Every Man For Himself
Eyeing free agency, some Clippers put their stats ahead of their team
When Clippers G.M. Elgin Baylor and coach Alvin Gentry held a team meeting on Jan. 6 to address a six-game losing streak, the discussion was far from encouraging. According to two people who were there, several players admitted that they had been more concerned with padding their stats than helping the team win. "You know there are selfish players," says one of the witnesses. "But you don't hear guys actually tell teammates that they're going to be selfish."
Thanks to Baylor, the Clippers have amassed one of the most beguiling blends of talent and youth in the league. But thanks largely to owner Donald Sterling, at week's end Los Angeles had tumbled to last place in the Pacific Division with a 14-23 record, 5½ games out of the last playoff spot.
Last summer Sterling failed to re-sign center Michael Olowokandi, a restricted free agent, and All-Star forward Elton Brand, who was eligible for a contract extension. Olowokandi was offered $50 million over seven years, far below what he is likely to fetch as an unrestricted free agent after the season. A Clippers official says that the team proposed a six-year, $60 million deal for Brand, a surprisingly generous offer from the tightfisted Sterling. Brand reportedly wanted a contract closer to the maximum (an estimated $70 million), but Sterling wasn't willing to negotiate further. The 23-year-old Brand has averaged 19.3 points and 10.7 rebounds over his four-year career.
Over the next two summers 11 Clippers will become free agents. None are confident that Sterling will pay enough to keep a once-promising team intact. Brand, point guard Andre Miller and forwards Lamar Odom and Corey Maggette will all face tough decisions this summer as restricted free agents if they are determined to leave: Any deal they negotiate with another team can be matched by Sterling, who might not let them walk. At this point LA's payroll for 2003-04 is only $12.5 million; to reach the league minimum of approximately $32 million, Sterling will probably have to pony up for one or more of those players. Their alternative will be to follow the example of Olowokandi, who signed a one-year, $6.1 million deal in September in order to be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Gentry is also in the final year of a contract that pays him $1.3 million (about $2 million less than the league average) and has spent the last month hearing rumors that he might be fired any day. Asked last week if the Clippers planned to make a coaching change or a trade, Baylor hardly offered a vote of confidence by saying, "At this time, no."
Even if Sterling were willing to pay for a top coach, it's no sure thing that one would want to work for a man who has overseen one winning season in his 21 years. Yet Sterling will consider himself a winner regardless of his team's on-court performance. With an average attendance of 16,597 and the assurance of a luxury-tax refund as a reward for his frugality, he is expected to reap a franchise-record profit of some $30 million this season.
Golden State's 5'5" Catalyst
Boykins Supplies A Little Magic
When the season began two months ago, 5'5", 133-pound Earl Boykins was working at a health club in his hometown of Cleveland. Last week Boykins was a key element in the remarkable turnaround of the Warriors, who, after a 4-10 start, had gone 11-11 since signing the league's smallest player to a nonguaranteed contract. "Every time I step on the court, I have something to prove," says Boykins, 26, who hit a 12-foot floater over 6'5" Larry Hughes last Friday to clinch a 104-99 win at Washington.
Despite averaging 25-7 points as a senior at Eastern Michigan, Boykins went undrafted in 1998 and spent the next four years bouncing among four teams in the NBA and one in the CBA This season he made a stand, holding out for a guaranteed contract, which never came. The next best thing was an offer in November from Golden State rookie coach Eric Musselman, who had been a Magic assistant in 1999-2000, when Boykins played a month for Orlando. Musselman was rewarded in Boykins's second game, when he had 20 points and seven steals in 24 minutes to help the Warriors overcome a 21-point deficit at Denver. More and more, Musselman has turned to Boykins down the stretch of close games, pairing him with Gilbert Arenas, the 6'3" starter at point.