Every Man For Himself
Eyeing free agency, some Clippers put their stats ahead of their
When Clippers G.M. Elgin Baylor and coach Alvin Gentry held a
team meeting on Jan. 6 to address a six-game losing streak, the
discussion was far from encouraging. According to two people who
were there, several players admitted that they had been more
concerned with padding their stats than helping the team win.
"You know there are selfish players," says one of the witnesses.
"But you don't hear guys actually tell teammates that they're
going to be selfish."
Thanks to Baylor, the Clippers have amassed one of the most
beguiling blends of talent and youth in the league. But thanks
largely to owner Donald Sterling, at week's end Los Angeles had
tumbled to last place in the Pacific Division with a 14--23
record, 5 1/2 games out of the last playoff spot.
Last summer Sterling failed to resign center Michael Olowokandi,
a restricted free agent, and All-Star forward Elton Brand, who
was eligible for a contract extension. Olowokandi was offered $50
million over seven years, far below what he is likely to fetch as
an unrestricted free agent after the season. A Clippers official
says that the team proposed a six-year, $60 million deal for
Brand, a surprisingly generous offer from the tightfisted
Sterling. Brand reportedly wanted a contract closer to the
maximum (an estimated $70 million), but Sterling wasn't willing
to negotiate further. The 23-year-old Brand has averaged 19.3
points and 10.7 rebounds over his four-year career.
Over the next two summers 11 Clippers will become free agents.
None are confident that Sterling will pay enough to keep a
once-promising team intact. Brand, point guard Andre Miller and
forwards Lamar Odom and Corey Maggette will all face tough
decisions this summer as restricted free agents if they are
determined to leave: Any deal they negotiate with another team
can be matched by Sterling, who might not let them walk. At this
point L.A.'s payroll for 2003--04 is only $12.5 million; to reach
the league minimum of approximately $32 million, Sterling will
probably have to pony up for one or more of those players. Their
alternative will be to follow the example of Olowokandi, who
signed a one-year, $6.1 million deal in September in order to be
an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Gentry is also in the final year of a contract that pays him $1.3
million (about $2 million less than the league average) and has
spent the last month hearing rumors that he might be fired any
day. Asked last week if the Clippers planned to make a coaching
change or a trade, Baylor hardly offered a vote of confidence by
saying, "At this time, no."
Even if Sterling were willing to pay for a top coach, it's no
sure thing that one would want to work for a man who has overseen
one winning season in his 21 years. Yet Sterling will consider
himself a winner regardless of his team's on-court performance.
With an average attendance of 16,597 and the assurance of a
luxury-tax refund as a reward for his frugality, he is expected
to reap a franchise-record profit of some $30 million this
Golden State's 5'5" Catalyst
Boykins Supplies A Little Magic
When the season began two months ago, 5'5", 133-pound Earl
Boykins was working at a health club in his hometown of
Cleveland. Last week Boykins was a key element in the remarkable
turnaround of the Warriors, who, after a 4--10 start, had gone
11--11 since signing the league's smallest player to a
nonguaranteed contract. "Every time I step on the court, I have
something to prove," says Boykins, 26, who hit a 12-foot floater
over 6'5" Larry Hughes last Friday to clinch a 104--99 win at
Despite averaging 25.7 points as a senior at Eastern Michigan,
Boykins went undrafted in 1998 and spent the next four years
bouncing among four teams in the NBA and one in the CBA. This
season he made a stand, holding out for a guaranteed contract,
which never came. The next best thing was an offer in November
from Golden State rookie coach Eric Musselman, who had been a
Magic assistant in 1999--2000, when Boykins played a month for
Orlando. Musselman was rewarded in Boykins's second game, when he
had 20 points and seven steals in 24 minutes to help the Warriors
overcome a 21-point deficit at Denver. More and more, Musselman
has turned to Boykins down the stretch of close games, pairing
him with Gilbert Arenas, the 6'3" starter at point.
Many coaches have shied away from tiny guards because they can be
exploited in man-to-man defense, even though the new zone rules
have provided an alternative. "But we don't ever hide him on
defense," says Musselman, who likes to see point guards try to
post up Boykins because it takes the opposition out of its
While Boykins might be the league's quickest player--"He gives me
a headache just watching him," says Mavericks guard Nick Van
Exel--he knows that he can't play at full speed all the time.
"The biggest advantage I have is that I understand the game, the
spacing and the angles," Boykins says. "Seventy-five percent of
the players are in the NBA because they're good athletes, but you
need thinkers, too."
Boykins, who was averaging 10.6 points and 4.2 assists in 22.2
minutes at week's end, has the tools to be a complete player.
"His form and mechanics as a shooter are as good as anybody's
I've ever seen," says 76ers coach Larry Brown. Though Boykins can
grab the rim with both hands, he doesn't plan on dunking. "If I
get touched while I'm up there," he says, "it's a long way down."
And pound-for-pound there may be no one stronger in the NBA:
Boykins can bench press 300. "Every time Earl's in the weight
room, I'm out of there," says Golden State forward Antawn
Jamison. "It's embarrassing to see him benching more than me."
Tour de Force
Mickael Pietrus, a 6'6" French swingman who turns 21 next month,
has the makings of a first-round pick this June. Pietrus was in
his mid-teens when he left his native Guadeloupe along with
brother Florent to join PauOrthez, now the No. 1 team in the
French league. While Florent, 22, is a 6'7" power forward who is
probably too small for the NBA, Mickael is an aggressive slasher
and decent shooter who likes to play defense. "He's a Desmond
Mason type," says an NBA scout. "He's a tremendous athlete whose
game is still raw, though his skills have shown improvement in
the last year."
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COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Brand would have taken less than the max to stay in L.A., but the team wouldn't budge.
COLOR PHOTO: VICTOR BALDIZON/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Amazingly strong for his size, Boykins has shown he can lift even the lowly Warriors.
On the Bucks, who at week's end were 16--20, the ninth-best
record in the East.
"They were an explosive offensive team when they were in the
conference finals two years ago, but now you can't say they're
great at anything. Ray Allen hasn't been shooting well, and they
hoped to get more out of Tim Thomas. Sam Cassell looks like he's
worn down to the point where I don't think he'll ever be as good
as he was. I just don't see any way this team will get back into
contention. Too many times I see them acting as if they don't
care, though I don't buy the talk that [coach] George Karl has
around the Rim
Why are the Mavericks the only team playing at a consistently
high level? "Everybody's practicing less," says Spurs coach Gregg
Popovich, who believes that teams' unwillingness to stash players
on injured reserve because of the luxury tax is hurting the
league. "If you've only got 12 or 13 guys available, it's hard to
have the kinds of practices that lead to good play." ... The fans
in Bologna, Italy, said goodbye to Dallas-bound Antoine
Rigaudeau, 31, with a 15-minute standing ovation that left an
assistant coach in tears. Rigaudeau, a 6'7" Frenchman nicknamed
Le Roi (the King), has the skills to play point forward, which
will make the Mavs' offense even more explosive.... The Wizards'
39-year-old Charles Oakley has become something like a baseball
closer, riding the bench almost all night before being summoned
for his defense in the waning minutes of tight games. "I call him
our Mariano Rivera," says coach Doug Collins. "[At the end of a
game] I look at him and tap my right arm."