Here's a new one: A top player facing free agency wants to
re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers. "That's my first choice,"
says 23-year-old shooting guard Quentin Richardson, who at week's
end was averaging 17.3 points in his first year as a starter.
Life as a Clipper is more palatable because of new coach Mike
Dunleavy, who has led L.A. to a respectable 15-19 record.
Dunleavy says he took the job after receiving an unprecedented
commitment from owner Donald T. Sterling to retain the team's top
free agents. That promise led to franchise-record six-year deals
last summer for forwards Elton Brand ($82 million) and Corey
Maggette ($42 million), and the team is still $10 million under
the cap. "People are seeing that guys can now get contracts from
the Clippers," says Brand. "Free agents are telling me, 'Hey,
save that money for me this summer.'"
But will the Clippers spend that money? They still have the
second lowest payroll in the league, which is why Brand remains
unconvinced that Sterling will spend again. "We'll see this
summer if Quentin is taken care of, and how other free agents are
recruited and treated," Brand says.
Richardson's breakout season has vaulted him into the top tier of
2004 free agents, a group that includes Kobe Bryant, Rasheed
Wallace and Steve Nash. Also available will be Kenyon Martin,
who, like Richardson, will be a restricted free agent, meaning
that their teams can match any offer. At 6'5" and 238 pounds,
Richardson has proved strong enough to play inside--he ranks
second on the Clippers with 6.3 rebounds per game--and skilled
enough to hit five three-pointers while scoring a career-high 44
points in a New Year's Eve win against Denver.
Richardson left DePaul as a sophomore and was the No. 18 pick in
the 2000 draft. He averaged 10.4 points over his first three
seasons, but summers of hard work in Chicago with trainer Tim
Grover helped Richardson improve his game, and now he would like
to help lead his franchise into new territory. "Nobody expects us
to win, nobody expects us to be a playoff team," says Richardson.
"I want to be around when we do those things."
NBA team executives anticipate that Richardson and agent Jeff
Wechsler will be aggressive this summer, quickly negotiating an
offer sheet with the Nuggets, Suns, Spurs or Jazz in order to
force the hand of the notoriously slow-moving Clippers. But don't
expect to hear any negative talk from Richardson, who is
determined to learn from the mistakes of his eight free-agent
teammates last season who, Richardson says, sabotaged
themselves--and the team--by fretting too much about securing new
deals. "A lot of those guys felt pressure," Richardson says. "If
you worry too much about your next contract, it can really hurt
you more than it can help you."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Richardson will be one of the most attractive free agents, but hewants to stay in L.A.