They have no center. Their point guard didn't start in his senior year in college, was cut by a CBA team and is three inches shorter than his girlfriend. Their top frontcourt reserve has the worst shooting motion in the NBA. Their leading scorer's good for only 14.2 points per game. Their shooting guard shoots 40.4% from the field. Their most talented player gets 16 minutes a game.
They are the Los Angeles Clippers. The defective, dysfunctional Clippers? The same confused, comical franchise that is on its 18th head coach and third city and has played in just 32 playoff games in its 27-year history? Those Clippers?
Well, no. These Clippers, despite glaring inadequacies, were 25-30 and the owners of the seventh-best record in the Western Conference at week's end. With as many wins as the Bucks and one fewer than the Bullets, L.A.'s other team is finally gaining some respect. "It's been a long time since we've won this consistently," says Clippers point guard Darrick Martin. "When they're laughing at you every night on SportsCenter, there's only so much you can take. We're not a joke."
No, they are 12 seemingly anonymous, gritty players of near equal ability. Those who play well, play. Those who are hot, get the shots. There's no telling which five Clippers will be on the floor in the final minutes of a close game. "You come to the arena ready to play because no matter how little you played the night before, you might be in there at crunch time," says swingman Eric Piatkowski. Nine Clippers have led the team in scoring at least once this season. Martin scored 38 points in a win over Utah on Dec. 30. Three games later, in an 87-80 victory at Toronto, he played only 19 minutes, none down the stretch. But instead of moping, he led cheers from the bench. That's the Clippers.
"We're a bunch of guys who are trying to create an identity for ourselves," says forward Loy Vaught, whose 14.2 scoring average would be the lowest by a team scoring leader for a nonexpansion franchise since Bobby Wanzer's 13.1 for the Rochester Royals in 1954-55. "We can't afford huge egos. We're humble guys who are trying to carve a niche. We have great determination."
That was clear last Friday night, when the Clippers played a sloppy game against Toronto and had every chance to lose but still won, 94-92. Last year, two seasons ago, most any year in franchise history, they would have lost that game. Says Raptors forward Popeye Jones, "They're talented, and they compete."
Especially the smallest Clipper, the ambidextrous Martin, who can shoot as well righthanded as lefthanded. At 5'11", he had to switch to a smaller jersey earlier this season "because you couldn't see half the 1 and half the 5. They were stuffed in my shorts. My family, my teammates, my girlfriend told me to get a new uniform." Martin's girlfriend is Marissa Hatchett, a 6'2" pro volleyball player. "When we go out, she's like this," he says, hunching over to be shorter. "No heels, my rule," he says, smiling.
After starting most of his first three years at UCLA, Martin was benched his senior season. He went undrafted in 1992, was waived by the CBA's Oklahoma City Cavalry and wound up playing for Magic Johnson's traveling all-star team in '92 and '93. In the 1994-95 season he starred for the CBA's Sioux Falls Skyforce and played 34 games for the Timberwolves, who then cut him loose. He was signed by his hometown Clippers in September 1996. In December he became a starter. The Clippers have since gone 18-16, and he has averaged 14.0 points and 5.4 assists per game.
"It's been a hard road, but I don't lack confidence," Martin says. "I know God wouldn't bless me with this much talent, then not let me use it. I needed a chance."
Vaught's first real opportunity came in 1994-95, and for three years he has been the team's most reliable scorer and rebounder. He is the closest thing the Clippers have to an All-Star, but he doesn't mind anonymity. He spends his free time drawing and painting (charcoal sketches, oils and watercolors) and writing poetry. "I like to be diverse; I'm not the Basketball Jones kind," he says. If there's an NBA game on TV, he wouldn't watch it. "I'd probably watch Melrose Place" he says, smiling. "That's good and bad. Coach [Bill] Fitch wishes I would watch the game."