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Tuesday, April 2
Updated: April 3, 12:30 PM ET
 
Clippers continue rise, but is fall coming?

By Scott Howard-Cooper
Special to ESPN.com

Mathmatically, they are all but eliminated from the playoffs, after a late run to keep it interesting.

Logically, they will be disappointed if the bid falls short, after breaking camp with the postseason as reachable goal.

Michael Olowokandi
It should be an interesting offseason for Michael Olowokandi and the Clippers.
But realistically?

Realistically, the Los Angeles Clippers will have had a successful run even if the Utah Jazz or Seattle SuperSonics claim No. 8 in the Western Conference in a walk, after all that.

A transition at the start, injuries in the middle and, likely, another trip to the lottery at the end. Needing a victory Wednesday in Salt Lake City just to keep the playoffs at their fingertips, in the wake of the 13-point home loss to the Jazz on Saturday. Having to ask themselves the next four months what could have been with a little more maturity and composure in closing games, since they are 0-5 in overtime games.

And it doesn't matter.

The playoffs were a stretch from the start since it would have meant a second consecutive huge improvement, which was possible, as they have shown by making it interesting, but still too far out there. Meanwhile, the goals that were attainable and practical have been reached, the plateaus that have been hit should be illuminated more than the one they won't get. Unless you know of a lot of other franchises who went from 15-67 to pushing .500 in two seasons.

Perspective is everything, even as players claim 2001-02 can't be a success if it includes only 82 games -- "Maybe to other people," Corey Maggette said. "Not to us." Hitting 41-41 will mean a 10-game improvement, which is commendable no matter the results of eight teams still at the front of the line, especially since it will have come with Lamar Odom lasting all of 29 games because of injury and suspension, point guard of the future Keyon Dooling 14 games because of injury and with Elton Brand getting the early grace period to adjust to a new team, even if it didn't seem like he needed it much.

"If we don't make it, it's not a lost season," Brand said. "We've improved a lot as a team. But if we do make it, it'll be a really successful one.

"We thought from the start that we'd be a good team. Then Odom went down and then Maggette went down, and some people probably thought that would be it for us. But we're still here. Remarkably, we're still here."

For the moment, at least. The offseason is coming -- and there's some crazy rumor going around that the Clippers have had trouble with those in the past. Brand, Michael Olowokandi, Odom, Maggette and Jeff McInnis can all either get extensions or new deals this summer, and don't you just hate it when the anxiety of a regular season is just the prelims to the real events that will determine the future?

It's why all the good news is also potentially the bad news. Fans have dared to believe in big numbers: Olowokandi is showing signs of becoming the factor his backers said he would become in time, Brand is an All-Star and just as likeable off the court, Odom is beloved throughout the organization despite missteps. And all this comes with the additional possibility of having two lottery picks because the Clippers will also exercise an option and grab the one that belongs to the Hawks.

All of which is great, except that now boss Donald T. Sterling has to pay them for all the success. That's right. The one guy in the league who can ruin the Clippers' future. He can be part of the success, or he can be Sterling. It's not that he won't do big contracts, despite a reputation to the contrary. It's just that most deals come too often with the impression that he has to extract an emotional toll in negotiations, which is why every player will watch to see how Olowokandi gets treated, just from the sense that it will set a tone for everyone else. Brand, for example, won't say right now he would stay even if the Clips break the bank because he wants to see how the Kandi talks develop.

I would like to (stay). But history often repeats itself. If I go by history and I go by tendencies, you could make a good argument that I already have one foot out of
here.
Michael Olowokandi

The group wants to stay. It's a pretty tight team, even with the occasional scuffle in a hotel lobby, such as earlier this season in Minneapolis. Power agent David Falk wants to keep his clients there together and, considerate guy that he is, take some of that massive cap room off Sterling's hands.

Everyone is saying the right things about how this can all work out. Of course, everyone is remaining realistic, too.

"It has to be in the back of our minds," Brand said. "You want to play well no matter what and you hope that the word's out and that everyone is staying here because we've got something good going. But, honestly, you have to look at the past and see what's happened."

Said Olowokandi: "I would like to (stay). But history often repeats itself. If I go by history and I go by tendencies, you could make a good argument that I already have one foot out of here."

The view from management is that this isn't the time to worry about such things, but that hasn't stopped players from the inevitable of wanting to know if they're about to say goodbye for the summer or for a lot longer than that. Brand is the easy answer. He gets the max. But Olowokandi is still a work in progress and the Bulls, the other team that will have a lot of cap room, probably won't make a bid since they're already committed to Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. Odom, meanwhile, is talented but hasn't been able to be responsible off the court, making it a difficult call.

It all comes with the backdrop of a season in which the Clippers showed this is something worth keeping together. Capacity crowds are the norm at the end of the season. Richardson is a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year; Olowokandi, getting better by the month, for Most Improved Player. Brand will make the trade with the Bulls the right move even if Chandler turns into a star. General Manager Elgin Baylor should get some attention from his peers for Executive of the Year. Alvin Gentry won't get much play for Coach of the Year, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't, given that the team has made the massive jump the last two seasons on his watch. He has given a young team breathing room while getting smarter on the court, while he's stressed attitude and comportment as much as defending the pick and roll.

Combined, it has gotten them this far, with the rest up to Sterling. It has gotten them all the way to missing the playoffs and still being able to feel good about the season. Realistically.

Scott Howard-Cooper, who covers the NBA for the Sacramento Bee, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.





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