Clippers guard Quentin Richardson is handing out the lessons this year—and is set up for a big payday
Here's a new one: A top player facing free agency wants to re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers. "That's my first choice," says 23-year-old shooting guard Quentin Richardson, who at week's end was averaging 17.3 points in his first year as a starter.
Life as a Clipper is more palatable because of new coach Mike Dunleavy, who has led L.A. to a respectable 15-19 record. Dunleavy says he took the job after receiving an unprecedented commitment from owner Donald T. Sterling to retain the team's top free agents. That promise led to franchise-record six-year deals last summer for forwards Elton Brand ($82 million) and Corey Maggette ($42 million), and the team is still $10 million under the cap. "People are seeing that guys can now get contracts from the Clippers," says Brand. "Free agents are telling me, 'Hey, save that money for me this summer?' "
But will the Clippers spend that money? They still have the second lowest payroll in the league, which is why Brand remains unconvinced that Sterling will spend again. "We'll see this summer if Quentin is taken care of, and how other free agents are recruited and treated," Brand says.
Richardson's breakout season has vaulted him into the top tier of 2004 free agents, a group that includes Kobe Bryant, Rasheed Wallace and Steve Nash. Also available will be Kenyon Martin, who, like Richardson, will be a restricted free agent, meaning that their teams can match any offer. At 6'5" and 238 pounds, Richardson has proved strong enough to play inside-he ranks second on the Clippers with 6.3 rebounds per game—and skilled enough to hit five three-pointers while scoring a career-high 44 points in a New Year's Eve win against Denver.
Richardson left DePaul as a sophomore and was the No. 18 pick in the 2000 draft. He averaged 10.4 points over his first three seasons, but summers of hard work in Chicago with trainer Tim Grover helped Richardson improve his game, and now he would like to help lead his franchise into new territory. "Nobody expects us to win, nobody expects us to be a playoff team," says Richardson. "I want to be around when we do those things."
NBA team executives anticipate that Richardson and agent Jeff Wechsler will be aggressive this summer, quickly negotiating an offer sheet with the Nuggets, Suns, Spurs or Jazz in order to force the hand of the notoriously slow-moving Clippers. But don't expect to hear any negative talk from Richardson, who is determined to learn from the mistakes of his eight free-agent teammates last season who, Richardson says, sabotaged themselves—and the team—by fretting too much about securing new deals. "A lot of those guys felt pressure," Richardson says. "If you worry too much about your next contract, it can really hurt you more than it can help you."
Raptors' coach Kevin O'Neill
Old Rookie Wins From the Bench
As a notorious screamer throughout his 20-year career as a college coach, Kevin O'Neill was an unlikely candidate to graduate to an NBA sideline. So how is it that this rookie head coach has led the surprising Toronto Raptors to an 19-16 start, just six fewer wins than Lenny Wilkens managed all of last season? "I coach differently than I did in college," says O'Neill, 46, a former head coach at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern. "I shout out plays or coverages, but I don't yell at players."
Crucial to O'Neill's disciplined transformation were the three years he spent as an NBA assistant, first with the Knicks' Jeff Van Gundy in 2000-01 and then as Detroit's defensive specialist for Rick Carlisle the past two seasons. Other former college coaches ( P.J. Carlesimo and Lon Kruger) made the fundamental mistake of jumping straight into an NBA head-coaching job without serving an apprenticeship. "I would have been a miserable failure if I'd done it that way," says O'Neill.