Brink of Disaster
The Clippers made some nifty late moves to plug a looming talent drain
Last Thursday, when it was reported that Clippers big man Lorenzen Wright had signed with the Lakers for the $2 million exception, the NBA rolled its collective eyes. How could the Clips have let Wright walk for nothing—to their intracity rival, no less!—when at least half a dozen teams had tendered sign-and-trade offers? The news coincided with word that Clippers shooting guard Eric Piatkowski was about to defect to the Warriors, following in the path of free-agent forward Rodney Rogers, who had just signed with the Suns. The perennially rock-bottom Clippers seemed about to reach a new low.
Not so fast. Last Friday, Piatkowski changed his mind and re-signed with the Clippers for $12 million over four years. And Wright didn't bolt to the Lakers after all. Instead, the Clips worked a sign-and-trade deal with the Hawks that landed L.A. two first-round picks for Wright, who will receive $42 million over seven years from Atlanta. Even the word last week that the Clippers' 1999 first-rounder, Lamar Odom, was AWOL turned out not to be quite so dire. True, Odom hadn't shown up for a scheduled visit to L.A. in July, but he had a reasonable excuse: His grandmother had suffered a stroke. "Lamar's coming in early next week to sign his contract," said Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor late last Friday. "His grandmother is doing much better. He's fine."
So, relatively speaking, are the Clippers. They knew that a number of their top players wanted to leave; their plan was either to sign them and keep them (see Piatkowski and small forward Tyrone Nesby), or to sign them and trade them. Sweet-shooting forward Lamond Murray was ready to do a Rogers-like vanishing act after reaching an oral agreement with the Spurs early last week for $2.6 million. San Antonio even notified the league of the transaction, but the Clippers were able to head it off with a sign-and-trade. After signing Murray to a seven-year, $25 million contract, L.A. sent him to the Cavaliers for two potential starters, guard Derek Anderson and forward Johnny Newman.
Wright, a 23-year-old forward-center, was the most coveted Clipper. The Pacers were prepared to trade Travis Best for him, but Clippers sources say L.A. balked because of Best's contract, which has three years and $9.6 million remaining, and because coach Chris Ford was unsure whether Best was good enough to be a starting point guard. The Clips also rejected the Timber-wolves' offer of center Dean Garrett, guard Anthony Peeler, point guard Bobby Jackson and a first-round pick. The Lakers were prepared to discuss a sign-and-trade arrangement involving players, picks or both, but the thought of Wright wearing the purple-and-gold—especially now that both L.A. clubs will be playing in the new Staples Center—was unpalatable to Clippers ownership.
Indiana was informed last Thursday morning by Wright's agent, Robert Fayne, that it had until the end of the business day to persuade the Clippers to make the Wright-for-Best swap, or Wright would sign with the Lakers. The Pacers added forward Austin Croshere to their offer, to no avail. The Lakers were also pressuring Wright to make a decision, using Charles Oakley, who had expressed his desire to sign with the Lakers for that same $2 million exception, as leverage. When Wright was not traded to Indiana on Thursday, the stage seemed set for Wright to swap L.A. uniforms. On Friday evening, an exasperated Lakers vice president Jerry West said that wasn't the case. "We cannot reach an agreement that will satisfy them," he said.
By Sunday the Clippers had dealt Wright for two No. 1 picks next year, the Hawks' and the Raptors'. What could have been a catastrophic summer even for the Clippers—four top players nearly left without compensation; only one did—had instead yielded a series of transactions that could improve the team.
Of course, Baylor's worries are far from over. Maurice Taylor, L.A.'s blue-chip forward, whose contract will be up next summer, recently signed with agent David Falk. Speculation is that Falk will inform the Clippers during an Aug. 20 meeting that Taylor won't remain beyond next season and will demand a trade. No surprise there. When it comes to the Clippers, everyone assumes the worst.
Reconstruction in Atlanta
Taking a Flier On Rider
Hawks president Stan Kasten sat in general manager Pete Babcock's office last week, debating the merits of the trade proposal in front of them: a pair of 28-year-old Trail Blazers shooting guards—Jim Jackson and the combustible J.R Rider—for Atlanta's All-Star two guard and all-around good citizen, 30-year-old Steve Smith, and his backup, Ed Gray.