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Original Issue

Inside The NBA

The Clippers made some nifty late moves to plug a looming talent

Last Thursday, when it was reported that Clippers big man
Lorenzen Wright had signed with the Lakers for the $2 million
exception, the NBA rolled its collective eyes. How could the
Clips have let Wright walk for nothing--to their intracity
rival, no less!--when at least half a dozen teams had tendered
sign-and-trade offers? The news coincided with word that
Clippers shooting guard Eric Piatkowski was about to defect to
the Warriors, following in the path of free-agent forward Rodney
Rogers, who had just signed with the Suns. The perennially
rock-bottom Clippers seemed about to reach a new low.

Not so fast. Last Friday, Piatkowski changed his mind and
re-signed with the Clippers for $12 million over four years. And
Wright didn't bolt to the Lakers after all. Instead, the Clips
worked a sign-and-trade deal with the Hawks that landed L.A. two
first-round picks for Wright, who will receive $42 million over
seven years from Atlanta. Even the word last week that the
Clippers' 1999 first-rounder, Lamar Odom, was AWOL turned out
not to be quite so dire. True, Odom hadn't shown up for a
scheduled visit to L.A. in July, but he had a reasonable excuse:
His grandmother had suffered a stroke. "Lamar's coming in early
next week to sign his contract," said Clippers general manager
Elgin Baylor late last Friday. "His grandmother is doing much
better. He's fine."

So, relatively speaking, are the Clippers. They knew that a
number of their top players wanted to leave; their plan was
either to sign them and keep them (see Piatkowski and small
forward Tyrone Nesby), or to sign them and trade them.
Sweet-shooting forward Lamond Murray was ready to do a
Rogers-like vanishing act after reaching an oral agreement with
the Spurs early last week for $2.6 million. San Antonio even
notified the league of the transaction, but the Clippers were
able to head it off with a sign-and-trade. After signing Murray
to a seven-year, $25 million contract, L.A. sent him to the
Cavaliers for two potential starters, guard Derek Anderson and
forward Johnny Newman.

Wright, a 23-year-old forward-center, was the most coveted
Clipper. The Pacers were prepared to trade Travis Best for him,
but Clippers sources say L.A. balked because of Best's contract,
which has three years and $9.6 million remaining, and because
coach Chris Ford was unsure whether Best was good enough to be a
starting point guard. The Clips also rejected the Timberwolves'
offer of center Dean Garrett, guard Anthony Peeler, point guard
Bobby Jackson and a first-round pick. The Lakers were prepared
to discuss a sign-and-trade arrangement involving players, picks
or both, but the thought of Wright wearing the
purple-and-gold--especially now that both L.A. clubs will be
playing in the new Staples Center--was unpalatable to Clippers

Indiana was informed last Thursday morning by Wright's agent,
Robert Fayne, that it had until the end of the business day to
persuade the Clippers to make the Wright-for-Best swap, or
Wright would sign with the Lakers. The Pacers added forward
Austin Croshere to their offer, to no avail. The Lakers were
also pressuring Wright to make a decision, using Charles Oakley,
who had expressed his desire to sign with the Lakers for that
same $2 million exception, as leverage. When Wright was not
traded to Indiana on Thursday, the stage seemed set for Wright
to swap L.A. uniforms. On Friday evening, an exasperated Lakers
vice president Jerry West said that wasn't the case. "We cannot
reach an agreement that will satisfy them," he said.

By Sunday the Clippers had dealt Wright for two No. 1 picks next
year, the Hawks' and the Raptors'. What could have been a
catastrophic summer even for the Clippers--four top players nearly
left without compensation; only one did--had instead yielded a
series of transactions that could improve the team.

Of course, Baylor's worries are far from over. Maurice Taylor,
L.A.'s blue-chip forward, whose contract will be up next summer,
recently signed with agent David Falk. Speculation is that Falk
will inform the Clippers during an Aug. 20 meeting that Taylor
won't remain beyond next season and will demand a trade. No
surprise there. When it comes to the Clippers, everyone assumes
the worst.

Reconstruction in Atlanta

Hawks president Stan Kasten sat in general manager Pete
Babcock's office last week, debating the merits of the trade
proposal in front of them: a pair of 28-year-old Trail Blazers
shooting guards--Jim Jackson and the combustible J.R. Rider--for
Atlanta's All-Star two guard and all-around good citizen,
30-year-old Steve Smith, and his backup, Ed Gray.

Babcock, who weighs a player's character heavily when
contemplating a deal, was hesitant to take on Rider, whose
transgressions have ranged from marijuana possession to spitting
at a fan to repeatedly missing team flights and practices. Rider
proved to be such a distraction with both the Timberwolves and
the Blazers that his formidable talent as a scorer was deemed
expendable by both. So Kasten began rattling off numbers: 2,400;
2,600; 2,600; 2,600; 2,800. "Pete said to me, 'What does that
mean?'" Kasten says. "I said, 'Those are the minutes J.R.'s
played in each of the past five full seasons.' My point was, the
kid shows up for work every night. How bad could his problems
really be?"

The Hawks, who made the swap on Aug. 2, will get to find out.
The trade was one of several postseason moves Atlanta has made
to get younger--and deeper. On draft day it peddled point guard
Mookie Blaylock, a huge disappointment last season, with Duane
Ferrell to the Warriors for Bimbo Coles and the 10th pick. The
Hawks used that selection to choose Arizona playmaker Jason
Terry, who has been solid in summer-league play, and with pick
No. 20 they took 6'6" Georgia Tech guard Dion Glover, who may
turn out to be the steal of the draft. Glover missed the 1998-99
college season after tearing both the anterior cruciate and
medial collateral ligaments in his left knee, but Atlanta, which
had three first-rounders, gambled on him after receiving a
stellar report from its medical people. Glover, who averaged
18.4 points as a freshman in '97-98, has been cleared to play,
but Kasten says the Hawks will hold him back until training camp.

Last Saturday, Atlanta also acquired Lorenzen Wright from the
Clippers for a pair of picks. Wright joins a front line that
includes center Dikembe Mutombo, power forward Alan Henderson,
small forward LaPhonso Ellis and three-point marksman Chris
Crawford. The same team that had trouble fielding enough bodies
last May for its postseason run, which ended in a second-round
sweep by the Knicks, suddenly has talent to spare.

Atlanta's biggest question mark now--aside from how Terry adapts
to running an NBA team--will be the whereabouts of Rider. "I
told him, 'J.R., this is your chance for a big-time contract,'"
says Kasten. "'Or you can take someone else's $2 million next

That's because Rider is in the final year of a contract that
will pay him $5.4 million this season. At worst, the Hawks will
have cap room for 2000-01 if Rider leaves or doesn't work out.
At best, they've corralled an inside-out scoring threat who
swears he will walk the straight and narrow under coach Lenny
Wilkens--the kind of coach, Rider claims, who can understand
him. "I know, I know," Kasten says. "It's a gamble, but that's
why we have Jimmy Jackson.

"Look. It's pretty simple. If you have talent, you have a chance
to win. Of course you'd love to get character and talent. And I
know there are plenty of examples where the flaws of some of
these guys negate their talent. We'll take our chances."

COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS The Clippers nearly lost Wright to Shaq and the rival Lakers for nothing.

Around The Rim

New coach Doc Rivers lobbied hard to keep Penny Hardaway, but by
the time Magic ownership relented, Hardaway had made up his mind
to go to the Suns. Rivers also wasn't thrilled with the package
Orlando received for Penny: forwards Pat Garrity and Danny
Manning and two No. 1 picks. The Magic tried to acquire rookie
forward Shawn Marion instead of Manning, but Phoenix said no....

League sources say that while the Heat has been Mitch Richmond's
most ardent suitor, the Pacers considered landing him in a
sign-and-trade agreement that would have shipped their star,
Reggie Miller, who is looking for a lucrative, long-term
extension, to the Wizards....

The Timberwolves and Terrell Brandon were closing in on a new
contract when the Nuggets signed their point guard, Nick Van
Exel, to an incentive-laden, seven-year agreement that at worst
is worth $60 million. While Minnesota vice president Kevin
McHale conceded that Van Exel's huge deal put "a small wrench"
into the negotiations, he hoped to have Brandon re-signed this

The T-Wolves also seem to have all but locked up forward Joe
Smith, who, sources say, was offered a multiyear contract by the
Bulls starting at $5 million a season....

The Raptors like free-agent forward Malik Rose, but they are
still hoping that Charles Oakley will re-sign for $18 million
over three years....

The best remaining free agent: former Knicks general manager
Ernie Grunfeld.