thrice-defending champions: Before last week's back-to-back meetings, Phoenix Coach Frank Johnson said of the Lakers, "They're not a 13-19 team."

Sacramento's Keon Clark, renounced in Toronto where he and Vince Carter clashed, trashed Carter all over again last week.

"From what I heard before I got there, until after I left, nobody would step forward and say what was going on," Clark said. "But there was something in the air. I'm glad I'm not there to smell it anymore.... He wants the recognition, but he isn't willing to work for it. I remember someone asking him who was the best player in the NBA. He said, 'It could be me.' That's all you need to know. 'It could be me.' He would talk about it."

Replied Carter, detached as ever, "I think I'm a star in my own right. I don't have to prove it to him or to anybody."

How long before NBA teams start calling Michael Cooper, the Lakers' old high-strung high flier, who turned the WNBA Sparks into back-to-back winners? Cooper has had NBA assistant queries before and probably will again.

Jamal Crawford moment of the week: Chicago's really clueless young guard had to take over when Jay Williams was hurt during a win over the Cavaliers, played so badly they had to put Jalen Rose at the point, and said afterward that 40 minutes was too much.

"I didn't go in the game expecting to play 40 minutes," Crawford said. "I called my friend afterward and said, 'I played 40 minutes,' and he said, 'What?' I'll be more prepared [next time]."

Next game, the Bulls upended the Jazz. "Not to knock anybody," said Crawford, "but I think we have great ball movement when I'm out there."

Wizard forward Charles Oakley, after drawing four fouls in seven minutes: "I can't take them home with me."

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times

01-12-2003, 09:21 AM
<< Back in the world, his people insist they'll ride this season out with Gentry. Of course, with a schedule crunch coming, he could be on the beach in February, or sooner, ordering margaritas for everyone with the last of Sterling's $1.25 mil, while the rest of the franchise has to stay.

I don't think Sterling has ever fired a coach in mid-season. Why pay two guys?