Johnson out to steady Clippers' ship

ON THE NBA

Pro Basketball

March 09, 2003|By Milton Kent

It would be tempting to think of new Los Angeles Clippers coach Dennis Johnson as the human punch line to the joke about the guy who wanted to coach in the worst way and is getting his wish.

But Johnson, who inherited the Clippers' mess this week from the fired Alvin Gentry, says things aren't as bad as people think.

"Over the last two years, we've changed the thinking of the culture outside," Johnson said. "It may be going backward right now. A year ago, when you had a team such as we had with so much praise and promise, you heard that we should be going to the playoffs. That means, the thinking has changed."

Indeed, the Clippers went 39-43 last year and made a huge offseason trade, dealing forward Darius Miles to Cleveland for point guard Andre Miller and the rights to forward Chris Wilcox (Maryland).

With Miller, Wilcox and first-round pick Melvin Ely added to a mix that already included power forward Elton Brand, center Michael Olowokandi and guard Quentin Richardson, the franchise's first postseason berth since the 1996-97 season seemed within reach.

But then, the true nature of the Clippers, the franchise where hope goes to die, revealed itself.

Miller, injured throughout the season, hasn't come close to being the player who led the NBA in assists last season. Olowokandi, the league's No. 1 draft pick in 1998, can be a free agent at season's end, and, after getting nowhere in negotiations with management, has all but declared that he will leave. Brand, who will be a restricted free agent, could leave, too, if the Clippers don't match expected offer sheets from other teams.

Enter Johnson, who was a Clippers assistant for four years after coaching the La Crosse (Wis.) Bobcats of the Continental Basketball Association.

Drawing on his 14 seasons of playing in the NBA, quarterbacking Seattle and Boston to three championships, Johnson says candidly that the team needs a commitment from the front office, headed by notoriously cheap owner Donald Sterling, to get better.

"What we do on the inside, and I'm not the full `changer' of it, is that the change has to come from the top," said Johnson, a nine-time member of the NBA All-Defensive team during his playing days. "That's where all the pay comes from - that has to come from management. Don't get me wrong, I'm not taking up for the team. But I think we also have to look at the business part, too."

Realistically, lifting the Clippers out of the toxic waste that has kept them under .500 for 13 years is going to take something miraculous, and while Johnson thinks he is good, he's not sure he's that good.

"As far as changing [the way the Clippers are perceived], I don't know that it's even really my part to do. My part is to concentrate on the court. If I can change it that way, I'll do it," Johnson said.

Good luck, Dennis. You'll need it.

Quiz

The good folks at the NBA have come up with the concept of the 170 Club. It's for players who shoot at least 80 percent from the free-throw line, 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range for a season. Adding those numbers gives you 170.

Utah's John Stockton has joined the club six times, Larry Bird did it three times and Reggie Miller did it twice. How many players are on pace to do a 170 this year?

More high schoolers?

If you thought high school players were trickling into the NBA, get ready for a flood in the coming draft, because rumors are circulating that commissioner David Stern will get his wish about raising the minimum age for entry into the league.

Stern, who has long lobbied for 20 to be the minimum, is reportedly willing to let teams that want to sign older players have salary cap relief, so as not to trigger the luxury tax, in exchange for agreement from the players association to raise the age limit.

Currently, players born in the United States may not enter the draft until their high school senior class has graduated. Foreign-born players must be 18 by Dec. 31 of the year they wish to enter, though the union and the league made a slight change in the foreign rule, making it possible for Yugoslavian Darko Milicic to enter the June draft.

The 20-year-old minimum, which the union has resisted, would be imposed for the 2004 draft, meaning that U.S. high school players and those younger international players who think they have a shot at the NBA will likely flood the league for this year's draft or wait until 2005 or 2006.

The proposed change may also make it more likely that talented college freshmen - such as Georgia Tech's Chris Bosh and Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony, a Towson Catholic alumnus - who might have been on the fence about coming out will be pushed over.

Bzdelik gets praise

No one is talking about Denver Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik, the former UMBC coach, for Coach of the Year honors, particularly with the Nuggets battling Cleveland for having the league's worst record.

But Washington coach Doug Collins has taken note of Bzdelik's work.

"Some of the coaches are doing their best jobs on losing teams. I think one of the best coaching jobs being done this season is by Jeff Bzdelik out in Denver," Collins said. "If you look at his record, you'd think I was nuts. But his team plays hard every night, they are prepared, they compete. And I think that's the measure of a coach. Talent wins. A coach's job is to get his team to play to [its] maximum."

Quiz answer

No current player is in the 170 club, though Utah's Matt Harpring is shooting better than 80 percent from the foul line and 40 percent from three-point range. But he's just under 50 percent from the field.

Quote

"We could be losing on Mars and I wouldn't like it." - Indiana guard Reggie Miller about the Pacers' road difficulties.

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