Last summer the New Jersey Nets, after a quarter-century of bad luck and ridicule, traded for point guard Jason Kidd, who steered the team to the NBA Finals. Last week the Los Angeles Clippers, hoping to shed their hard-earned reputation as America's most inept sports franchise, produced a sequel to that move: They acquired the league's reigning assists leader, point guard Andre Miller, from the Cleveland Cavaliers. "On paper we're as talented as any team," says general manager Elgin Baylor. "Andre was the one piece we were missing."
So loaded is his roster that Baylor could afford to give up in the deal electrifying forward Darius Miles, the No. 3 pick of the 2000 draft. True, the Miller-led Clippers will have a harder time making headway in the Western Conference than Kidd & Co. did in the wide-open East—and a still harder time getting their owner, Donald Sterling, to pay the price to keep his wealth of burgeoning talent together. But the switch from last year's point guard, Jeff McInnis, to Miller should vault Los Angeles into the middle of the playoff pack.
To watch the 6' 2", 200-pound Miller, who will be entering his fourth NBA season, is to witness a clinic in old-fashioned floor leadership: He makes the easy play, rarely leaves his feet to make a pass and always has his head in the game. At 26 he is among the 12 players chosen to represent the U.S. in the World Championships at Indianapolis later this month. Last season he became the second player since 1980-81 to lead the NBA in assists (10.9 per game) for a losing team. Though he's effective posting up and deadly inside 15 feet—"Andre's so strong it's almost impossible to guard him in the paint," says Cavs coach John Lucas—looking for his own shot has never been Miller's M.O. But the demands were often excessive in Cleveland, especially last year, when injuries left Miller without a reliable backup for the final 33 games.
The load won't be nearly as taxing in L.A. Spelling Miller will be 6' 7" Marko Jaric, a second-round steal by Baylor in 2000, who joins the Clippers after emerging as the top point guard in Europe last season. Swing-men Quentin Richardson (who will likely start at shooting guard), Corey Maggette and Eric Piatkowski complement a formidable front line of center Michael Olowokandi and forwards Elton Brand and Lamar Odom. The soft-spoken Miller's task is to bring order to a rotation that is likely to include only two players (Piatkowski, 31, and backup center Sean Rooks, 32) with more than four years of NBA experience. Last year the infant Clippers won 39 games—their best finish since 1992-93—and, by coach Alvin Gentry's count, they could have won 10 more if they'd avoided last-minute breakdowns. "We're very athletic but sometimes kind of loose," says Miller. "I'm just going to try to bring a hard-work mentality. If I lead by example rather than by running my mouth, I'll get respect."
He will have to be firm, because unity could be hard to come by in the Los Angeles locker room. Teammates are waiting to see how the miserly Sterling handles negotiations this summer with Brand, an All-Star power forward who's seeking an extension, and with the 7-foot Olowokandi, a restricted free agent entering his fifth year. Olowokandi's agent, Bill Duffy, is seeking a maximum contract: seven years, $102 million. If the team comes up short, Duffy says Olowokandi will sign a one-year qualifying offer of $6.1 million (which would be the highest salary ever paid a Clipper) and take his chances on the open market next summer.
Despite having only one winning season in 21 years of ownership, Sterling has famously refused to loosen the purse strings; the payroll was so puny ($35 million) in 2001-02 that L.A. was in danger of failing to meet the league's minimum of $31.9 million. When Sterling scuttled a draft-night trade for Miller that would have sent Odom and the No. 8 pick to Cleveland (SI, July 8), some in the NBA speculated that he did so on purpose, fearing that if the Clippers became contenders, he would be under more pressure to pony up the big bucks to keep the team intact. That conjecture was silenced, at least for the moment, by the acquisition of Miller on July 30. "I feel confident that we'll get Michael and Elton signed," Gentry says. "Otherwise it will be tough to go into the season with our five starters each playing for a contract." (Sterling would not comment on the negotiations.)
"We have a lot of talent, and we'll be able to do something with it," Miller says, "if we can learn to play with each other without all the talk about whose contract is up."
Miller appreciates the delicate nature of contract negotiations. At the end of last season his agent, Lon Babby, asked Cleveland to trade him. Babby argued that Miller was worthy of the maximum starting in 2003-04, but he also agreed with Cavaliers G.M. Jim Paxson that such a weighty deal would bloat the Cleveland payroll and make it almost impossible to improve the team around Miller. "So we felt it would be in the best interests of everybody if the team tried to trade Andre," Babby says.
In the end the Cavs and the Clippers agreed on a swap that made both teams happy. The 20-year-old Miles, who was able to earn only 27.2 minutes per game in L.A. in '01-02, will benefit from more playing time in Cleveland and is talking about jumping to stardom, Tracy McGrady-like, in his third season after coming out of high school. In fact, at this point the Cavs seem more likely to re-sign Miles to a long-term deal than the Clippers are to retain Miller, a Los Angeles native.
Until they prove otherwise, the Clippers appear to be living with the paradoxical decision to acquire young players for the short term. Yet with Miller at the helm, that short term might be very sweet.