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Clips youth squad set for breakout year


   Mark Woods
Here's a pretty safe prediction. 

When the National Basketball Association campaign reaches its crescendo towards the end of June next year, the Los Angeles Lakers will - barring any unexpected calamities towards its star duo of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal - be polishing off a fresh magnum of champagne, lighting up Phil Jackson's finest cigars and trotting off to the jewellers for a fitting for a third successive set of
Championship rings.

Now for a bolder forecast. 

While the Lakers will remain LA's favoured idols, the side which might pose the greatest long-term threat to their unchallenged supremacy comes not from Sacramento, nor Dallas nor any of the other Western Conference hopefuls. 

As the CIA once extolled, beware the menace within, and the rival whose stock might rise the fastest once this season tips off on Tuesday could be the one which has dwelt with little credit under the Lakers' mighty shadow.

In case you missed them (and we've all tried to), LA has another basketball team. Both share residence in the majestic Staples Center arena but while the Cinderella Lakers have held court among the princes, the Los Angeles Clippers' role has been wholly that of subservient sister, unloved and incessantly ineffectual.

In Hollywood parlance, the Clippers are strictly D-list. So too their fans. While the Lakers can count on Jack Nicolson, Dyan Cannon and a plethora of celebrity glitterati (recent convert Anne Robinson included) to fill their $1000 courtside chairs, the Clippers boast, ahem, Billy Crystal. And at a decidedly cut-price cost. 

No longer. Hitherto unfashionable and derided, the Clips may have the most exciting team in the NBA with a posse of talented young gun-slingers primed to shoot their way back to respectability during the next eight months and beyond.

All this may have been accomplished more by luck than design. Their owner Donald Sterling has, in the recent past, steadfastly refused to open the vaults to retain the few experienced stars which have fallen into his lap. A major reason why the Clippers have only reached the play-offs on three occasions in the last 25 years. 

The meritocracy of the NBA however rewards the woeful with an injection of (cheap) new blood. And of the team's principal rotation, guard Jeff McInnes is the elder statesman at the ripe old age of 27. Five others - including likely All-Star Lamar Odom - have not yet celebrated their 22nd birthdays, all standard bearers for the trend which has brought greater numbers of aspirants in the league who lack the traditional accompaniment of a college degree. 

Their declared sixth man, Darius Miles, just 20, signed up last summer straight from high school, and although he possesses the necessary qualities to join the ranks of the sport's greatest performers, he remains a work-in-progress, still capable of schoolboy errors on what truly remains a grown-up's stage.

Nonetheless a vibrant squad which will be much enhanced by the  incorporation of 2000 Rookie of the Year Elton Brand, a summer arrival from the Chicago Bulls, is shouldering an unfamiliar burden of hyperbole. Ready or not, few expect the Clippers to maintain their habitual losing course as coach Alvin Gentry happily acknowledges. 

"I think it's a whole different situation," he states. "I think last year we just played and there was no pressure whatsoever. Obviously, as expectations increase so does pressure. I would much prefer to have it the way it is right now than the way it was when nothing was expected of our team. I think that the pressure will add to performance. 

"We have to see how our young guys step up now. I don't think we are going to sneak up on anybody."

At seven feet, Clippers centre Michael Olowokandi has no leeway for such
stealth. Raised in London, he still holds Britain's school records in the long and triple jump but has long since exchanged the sand pit for the hardwood. Rated the top draft pick in the NBA three years ago, he has nonetheless flattered to deceive as mutterings about his motivational ethic float around both sides of the Atlantic. 

"We don't need for him to be a 20, 25-point scorer or a 15-rebound guy just because he was the No. 1 pick," cautions Gentry in defence of his Arsenal-supporting star. 

"But because he was the No. 1 pick the expectations are so much higher than what they really should be." 

As Alan Hansen once remarked, 'you'll never win anything with kids'. 

Gentry agrees, wary of providing rope for a future asphyxiation. "If we don't make the play-offs I'm not going to consider the season a failure, I can tell you that. I just think we have to take the next step in becoming a real consistent, good basketball team." 

The Clippers may not ready to challenge for the Lakers crown just yet but the maturation process should provide thrills aplenty for their long-suffering followers. 

2001-02 Outlook 

Western Conference

All routes West pass through the Los Angeles Lakers. However there are a clutch of contenders ready to pounce on any slip from Phil Jackson's defending champions. 

The Sacramento Kings wrote out a $100 million cheque to retain All-Star Chris Webber in the summer while swapping the
gifted but erratic Jason Williams for the reliable Mike Bibby while Portland will have to balance an unhappy Dale Davis with the volcano personality of Rasheed Wallace. 

The Dallas Mavericks have engaged veteran Tim Hardaway to complement their exciting nucleus and while better equipped than any other side to exploit the new zone defence rules, they are probably a year away from a run at the title. This should be the year in which German giant Dirk Nowitzki ascends to superstardom. 

The Utah Jazz have acquired Brit star John Amaechi but like 1999 champions San Antonio, their shot at glory has surely past. 
There will be much excitement though in Memphis which will host the NBA for the first time after luring the Grizzlies away from Vancouver.

Winners: LA Lakers

Eastern Conference

Still regarded as the weaker of the two Conferences, an open field will contend to provide cannon fodder for the Western champion next summer.

Defending kings Philadelphia 76ers, led by the genial Allen Iverson, will again be strong but Larry Brown will face a difficult task to manage the wayward talents of Derrick Coleman.

Milwaukee Bucks, who ran the Sixers close last term, are probably now the side to beat after adding Anthony Mason from Miami, a move which finally gives them a low post threat.

Orlando Magic are counting on Olympic star Grant Hill to recover from the injury which kept him out last season and form a winning tandem with the burgeoning talents of Tracy McGrady plus veteran pair Horace Grant
and Patrick Ewing. 

And for curiosity value, watch out for some guy named Jordan in Washington. The Wizards might lose more than any but MJ will always be worth a look.

Winners: Orlando

Champions: Lakers


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