A Healthier Clip
For the record, the Clippers are the league's most-improved team
Two months ago the co-captain of the Clippers earned his first driver's license and bought his first car. When he goes home at night, 21-year-old forward Lamar Odom parks his new Lincoln Navigator around the corner from the house where the team's other phenom, 19-year-old rookie Darius Miles, lives with his mother. "I already had my driver's license," Miles says. "I'm not like Lamar."
On draft day last June, the Clippers began building for the future for the umpteenth time. The early returns have been more than promising: eight sellouts at the Staples Center—two more than the team had last season—and, with a 25-45 record at week's end, a greater gain in winning percentage this season (from .183 to .357) than any team in the league. Last week the Clippers upset the visiting 76ers and Rockets, showing surprising savvy while spinning their half-court offense around 7-foot center Michael Olowokandi. The No. 1 pick of the 1998 draft put up a solid 12 points and 12 rebounds against Philadelphia's Dikembe Mutombo and followed with a 20-point, eight-rebound, four-block performance against Houston. "I'm finding ways of being effective and doing things that help us win," Olowokandi says.
When the Nigerian-born center becomes a restricted free agent after next season, he will serve as a litmus test of the Clippers' commitment to building a competitive team in this era. If another team makes a strong offer, will Clippers owner Donald Sterling change his stingy ways and come up with the money to retain Olowokandi? "I feel confident we will keep him here," says coach Alvin Gentry, buoyed by his conversations with Sterling. The rest of us can be forgiven, however, if we believe it only when we see it.
Like Gentry, the players don't want to dwell on the long list of talented Clippers who took the first exit available. No one could persuade Odom, Keyon Dooling, Corey Maggette and Quentin Richardson that they should not leave college after a mere season or two—or Miles that he should not turn pro straight out of high school—and no one can tell these players that it's bad to be a Clipper. "A rap album by Jay-Z called The Dynasty came out the first day we played this season," says Odom. "That's what we're trying to create here, a dynasty."
The main building block is Odom. Only two years ago he was trying to reverse his decision to turn pro and was blowing off workouts with the teams that were thinking of drafting him. Now Odom, along with center Sean Rooks, is captain of his NBA team. Odom recently served a five-game suspension for violating the league's antidrug program. Sources told the Los Angeles Times that he tested positive for marijuana and then failed to comply with the NBA's mandated aftercare program. The setback made clear to Odom how important he is to his young teammates. "They let me know that the atmosphere in the locker room was a lot different without me," says the 6'10" forward, whose sense of humor keeps the Clippers loose.
Gentry believes the responsibilities of leadership have brought out the best in Odom. Against the Rockets he recovered from a terrible start to convert big shots and make key passes. With his all-around play—he was averaging 17.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.75 blocks through Sunday's games—Odom has set an example for Miles and served as the rookie's shield. There is no hurry for Miles to deliver big numbers as long as Odom Ls producing them.
At 6'9" and 202 pounds, Miles needs to get stronger, learn to play defense and develop a jump shot. Despite those shortcomings, he has made an impact in his 25.5 minutes per game this season. On offense he is a smart player with an uncanny knack for rebounding, and there is a diving-board spring to his step even as he jogs upcourt. He looks as if he is following in the footsteps of his idol, Kevin Garnett, as well as those of his neighbor Odom. "He can play right now, and not a lot of guys out of high school can do that as rookies," says an opposing team's scout.
Maybe the biggest surprise on the Clippers has been Jeff McInnis, the scoring point guard who was exiled to the CBA during his second season with the Nuggets, in 1997-98, when he was pegged as having a bad attitude—a rap players usually earn when they become Clippers. Since signing with Los Angeles in February 2000, however, McInnis has proved to be steady (12.7 points and 5.4 assists per game) and durable (through Sunday he had missed only one game this season). "There are times when Keyon and Quentin are feeling down about their minutes, and I tell them to keep their heads up," McInnis says. "I tell them if I had had somebody to talk to me when I was moping at the end of the bench, I might not have ended up in the CBA."
Gentry hopes his team will emulate the Mavericks by adding a few more wins next season and then making a playoff run—with Olowokandi—in 2002-03. Gentry also has found all sorts of good signs in losses this season, including nine in overtime and 14 in which L.A. has blown the lead with five minutes to go. "That's good for these guys," Gentry says. "The one thing they don't need to experience is instant gratification."