Last summer the New Jersey Nets, after a quarter-century of bad
luck and ridicule, traded for point guard Jason Kidd, who steered
the team to the NBA Finals. Last week the Los Angeles Clippers,
hoping to shed their hard-earned reputation as America's most
inept sports franchise, produced a sequel to that move: They
acquired the league's reigning assists leader, point guard Andre
Miller, from the Cleveland Cavaliers. "On paper we're as talented
as any team," says general manager Elgin Baylor. "Andre was the
one piece we were missing."
So loaded is his roster that Baylor could afford to give up in
the deal electrifying forward Darius Miles, the No. 3 pick of the
2000 draft. True, the Miller-led Clippers will have a harder time
making headway in the Western Conference than Kidd & Co. did in
the wide-open East--and a still harder time getting their owner,
Donald Sterling, to pay the price to keep his wealth of
burgeoning talent together. But the switch from last year's point
guard, Jeff McInnis, to Miller should vault Los Angeles into the
middle of the playoff pack.
To watch the 6'2", 200-pound Miller, who will be entering his
fourth NBA season, is to witness a clinic in old-fashioned floor
leadership: He makes the easy play, rarely leaves his feet to
make a pass and always has his head in the game. At 26 he is
among the 12 players chosen to represent the U.S. in the World
Championships at Indianapolis later this month. Last season he
became the second player since 1980-81 to lead the NBA in assists
(10.9 per game) for a losing team. Though he's effective posting
up and deadly inside 15 feet--"Andre's so strong it's almost
impossible to guard him in the paint," says Cavs coach John
Lucas--looking for his own shot has never been Miller's M.O. But
the demands were often excessive in Cleveland, especially last
year, when injuries left Miller without a reliable backup for the
final 33 games.
The load won't be nearly as taxing in L.A. Spelling Miller will
be 6'7" Marko Jaric, a second-round steal by Baylor in 2000, who
joins the Clippers after emerging as the top point guard in
Europe last season. Swingmen Quentin Richardson (who will likely
start at shooting guard), Corey Maggette and Eric Piatkowski
complement a formidable front line of center Michael Olowokandi
and forwards Elton Brand and Lamar Odom. The soft-spoken Miller's
task is to bring order to a rotation that is likely to include
only two players (Piatkowski, 31, and backup center Sean Rooks,
32) with more than four years of NBA experience. Last year the
infant Clippers won 39 games--their best finish since 1992-93--and,
by coach Alvin Gentry's count, they could have won 10 more if
they'd avoided last-minute breakdowns. "We're very athletic but
sometimes kind of loose," says Miller. "I'm just going to try to
bring a hard-work mentality. If I lead by example rather than by
running my mouth, I'll get respect."
He will have to be firm, because unity could be hard to come by
in the Los Angeles locker room. Teammates are waiting to see how
the miserly Sterling handles negotiations this summer with Brand,
an All-Star power forward who's seeking an extension, and with
the 7-foot Olowokandi, a restricted free agent entering his fifth
year. Olowokandi's agent, Bill Duffy, is seeking a maximum
contract: seven years, $102 million. If the team comes up short,
Duffy says Olowokandi will sign a one-year qualifying offer of
$6.1 million (which would be the highest salary ever paid a
Clipper) and take his chances on the open market next summer.
Despite having only one winning season in 21 years of ownership,
Sterling has famously refused to loosen the purse strings; the
payroll was so puny ($35 million) in 2001-02 that L.A. was in
danger of failing to meet the league's minimum of $31.9 million.
When Sterling scuttled a draft-night trade for Miller that would
have sent Odom and the No. 8 pick to Cleveland (SI, July 8), some
in the NBA speculated that he did so on purpose, fearing that if
the Clippers became contenders, he would be under more pressure
to pony up the big bucks to keep the team intact. That conjecture
was silenced, at least for the moment, by the acquisition of
Miller on July 30. "I feel confident that we'll get Michael and
Elton signed," Gentry says. "Otherwise it will be tough to go
into the season with our five starters each playing for a
contract." (Sterling would not comment on the negotiations.)
"We have a lot of talent, and we'll be able to do something with
it," Miller says, "if we can learn to play with each other
without all the talk about whose contract is up."
Miller appreciates the delicate nature of contract negotiations.
At the end of last season his agent, Lon Babby, asked Cleveland
to trade him. Babby argued that Miller was worthy of the maximum
starting in 2003-04, but he also agreed with Cavaliers G.M. Jim
Paxson that such a weighty deal would bloat the Cleveland payroll
and make it almost impossible to improve the team around Miller.
"So we felt it would be in the best interests of everybody if the
team tried to trade Andre," Babby says.
In the end the Cavs and the Clippers agreed on a swap that made
both teams happy. The 20-year-old Miles, who was able to earn
only 27.2 minutes per game in L.A. in '01-02, will benefit from
more playing time in Cleveland and is talking about jumping to
stardom, Tracy McGrady-like, in his third season after coming out
of high school. In fact, at this point the Cavs seem more likely
to re-sign Miles to a long-term deal than the Clippers are to
retain Miller, a Los Angeles native.
Until they prove otherwise, the Clippers appear to be living with
the paradoxical decision to acquire young players for the short
term. Yet with Miller at the helm, that short term might be very
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK DISH ABILITY Miller's floor leadership and pass-first approach are just what L.A. needs.