It's fun to be a Clipper these days. The team is young and enthusiastic, with a core of athletes who can rile up a crowd faster than a Backstreet Boy in a junior high cafeteria.
Clips have All-Star Elton Brand, top sixth man Quentin Richardson, budding star Corey Maggette and dunk dude Darius Miles. Those players are all 23 years old or younger. The club is a romper room with a payroll, a bunch of pogo sticks in high tops. Most important, there is some substance to match the Clippers' style. For the first time in 10 years, they win more often than they lose. Entering the week, the Clippers were 34-33, having won seven of 10 games, and challenging the Jazz for a spot in the playoffs.
But just when you thought it was safe to be a Clippers fan again, the bony hand of reality taps you on the shoulder, reminding you not to get used to it. There is the optimism created by the playoff push, but for every silver lining there is a dark cloud. For the Clippers, that dark cloud is in team owner Donald Sterling's change purse. The Clippers are young, but that means most of the players are still in their rookie contracts, and in those contracts, a player is eligible for an extension after their third year and becomes a restricted free agent after the fourth. Six players on the Clippers roster will be eligible for extensions in the next two summers.
Much of the focus of the coming summer will be on whether Sterling forks out extensions for Brand, Maggette and injured forward Lamar Odom, but bear in mind, those three will be on the team next season either way. More pressing is a contract for the guy the Clippers failed to sign to an extension last summer, center Michael Olowokandi, because he will be a restricted free agent (restricted means the Clippers have the right to match any offer). Despite the stir of pro-Clippers feelings in Los Angeles, Olowokandi is not very positive about his future with the team.
"What reasons do I have to be positive?" he says. "It's not like I have heard anything from the GM (Elgin Baylor) or anything from Sterling. I have not heard anything about a commitment. It's not like I have heard anything through my agent, so what reasons are there to be positive? The only thing I am positive about is wearing my uniform and playing with those guys."
Losing Olowokandi would be a blow to the Clippers because they would not be winning without him. His numbers are not astounding -- Olowokandi averages 9.4 points and 8.8 rebounds -- but he is a 7-footer, a good defender and rebounder, and he is willing to do the less glamorous work. He also is a vastly improved offensive player. The Clippers' circus act is fun, but without a post presence to line up next to Brand on both ends, Los Angeles would be an easy team to beat.
"Ask anybody in the NBA," says Clippers coach Alvin Gentry. "You have to have somebody you can throw it to in the low post, and Michael is developing into that guy for us. It's great to have Elton because we can post him, we can step him out on the floor, but, I mean, Michael is a true center. There are not a whole lot of centers left in this league."
There will be a market for Olowokandi. Given his size, youth (26) and continuing improvement, he could earn a contract near $70-80 million if he can find a team with salary-cap space. One selling point for Olowokandi, especially for potential contenders, is that he handles himself well against league monolith Shaquille O'Neal, having outrebounded Shaq 26-23 and held him to 12-for-29 shooting in their last two meetings. Olowokandi knows this. He also knows that Sterling does not give players that much money, so he will have to find it elsewhere.
Baylor was asked for a comment, but he declined, and who could blame him? He has assembled this impressive collection of talent. It's understandable that he would not want to talk about its impending doom.
"I know what (Sterling's) history is," Olowokandi says. "Any reason, no matter what it is, any reason to validate or justify his intentions, he will use. And his intentions are, what? Not to pay people, right? The bottom line is he wants to keep as much money as possible for himself."
This is not simply a matter of the ledger books, though. One scout points out that the Clippers often seem to break from their offense, that players try to make individual plays. That, Olowokandi says, is true, and it is rooted in Sterling's reputation.
"It translates into the way you play," Olowokandi says. "The way the team plays. Because when you feel like there is no commitment from your club, the ballclub you are competing for, you have a tendency to want to perform for yourself, perform for other teams and for scouts from other teams that might be watching. Because if you are thinking, 'I definitely am not going to be staying here; they are not committed to me,' it changes your focus to individual. When you play like that, it takes away from the team. It always does.
"I would love to sit down here and say, 'Oh, no, even with all this happening, we are very unselfish.' That is nonsense. It's not true."
If Olowokandi is right, if this season is just a precursor to a long line of free-agent departures from Clipperland, then those who will be most shortchanged will be the fans who have been cropping up in Southern California wearing blue and red.
"I feel bad for them," Olowokandi says. "They have always supported the Clippers, but everyone always dogged them. Now, they have something to be proud of. But it is going to go right back to what it was before. I feel bad for those people in the city, who see us as a representation of who they are. We can always change teams. They can't."
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