The 'I' in Clippers
Contract worries and their owner's stingy ways have L.A.'s players thinking selfishly
As of Sunday the Clippers had surged to within 2� games of their first playoff berth since 1996-97. Not bad for the league's youngest, least expensive team. Still, center Michael Olowokandi believes Los Angeles should be better. The problem? Too many players—including him—are worrying about their next contract.
"There are times when we're out there being selfish, and we've all been guilty of it," says Olowokandi. Somebody is always demanding more touches, Olowokandi adds, and after losses, too much attention is paid to the individual lines on the stat sheet. "Sean Rooks is definitely the backbone in terms of getting the team in order when things are about to get really ugly," Olowokandi says of his veteran backup. "But the selfishness and everybody trying to prove himself can be overwhelming because it's game after game after game."
According to Olowokandi, the me-first mentality is a direct result of Clippers owner Donald Sterling's stewardship. L.A's top 11 players are headed for free agency over the next three summers, and all are aware of Sterling's celebrated unwillingness to pay market value. The test case for their futures starts on July 1, when Olowokandi becomes a restricted free agent. Referring to his client as "the second-most desirable center, after Shaq," agent Bill Duffy is planning to seek the maximum for Olowokandi, which would mean a seven-year contract starting at $10.6 million. Sterling has never paid a player more than the $4.7 million Olowokandi earns now, a figure stipulated by the rookie wage scale.
The other Clippers will be watching the negotiations closely. "Mike's the centerpiece of the team," says swingman Quentin Richardson (eligible for free agency in the summer of 2004). "The way the team deals with him is going to tell the story of how they're going to deal with the rest of us." The rest of us also includes Elton Brand (a free agent in '03), Lamar Odom ('03), Darius Miles ('04), Corey Maggette ('04) and Keyon Dooling ('04).
While the Clippers are dealing with Duffy this summer, they'll also hear from agent David Falk, who will be asking L.A. for a maximum extension for Brand. "The responsibility is theirs to take care of a much-valued employee at the first opportunity," says Falk, adding that in another year or two the Clippers will face the likelihood of "block negotiations" with his company, SFX, which also represents Richardson, Miles and Maggette. Will the 6'8" Brand, who didn't like guarding centers during his two seasons with the Bulls, want to re-sign with Los Angeles if he doesn't have the 7-foot, 270-pound Olowokandi alongside him? "I'm definitely going to watch how they treat him, because I want to play with him," says Brand.
The Clippers' front office is urging Sterling to retain Olowokandi, who was the No. 1 pick, out of Pacific, in the 1998 draft. "He's vital to the future of the franchise," says general manager Elgin Baylor. Adds coach Alvin Gentry, "We've got some tough decisions that have to be made. Losing our center can't be one of those decisions."
The 26-year-old Olowokandi was averaging 9.5 points and 8.8 rebounds. Noting that Olowokandi is just now finishing his seventh season of organized basketball, Baylor says his footwork, instincts and passion have improved immeasurably. Gently concedes that Olowokandi would become a bigger scorer if he played for a team that featured him more than the freewheeling Clippers do.
Olowokandi has three options this summer: 1) He can sign a long-term contract with the Clippers; 2) he can negotiate a deal with another team knowing that Los Angeles has the right to match it. Lakers coach Phil Jackson believes Chicago, which could be more than $5 million under the cap this summer, is likely to make a play for Olowokandi because Bulls G.M. Jerry Krause has liked him since his days at Pacific; or 3) he can accept a one-year, $5.8 million qualifying offer from the Clippers, play out next season and become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2003, when the Heat, Magic, Nuggets, Pacers, Spurs, Wizards and others could be under the cap. "Olowokandi would be a pretty good consolation prize to the teams that will be going after Tim Duncan," says an Eastern Conference general manager of the Spurs' star, who can become a free agent after 2002-03 as well.
L.A. executive vice president Andy Roeser says the team will tender Olowokandi a one-year offer then try to hammer out a multiyear deal. "Our desire is to sign Michael over the long term," Roeser says. "If he receives an offer sheet from someone else we would match it."