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03-28-2003, 03:31 PM
Future unclear for Clips, Hawks, Cavs, Heat
by Chad Ford





It ain't over until the fat lady sings. But in Cleveland, Denver, Miami and Los Angeles, Oprah's been performing for a while now. Believe it or not, with only 10 or so games remaining, only the Cavs, Nuggets, Heat and Clippers are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. The Raptors should join the list this weekend. And the Bulls, Grizzlies and Hawks have virtually no shot at sneaking in. With nothing left to play for but ping pong balls, pride and the 1,000 or so fans who are still interested, several teams are already beginning to focus on what they might look like next year.

Today, Insider looks at the Clippers, Cavs, Hawks and Heat -- four teams with more questions than answers as they prepare for the offseason.

Can the Clips keep it together?

When asked recently about his experience on the Clippers this year, Elton Brand succinctly (as Dukies are wont to do) summed up the state of the team and the franchise heading into this summer. "Definitely the season from hell," Brand said. The Clippers took a major step backward this year. After compiling a 39-43 record last season, the Clips took a nose dive. Injuries, discontent, uncertainty, lack of chemistry, biblical plagues, you name it, the Clippers had it. So forgive everyone -- players, interim coach, the front office -- if they have no clue what's going to happen when the season ends. As everyone knows by now, the Clippers could have as many as 11 free agents this summer:

Michael Olowokandi, Eric Piatkowski, Cherokee Parks and Sean Rooks become unrestricted free agents. Brand, Andre Miller, Lamar Odom and Corey Maggette are restricted free agents. And Marko Jaric, Wang Zhi-Zhi and Tremaine Fowlkes have team options that the Clippers may or may not exercise. Top Clippers brass, from GM Elgin Baylor to Andy Roeser, have been telling Donald Sterling for the past few years that this is the team that he should pay to keep together.

Sterling can be excused for not offering fat contracts to Mo Taylor, Derek Anderson, Bo Outlaw, Rodney Rogers, Loy Vaught and Brent Barry. Even his lack of support for Danny Manning and Ron Harper (in retrospect) can be forgiven. Brand, for one, believes Sterling & Co. will step up to the plate this summer and keep the core group together.
"The thing is," he told the L.A. Times, "with me, everything seems to work out. Even with the tough times we've had this season, there's a light at the end of the tunnel." "I think, if there's ever a time, it could be this summer," he added. "I know the Clippers' track record isn't good. I know everyone is not going to be here next season, but if we could keep this core group together ... "


Over the last few weeks Brand, Odom and even Olowokandi have indicated a willingness to re-sign with L.A. if Sterling showed an overall commitment to keep the team's best players together. They really don't have much of a choice. There aren't a lot of free-agent dollars out there to be had. Brand has a sneaking suspicion the Clippers would match any free-agent offer sheet he could get, so one way or another he's stuck with them. Olowokandi has generated interest from both the Spurs and the Nuggets, but indications are that neither has him down as their first option.

The Heat and Spurs also have shown interest in Odom, but Odom continues to insist he wants to stay in L.A. Given that he won't command max-type money this season, it seems the two sides could work out something reasonable. Miller is likely gone this summer. So is Maggette. But if Brand, Odom and Olowokandi stick around, the Clippers could still be in very good shape. Add a high lottery pick to the mix (LeBron, Darko, Carmelo?), throw in Jaric at the point, Quentin Richardson and Keyon Dooling at the two, and rookies like Melvin Ely and Chris Wilcox, and the Clippers are still loaded with talent.

And, if the Clippers focus on re-signing just those three, Sterling could still field a team that was under the cap. Giving Brand the max ($10.5 million), Olowokandi something in the neighborhood of eight million and Odom something like $7.5 million would put the Clippers at just $36.5 million in payroll next season. Factor in a few million for their first-round pick, and a couple of minimum players, and the Clippers could field a team for just under $40 million.

Given the team's payroll for this year is $42,230,751, Sterling could actually save money next season. It would also give them about $10 million in wiggle room under the luxury tax to re-sign Richardson, Dooling or whoever in 2004. The bigger question is whether that team would perform any differently than this season's. No one questions the talent. But the results just weren't there this year.

Was the uncertainty surrounding the team's status fueling the rampant selfishness that consumed the club? With big contracts in hand, will their stars settle down and start focusing on basketball again? Did the addition of Miller disrupt the team's chemistry and get it out of the up-tempo game the Clips like to play? Are the Clippers better off throwing that $8 million Maggette's way and letting Olowokandi (who's turned into somewhat of a team cancer) go? Would hiring a top-flight coach like Jeff Van Gundy make the difference?

Roeser and Baylor have just a few months to sell the skeptical Sterling on a plan that makes sense, financially as well as basketball wise. The fat lady may be singing on the Clippers this season. But it's not time to abandon ship just yet.

Plucking the Hawks

They say there are no guarantees in life. Hawks GM Pete Babcock is learning that lesson the hard way. After guaranteeing season ticket holders a playoff berth this season, the Hawks long time GM is no longer guaranteed a job. The Hawks have been playing better in the second half of the season. But, their 10-14 record won't be enough to save his job or save this team. It's rare to hear an NBA GM publicly take the blame for a train wreck. But if you're Babcock, at this point, you don't have much of a choice.

Almost every move Babcock has made the last few years has blown up in his face. Trading Steve Smith for Isaiah Rider. Signing Alan Henderson to a long-term deal. Swapping Dikembe Mutombo (and his expiring contract) for an injured Theo Ratliff. Drafting DerMarr Johnson ahead of Desmond Mason, Hidayet Turkoglu or even Jamal Crawford. Exchanging Lorenzen Wright and the draft rights to Pau Gasol for Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Passing on Tony Parker in the 2001 draft. Swapping Toni Kukoc and the Hawks' 2003 lottery pick for Glenn Robinson. The list keeps going and going.

"We stuck with our plan, and I was wrong -- across the board," Babcock said just before the All-Star Game.

Babock thinks that he may have the answers now. He still believes that the team is close to becoming a contender again. The backcourt of Jason Terry, Dan Dickau and Ira Newble has been a disaster. Babcock believes a fix there could help things across the board. "They need a big strong point guard who can control the offense," he told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "This has consistently been the biggest problem."
Notice how Babcock referred to the team as "they." That's the surest sign yet that this summer, team president Stan Katsen will make good on his vow to "leave no stone unturned to get this thing fixed."

As the trade deadline approached this year, Katsen and Babcock worked overtime to make a trade. Everyone, including Abdur-Rahim, Ratliff and Terry were on the block. Nothing happened. Now it appears that the first move that will be made this summer will be to send Babcock packing. Babcock seems to be resigned to that fact. "I don't know who is going to own the team, or how it's going to run," Babcock told the Journal Constitution alluding to the potential sale of the Hawks.

It's tough to get a handle on what will happen next with the Hawks. They still have about a five percent chance of keeping their lottery pick if it lands in the top three. Getting LeBron, Darko or Carmelo Anthony would definitely be the quick fix the team is looking for.
If that doesn't happen, the team will have to decide on what to do with Terry. He's a restricted free agent this summer and some in the organization feel he'll never be able to make the transition to point guard. The future of several other players, including Johnson and Glover, are also up in the air.

If the team cannot get the job done via free agency and the draft, it could attempt another fire sale. Ratliff looks healthy again and is starting to come around. Terry will still have some value. And Abdur-Rahim will always command a nice price. Either way, the future of the Hawks has never been in more serious doubt.


Cavs look for chemistry

By all accounts, the Cleveland Cavaliers had more talent this year than the Nuggets or Heat. So why will they likely finish with the worst record in the NBA this season? Chemistry.

"It's not who we play, but how we play," Cavs forward/center Chris Mihm told the News Herald. "When we play as a team for four quarters, we can play with anyone. We have enough talent on this team to win games. We are young and make mistakes, but that's a part of it. If we play as a team, take care of the ball, talk to each other, we've proven we can beat just about anybody. We have mental lapses that hurt us. That causes us to get in a hole. If we can stay focused for 48 minutes, we can be a dangerous team."

Team play hasn't been the Cavs' forte. Between Ricky Davis' monthly outbursts, to wars between veterans and rookies, it doesn't seem like anyone in Cleveland has been on the same page this season. GM Jim Paxson's dream of an athletic, up-and-down team came to fruition when the Cavs fielded a lineup of Davis, Darius Miles and Dajuan Wagner. But apparently, no one ever asked whether those three players could ever co-exist on the court. The answer so far has been no, and most of the fingers have been pointed in Davis' direction. That may be a bit unfair, considering that Davis leads the team in assists. However, complaints about his unwillingness to run the offense have abounded. His latest tiff with coach Keith Smart on Wednesday has become a common occurrence.

If the Cavs can get their hands on LeBron or even Carmelo Anthony in the draft, Davis' days could be numbered. He probably won't mind. Davis signed an offer sheet with the T-Wolves and was reportedly upset when the Cavs matched. Still, Davis believes that things are finally coming together in Cleveland. Should the Cavs give things another year?
"It took a while, but we just have to find that chemistry and keep rolling with it," Davis said. "Z (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) and (Carlos) Boozer are cleaning up on the boards, and that's what we need to do. We're finding the open man and moving the ball around a lot and just playing like a team."

Can Pat Riley turn Caron Butler into Magic?

Pat Riley knows his moves will be limited this summer. He will have a high first lottery pick to work with and five-to-seven million in cap space. But Riley's biggest goal this offseason is to transform the biggest asset he already has, rookie Caron Butler, into something even better.

Riley honestly believes that Butler could be the answer to his team's point guard woes. Riley believes having a 6-foot-8 point forward on the floor would give the Heat a lot more offensive freedom. "I think he has the ability," Riley told the Miami Herald. "We have not probably developed the right offense for Caron right now. . . . Because we don't have an anchor, a center, we're playing a running game with a lot of pick-and-rolls. That's not conducive to his game. What's conducive to his game is getting out on the break and pitching the ball ahead to him, letting him go create. So this summer we're going to have to give some real serious thought to how we really feature him." Riley knows a thing or two about big point guards.

"I coached Magic Johnson, so I saw a guy who was 6-9 that had the ball in his hands all of the time," Riley said. "But he also had a very unique skill about seeing the court, knowing the court, knowing the rhythm of the game, knowing time, clock and score, all of those things. It's an innate thing. I don't know if Caron has that. He's always had the ball taken to him. If you ever get [Butler] to that level, then we would probably never sign another point guard because we would just play big all the time." Of course, Butler may not be the only solution to Riley's problem. Riley has coveted the Clippers' Lamar Odom for years. If the Clippers get stingy this summer, Riley may use his cap money to swoop in and sign Odom. Odom not only has the ability to play point forward, he can, at 6-foot-10, play point guard. Riley could also have his prayers answered if lands the No. 1 pick in the draft. More and more scouts are projecting high school phenom LeBron James as a Magic-like point guard.

In or Out of the NBA Draft?

Utah coach Rick Majrus has an opinion on whether Luke Rindour should bolt college for the NBA draft this summer. Majerus advised Ridnour to stay in school, forget about the fear of getting hurt and just take out an insurance policy."He said, 'You're a helluva player. Keep working hard and see what happens,' " Ridnour told the Portland Tribune. "He's a helluva player, and he'll be a damn good NBA player," Majerus said.

Freshman Torin Francis helped himself in the NCAA tournament
NBA scouts are watching two Notre Dame players, freshman Torin Francis and Chris Thomas. With the Irish season now over, scouts feel that both players may at least test the draft waters. Francis' stellar performance in the tournament -- he had 25 points and 12 boards on 10 of 11 shooting Thursday -- has some scouts drooling over his potential.

"He's really improved this season and he put together a great tournament," one NBA scout said. "He'd be a mid-first-round pick if he came out now. But he could go much higher if he stayed in school another year." Scouts are less impressed with Thomas, whom they currently rate as a late-first-round pick. Still, that doesn't seem to deter Thomas. Thomas told reporters that he'll sit down with coach Mike Brey. "We've got some things to discuss," Brey told the South Bend Tribune. "That's the way of the world. When you're a good program, that's what happens.

"We didn't talk about that in the '90s ever, but when you're playing in the Sweet 16, those are things that have to be evaluated and discussed." Chris Bosh continues to be vague about his intentions in regard to the NBA draft.When asked whether he'd return for his sophomore season at Georgia Tech, Bosh replied, "I think so," according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Bosh said he was still weighing all options and was in no hurry to decide.

"If I don't say anything by the last declaration date [May 12], everybody will know," he said.

Peep Show

New Jersey Nets: Could Kenyon Martin be the key to Jason Kidd's future with the Nets? Kidd called Martin the best forward he's ever played with and said his future with the team will be tied in part, to whether the team signs Martin to an extension this summer. "I don't want to be here if he's not," Kidd told the N.Y. Daily News. "If that is what's driving him, I want him to keep doing that. (But) he shouldn't think that if he has a bad game that, 'Well, he's lost Jason.' Because I'm going to be here when (Martin and Richard Jefferson) are in their prime and I am an old man and I can say that these guys are carrying me now."

Toronto Raptors, New Orleans Hornets: Could a Morris Peterson-for-Jamaal Magloire swap go down this summer? The Toronto Sun is reporting that Magloire is unhappy in New Orleans and that the Raptors contacted the Hornets before the trade deadline in February. The Raptors fear that they'll be unable to meet Peterson's contract demands this summer. Magloire, a Toronto native, would like to return home.

Philadelphia 76ers: Allen Iverson's shooting percentage has risen since the all-star break from .399 to .439. Credit coach Larry Brown for some of that. "He always tells me, 'Don't settle, don't settle for shots,' " Iverson told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He doesn't feel like anybody can stop me from getting a short jumper, so take the short jumper instead of just facing up and taking a long one. A lot of times, I kind of get to the point where if a guy plays off me, and I can get the shot wherever I'm at on the floor, then I'll take it. But, most of the time, it always works his way."

New York Knicks: Coach Don Chaney is trying to get Kurt Thomas to tone down his temper and dumb fouls. "He underestimates his importance to this team," coach Don Chaney told the Newark Star Ledger. "You just can't throw it away by making obvious fouls. The way the game is played and the way he plays, you're going to foul. There's no question about that. But it's the obvious fouls that he has to be very mindful of -- chucking, little things, tripping, just little stuff." Thomas isn't buying it. "That's how I play the game. That's how I've always played. I don't change the game I play."

Milwaukee Bucks: Tim Thomas refused to re-enter the Bucks' game against Denver on Wednesday night. The team is expected to either fine or suspend the forward. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Thomas was upset that he was being played out of position at power forward. "There are pluses and minuses for Timmy," coach George Karl told the Sentinel. "There are mismatches. He has to defend a bigger player, but he plays against a slower player. When I played, I used to enjoy being able to attack players. That's a luxury to playing (power forward). You can look at the negative side of the mismatch and say, 'Oh, I have to guard David Robinson or push with this big, strong kid.' But he's got to cover you, too. Actually, I thought we'd get more from the advantages, but we haven't gotten that."

Seattle SuperSonics: The team suspended Joe Forte for conduct detrimental to the team Thursday. According to the Tacoma Tribune, Forte's suspension was the result of an accumulation of corrosive actions (including the taunting of teammates) during the season. "He's very divisive," one team source told the Tribune. "He's not a good teammate." However, the Seattle Times reported that Forte actually got into a fight with Jerome James. "Jerome James tried to jump on me and he was not successful," Forte told the Times. "Both parties are usually suspended, but that didn't happen. That tells me that they give me special treatment in a negative way. It's the same reason why I'm not playing ... But I'm not going to be the Sonics basher. Basically, I got suspended because I got into a fight with a 7-foot guy who attacked me." Forte has been repeatedly warned by the team about his behavior. "It was just a situation where I felt I needed to suspend him," coach Nate McMillan said, declining to discuss the issue further.

Dallas Mavericks: When will Michael Finley return from a hamstring injury? He's set to miss his fifth straight game tonight. "I don't want to go into a game and have that same feeling that I had last year when I came back [too soon]," he told the Dallas Morning News. "I want to wait until I'm definitely beyond that in the recovery process. I want to have 100 percent confidence in it. . . I don't want to come in 50 percent. I want to come in when I definitely can contribute. If I wake up, get a nice workout in and it feels great, I might give it a shot. I don't know. It's a weird injury. Some days I feel great. Some days I don't. "

Sacramento Kings: Before you criticize athletes for speaking out on the war with Iraq, you should listen to Vlade Divac on the subject. Raging wars in Yugoslavia have given him an unique perspective on what's going on in Iraq. "War just does terrible things," Divac told the Sacramento Bee. "That's why I am against all war."