|How the Clips won it all|
By Chad Ford
Special to Page 2
The window is open. The Los Angeles Clippers have an opportunity rarely seen in the NBA -- the chance to build a championship contender in a single summer. With a change of heart, some clever cap moves and some gutsy recruiting this summer, owner Donald Sterling could turn the hapless Clips into NBA champions. In one season. All the moves below could happen under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, with an estimated $41 million salary cap next season.
LOS ANGELES (June 19, 2004) -- Just one year ago, the Clippers had the third-worst record in the NBA -- another miserable, disappointing season for the franchise that for so long has been synonymous with ineptitude.
Now the Clippers are NBA champions.
The only thing more improbable than hearing the words "Clippers" and "championship" in the same sentence is the sight of owner Donald Sterling, wearing the jersey of Clippers center Tim Duncan, standing on top of the scorer's table shouting, "I'm the king of the world," over and over again, after last night's 122-113 victory over the Indiana Pacers.
After the game, Clippers coach Pat Riley said that the experience was the most exhilarating of his career: "We knew from day one that we had a huge challenge ahead of us," he said. "The key was getting guys here who understood what it took to win a championship. Words just can't describe how sweet this is for me to win another championship in L.A."
Riley added, "Plenty of Clippers have asked for max contracts over the past few years. We finally found three players worthy to receive them."
Indeed the dynamic trio of Duncan, Jason Kidd and Elton Brand was just too much for the Pacers, or any other team, to overcome.
"I always wanted to play with a dominant big man," Kidd, the Finals MVP, said after the game. "I just couldn't pass up the chance to play with two of them."
Kidd tallied 15 points and 18 assists in the clinching game. Duncan's 35 points and 15 rebounds and Brand's 21 points, 19 boards and six blocked shots also keyed the victory.
"Elton and Tim play the game exactly the right way," Riley said. "Everyone talks about their offensive numbers, but it's their defense that carried us. Indiana just couldn't get anything going in the paint."
Riley also gushed over the strong play of rookie guard LeBron James. "He's made huge strides this season," Riley said of James, who averaged 15.4 points per game on his way to landing Rookie of the Year honors. "His talent really rivals Magic Johnson. He's the only player I've ever coached capable of playing at this level so early."
But perhaps nothing was sweeter for Riley than embracing backup center Alonzo Mourning as the final buzzer sounded.
Riley convinced Mourning to sign with the Clippers midway through the season after Mourning's doctors finally cleared him to play again.
"Coach told me that if I could sacrifice the money this season, I'd finally get my ring," Mourning said. "After all my years with coach, I knew I could trust him. I can't think of a better way to end my career."
The Clippers' great turnaround began on draft night, when the team took high school phenom James with the first pick in the draft.
James had been warning the team ever since it won the lottery that he would refuse to play for the Clippers if they drafted him. Clippers GM Elgin Baylor spent a month pushing and prodding Sterling to make the team attractive enough to convince James that his future rested in L.A.
The resulting plan will certainly go down as one of the boldest initiatives in NBA history. Just one week after drafting James, the Clippers convinced Pat Riley to opt out of his contract with the Miami Heat and take over the coaching duties and basketball operations of the Clippers.
Riley agreed to join the Clippers with one stipulation: that Sterling would agree to give him three maximum player contracts to work with and total control on personnel decisions. In return, Riley promised to deliver a championship team.
Shortly after July 1, Riley renounced the Clippers' rights to Michael Olowokandi, Andre Miller, Lamar Odom, Sean Rooks and Eric Piatkowski. The Clippers then signed Brand and Maggette. Riley then went after Duncan and Kidd with his plan to make the Clippers an immediate power.
Duncan agreed to a sign-and-trade deal that netted him a seven-year contract starting at $12.7 million -- in exchange, the Clippers shipped off Chris Wilcox to San Antonio to give the Spurs some minor compensation. Kidd, who made $10.5 million in his first season with the Clippers, was acquired from the Nets for Keyon Dooling and Quentin Richardson.
At that point, Riley convinced several former veteran Heat players, including Voshon Lenard, Jim Jackson and LaPhonso Ellis to join the team and fill out the roster.
In the span of just two months, Riley had completely rebuilt the Clippers from lottery dud to title contenders.
But the kicker for Sterling, who reportedly will post the biggest profit in Clippers history, was the final price tag. Riley built the entire team for a payroll of $43,530,043 (against a luxury-tax threshold of $52.5 million). That's a number even Donald Sterling can love.
And now, if Riley can only convince Sterling to splurge for the rings.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.