Without question, the Clippers have made considerable progress. There were years when the majority of fans at a Clipper home game against the Lakers rooted for the higher-profile team in Los Angeles. Now that the teams are closer in ability, the Clippers have a true home court advantage. A sellout audience of 20,154 not only was decidedly in favor of the Clippers last Saturday, they booed Laker star Kobe Bryant every time he touched the ball. They went home unhappy when Bryant scored 50 points to lead the Lakers to a narrow victory. The Clipper fans have reason for optimism. The Clippers had a better record than the Lakers last season and have a better record this season – 17-14 at the start of this week to the Lakers’ 17-16. However, although it appears the Clippers have become a good team, they’re not both good and lucky. Corey Maggette, their second-leading scorer, has missed most of the season with a foot injury and is expected to miss another month. Talented young guard Shaun Livingston missed time with a back injury and backup center Zeljko Rebreca is currently out due to an irregular heartbeat and is not expected back until the end of the month. “We’re just treading water,” said Coach Mike Dunleavy as the Clippers lost nine of their last 12 games. Are the Clippers contenders for an NBA playoff berth? Or mere pretenders? Dunleavy says he isn’t sure whether the team can make the playoffs. That’s a switch from earlier this season when the Clippers said they felt confident against any opponent. They got off to a fast start and became darlings of the national media. They were the hottest story in the league – the perrenially downtrodden team suddenly looking like a winner. National publications and the television networks closed in. The theme was that the Clippers had become the best team in L.A., better than the Lakers with their championship tradition. Before the 82-game schedule is completed in April, that may be the case. But there are a lot of question marks. Elton Brand has been a quality player for years and this season he elevated his play as fans at Staples Center chanted “MVP.” It wasn’t a far-fetched concept. Had the Clippers kept up their inspiring play, Brand would have been a legitimate candidate for the award. He’s averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per night for six NBA seasons, yet is being more productive now. Brand says only that his goal is to be selected for the league’s all-star game next month, something that has happened only once. In the NBA, games are often decided by elite players. For example, the Lakers lost two games to the Utah Jazz last week when Bryant was suspended and Utah’s talented, versatile Andreu Kirilenko was dominant. Bryant came back to make the game-winning shot against the Clippers, who then had one more opportunity. But they used Brand as a decoy and didn’t have Maggette. They played the Lakers even throughout the game, but lacked the big gun to take the biggest shot. Another emerging problem is that Dunleavy is rushing the progress of Livingston, who is 20 and was drafted out of high school. Livingston was entrusted with the ball in the final minute against the Lakers but made an errant pass that led to a dunk by Smush Parker. His inexperience showed up at that crucial juncture of the game. It’s also an issue whether Livingston’s frail frame will hold up in the grueling schedule. He also missed significant time last season with an injury. He was hurt in practice, where play can get rough. The positives, however, now match or outweigh the negatives. First, owner Donald Sterling stopped changing coaches at a rapid rate and is with Dunleavy for a third season. That creates stability. Dunleavy, the only man who has coached the Lakers and Clippers and has a son playing for the Golden State Warriors, knows what is required to win. He has also coached two struggling teams, Milwaukee and Portland. Until this season Sterling had enjoyed more succees outside of basketball than as the Clippers’ owner. He has been the Clippers’ board chairman for 24 years, but seldom has had a team in the playoffs. Sterling is the managing partner of a law firm and Chairman of Sterling Properties. He and his family reside in Beverly Hills and Malibu. The Clippers had rarely been successful in the free agent market until they signed guard Cuttino Mobley last summer and traded for Sam Cassell, who is 36, but still productive. That gave them two veteran guards. Bryant even listed the Clippers as a finalist for his services when he was a free agent. But he decided to sign a new contract with the Lakers. Center Kris Kaman, in his third season after being the No. 6 pick in the NBA draft, has come along well. He’s 23 and established as a starter. GM Elgin Baylor has assembled a team with talent and depth. Without injuries, the Clippers would have a roster ready for the long haul. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time-leading scorer, starred for the Lakers and now works with their big men. In between, he spent one season as an assistant coach with the Clippers. “It’s good for Los Angeles to have two competitive teams playing in the same building,’’ he said. “It creates interest and is good for the sport. “When I grew up in New York we, as kids, argued about who was better, the Yankees, Dodgers or Giants. Now in L.A. it’s Lakers or Clippers.” The Lakers won three of the last six league championships and their fans are probably less enthused about having a goal of merely finishing ahead of the Clippers. For now, though, that’s where we are, with neither team certain of qualifying for the playoffs. In the first few weeks of the season, the Clippers were in first place in the Pacific Division, Division champion get the first three spots in the playoffs. Now the Phoenix Suns have surged to the top of the division, even without star center Amare Stoudamire. The Suns are led by guard Steve Nash, the league’s reigning MVP. A lot remains to be decided. However, just by being one of the teams with a legitimate chance of succeeding, the Clippers have come a long way from the days when they were the model of what a franchise shouldn’t be and the butt of jokes on late-night TV. ANOTHER VIEW I am a big fan of Mike Dunleavy. However, his decision, several weeks back, to intentionally foul San Antonio Spur star Tim Duncan, with 12 seconds remaining and the Clippers ahead, was a turning point in the Clippers’ season. It showed weakness and lack of confidence in his team’s ability to stop the Spurs. Duncan made the free throws and they won the game in overtime. Had the Clippers beat the defending champions on their home court, you would see a different swagger today. Michael Rosenthal Publisher
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