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Clippers finally turning it around

LOS ANGELES (AP) The Clippers have been NBA doormats for years, the price they've paid for failing to keep young talent and going after established free agents.

Playing in the shadow of the Lakers hasn't helped their image, either.

Now, thanks to three key offseason moves and perhaps a couple others they didn't make, the Clippers appear to have a promising future, not to mention high hopes for the present.

``There's no doubt in my mind this team can make the playoffs,'' said veteran reserve Glen Rice, who has played with several good teams _ including the Lakers' championship club of 2000. ``As long as we don't get caught up in thinking we're better than we are, we'll be fine.''

Making the playoffs in the highly competitive Western Conference figures to be difficult, especially for a team as young as the Clippers _ and one that's been there only three times in nearly two decades.

But at this stage, a third of the way through the season, they're in contention.

``We've done some really good things,'' said first-year coach Mike Dunleavy, who guided the Lakers to the NBA Finals in 1991 and the Portland Trail Blazers to the Western Conference finals in 1999 and 2000.

``My standards are kind of high,'' Dunleavy said. ``It doesn't matter what the perception is or where you're from. I want to win as soon as possible. I like their work ethic and their resiliency. Those have been positives so far.''

The Clippers, 27-55 last season, signed Dunleavy to a four-year, $10 million contract this summer _ the most they've ever paid a coach.

They also matched offer sheets signed by restricted free agents Elton Brand (six years, $82 million with Miami) and Corey Maggette (six years, $42 million with Denver) _ by far the richest contracts in franchise history.

``I think we have a good base,'' Dunleavy said. ``Our front line is in pretty good shape. We have to shore up our backcourt. Our top eight guys are 25 or under.

``We're growing. We're getting better.''

The Clippers didn't match offer sheets signed by Andre Miller with Denver or Lamar Odom with Miami. In addition, Michael Olowokandi left for Minnesota and Eric Piatkowski for Houston.

``We retained the people who justified the commitment,'' said Joe Safety, the team's vice president of communications. ``We still have some work to do, but we're happy with where we're going.''

The new look is also fine with Brand.

``I'm definitely happy to be here, especially the way things are going,'' he said. ``Nobody's complaining about not getting touches _ that happened in the past.''

Although the Clippers had several young, talented players last season, some were unhappy that the organization didn't appear to be interested in keeping them.

At times, it seemed some Clippers were playing for future contracts rather than the team.

``It was terrible,'' Brand said. ``There was feuding on the court. We'd be trying to win for two or three quarters. Then we'd see somebody had five points and needed to get more. It was tough.''

Brand, who missed 13 games when it was discovered after the season-opener that he had a broken bone in his right foot, said he's still rounding into shape.

The Clippers survived his absence, and since he returned they've beaten such quality teams as Dallas _ at home and on the road _ and New Orleans. While Brand was out, they defeated San Antonio and Denver, among others.

``It seems like those guys are playing loose, really starting to blossom out there,'' Piatkowski said. ``They know they're going to play 40 minutes _ they're not looking over their shoulders.''

Guard Quentin Richardson, who becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer but wants to stay with the Clippers, agreed with his former teammate.

``The previous few years, there were so many guys,'' he said. ``Now, I know I'm going to be out there. Mentally, it's easier. You can just play out there.''

Since moving from San Diego to Los Angeles in 1984, the Clippers have made the playoffs only three times _ most recently in 1997. They've won only one playoff series in franchise history, in 1976 while still in Buffalo.

Before this year, the Clippers were 507-1019 with only one winning season since coming to Los Angeles. But Richardson, for one, believes the team is finally turning things around.

``We're getting the pieces in place to be a good team,'' he said. ``I want to be here. I like my teammates, the people in the organization.

``We feel like if we go out and have a pretty good defensive game, we can play with anybody.''

Dunleavy appears to have made a significant difference.

``I have a lot of respect for him because he knows what he's doing,'' Maggette said about the coach. ``He's impacted our team a whole lot. He does a lot of teaching and lets us know what we're supposed to do and how we're supposed to do it.''

Via Associated Press

New Knick Norris looks forward to fresh start

HOUSTON (AP) The newest New York Knick, Moochie Norris, is disappointed to be leaving Houston but thrilled to play for one of his idols, Isiah Thomas.

``Just to go up there and be around him, I'm sure he'll come down and show me some things,'' Norris said Wednesday before boarding a plane to New York. ``He's one of my favorite point guards of all time _ him and John Stockton.''

Norris, who played five seasons for the Rockets, was dealt Tuesday along with center John Amaechi, who is expected to be waived. In exchange, the Rockets received forward Clarence Weatherspoon.

It's the first deal for Thomas, the former Detroit Pistons star, since he replaced the fired Scott Layden last week as Knicks president.

``I was a little disappointed about leaving Houston because it's home,'' Norris told TV station KRIV.

Norris was averaging 2.7 points and 1.6 assists for Houston this season. He was a second-round pick by Milwaukee in the 1996 draft.

Via Associated Press

Knicks' turnaround coincides with Thomas' arrival

NEW YORK (AP) The new boss watches home games from the tunnel near center court, standing only a few feet from the seats occupied for several years by Woody Allen.

Isiah Thomas has been a strong presence since becoming president of the New York Knicks, who needed a jolt to turn things around. A change at the top apparently was the answer.

``You've got to give him some credit for bringing some accountability. You have to give him credit for challenging us,'' guard Allan Houston said after New York extended its winning streak to four games _ the team's longest in 23 months _ with a 29-point victory over the Miami Heat on Tuesday night.

New York's last three victories have all been by at least 20 points, something the Knicks haven't done since 1997.

``I definitely think we're playing different,'' said Keith Van Horn, whose offensive production has picked up considerably the past six games _ five of which came after the Knicks fired Scott Layden and replaced him with Thomas.

Many of the players credited a renewed commitment to defense as the primary reason, though they grudgingly acknowledge the change in atmosphere has made a difference.

While Layden was nonconfrontational and low key, Thomas has challenged players to their faces and in the newspapers.

Layden was rarely seen during games. Thomas is hard to miss standing a few steps behind the scorer's table.

Layden shied away from saying anything of substance. Thomas shies away from shying away.

``Isiah spoke to us about supporting each other, trusting each other and having confidence in each other, and I think we took that to heart,'' Van Horn said. ``We took what he said and have really brought that to the court. He definitely helped our mind-set going into games.''

Though the change at the top drew most of the attention, other recent but more subtle moves have contributed to the turnaround.

Coach Don Chaney has installed second-year guard Frank Williams as the starter at the point, reinserted Kurt Thomas into the starting power forward spot and began bringing Antonio McDyess off the bench.

Williams is more of a penetrator and creator than the player he replaced, Howard Eisley, and Kurt Thomas has settled back into a comfort zone after temporarily being replaced by McDyess in the starting five.

``It's been almost a flip-flop because what I wanted for the second unit was what I hoped Kurt would get for us, but McDyess is giving it to us. The second unit comes in very solid now,'' Chaney said.

Isiah Thomas, a Hall of Famer who helped lead the Detroit Pistons to NBA titles in 1989 and 1990, has been proactive in making roster changes. He jettisoned one of Layden's projects, 7-foot-5 center Slavko Vranes, taking lottery pick Michael Sweetney off the injured list and trading one of Layden's favorites, forward Clarence Weatherspoon, to the Houston Rockets for Moochie Norris.

Thomas is well aware his players may wonder who's next to go.

``Until we turn this around, they'll speculate about everything,'' he said. ``One of the costs of playing poorly is you're subjected to that.''

Thomas' next move could be a deal involving one of the team's four point guards, with the most likely candidate being Charlie Ward since his contract expires after this season and can be bought out immediately.

``We have to be a team that's very unconventional and very creative in going out and getting players,'' Thomas said.

In the meantime, he hopes his new team can continue to win during a part of the schedule that is not particularly daunting.

The Knicks play Chicago on Friday, New Jersey on Sunday and Cleveland on Tuesday before former coach Jeff Van Gundy returns to Madison Square Garden next Thursday with the Houston Rockets

Tuesday's victory began a stretch in which the Knicks will play nine of 10 games at home. The four-game winning streak has moved them within five games of .500, and they are only 3{ games behind the first-place Nets in the league's weakest division, the Atlantic.

``We're right there, we're not that far behind,'' Van Horn said. ``We just have to keep reminding ourselves of what brought us to this point of winning four in a row.''

Via Associated Press

Clippers activate Drobjnak, place Polynice on injured list

LOS ANGELES (AP) The Clippers activated center Predrag Drobjnak and put Olden Polynice on the injured list Wednesday.

Drobjnak went on the injured list Dec. 19 because of back spasms. Entering Wednesday night's game against Denver, he was averaging 8.4 points and 5.1 rebounds in 20 games this season _ his first with the Clippers.

Polynice, on the injured list for the third time because of a neck strain, played briefly in two games without scoring.

Via Associated Press

Karl Malone won't return to action any time soon

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) Karl Malone is probably headed to the injured list for the first time in his outstanding 19-year career.

And Shaquille O'Neal will likely be fined as punishment for not informing the Los Angeles Lakers he was missing practice Wednesday.

Malone, the NBA's second-leading career scorer behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee Dec. 21 in the first quarter of a game against Phoenix and hasn't played since.

Recovery hasn't gone as quickly as hoped.

``It's a downer,'' Malone said after practice Wednesday. ``You want to be with the guys. The main thing for me to do is all the things I need to do to get better.

``Missing, seven, eight, nine games in one spell when I haven't missed that many in 18 years is discouraging. I feel like I'm letting people down. We want to make sure I come back when I'm supposed to, not a game or two too early.''

The 40-year-old Malone missed 10 games before this season _ six due to injuries or illness and four because of suspensions _ and never sat out more than two games in any one season.

He joined the Lakers as a free agent last summer after playing his first 18 seasons with the Utah Jazz.

``If I could just jog from free throw line to free throw line, I could play now,'' Malone said. ``I can't cut. May, June is more important than December, January.

``I look like I'm headed there (to the injury list). Going on the list, I'm looking at (missing) five more games, I don't like that. I don't want to go on the list, but I don't want to hold anybody else back.''

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said a decision would probably be made Friday night in Seattle before the Lakers face the SuperSonics.

Jackson said Malone definitely won't play at Seattle or against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday night, and it's very unlikely he'll travel for games at Minnesota and Denver next week.

If Malone is placed on the injured list before Friday night's game, he would also sit out a home game against Atlanta on Jan. 9 and be eligible to return against Cleveland in another home game three days later.

Jackson said if Malone is put on the injured list, it's possible Rick Fox will be activated. Fox, who hasn't played since having surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left foot May 12, has said he's close to being ready to play.

Jackson said O'Neal ``showed up missing'' for practice.

``When he was contacted, he said he had some back problems,'' Jackson said. ``He was still in bed, was going to see a specialist.''

Jackson said he expects O'Neal to travel to Seattle with the team Thursday, meaning he doesn't believe the injury is serious.

By not calling in, O'Neal committed an offense that merited a fine, Jackson said.

Jackson said O'Neal hurt himself during practice Tuesday, but said it wasn't a practice-related activity and was uncertain whether it happened in the weight room.

Via Associated Press

James shines, Cavaliers struggle

CLEVELAND (AP) Everything has come so easy for LeBron James _ except for the victories.

After just two months in the NBA, Cleveland's sensational rookie has been better than advertised, posting impressive statistics and assuming leadership of his team.

Now the teenager wants to turn the Cavaliers into winners.

After going 102-6 during his celebrated high school career in Akron, James is off to a 10-22 start as a pro.

Don't think his confidence is diminished at all, though.

``It's disappointing,'' James said recently. ``But it's a long season, and I still think we can make a run at the playoffs.''

Cleveland's No. 1 overall draft pick survived scandals in high school, signed a $90 million deal with Nike and brought hope to a championship-starved city. And his play on the court so far has been worthy of the endless attention and adulation.

``He's kind of amazing,'' Cavs coach Paul Silas said. ``I knew he was good. I didn't know he was this good.''

Just how good?

James _ who turned 19 on Tuesday _ is currently the only player in the league averaging more than 20 points, six rebounds and six assists. In 15 games in December, he averaged 23.3 points and scored more than 30 points five times.

No player in NBA history, not Michael, not Wilt, not Kareem, not Kobe or Shaq has been this good, this soon.

Already, James has modified and improved his game, showing the naysayers he can indeed shoot. And as he stuffs the stat sheet each night, James raises the bar for the future high school-to-NBA jumpers while dispelling the myth that he's simply the product of Madison Avenue hyperbole.

``In a two-month period, he's a legitimate blossoming icon in this game,'' said Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who has faced James three times this season. ``I'm amazed. I felt bad for the kid coming in because I wasn't sure any kid could ever live up to it. He's making that thought seem ridiculous now.''

James remains unimpressed by his fast start as a pro.

``Statistics don't matter to me,'' he said. ``I'm never satisfied with my game. I'm not disappointed with anything about my game. I just try to go out and play, and what happens, happens.''

Too often, what happens is that the Cavaliers lose.

Cleveland has just four more victories than it had at the same point last season on the way to a 17-65 finish. The Cavs dropped their first 13 games away from Gund Arena this season before finally ending a 34-game road losing streak.

But unlike a year ago, when the young Cavs (five players have no college experience) routinely fell behind early and packed it in under coach John Lucas, these Cavaliers fight to the finish for Silas.

Of Cleveland's losses, 16 have been by 10 points or fewer.

Slowly, the Cavs are learning to win. They're beginning to understand that each possession is priceless and not to be wasted.

But a loss is a loss, and right now, James feels the sting of each one.

There's hope, however. Since the Dec. 16 trade that sent Ricky Davis and others to Boston for Eric Williams, Tony Battie and Kedrick Brown, the Cavs are 4-4.

They'll get another boost when DaJuan Wagner and DeSagana Diop, former first-round picks, return from knee operations next week.

``We're not there yet,'' Silas said. ``But we're getting there. Take a look at us in mid-January.''

James has been a different player since the trade. With Davis gone, he has averaged 26.7 points. Also, urged by Silas to be more aggressive, the 6-foot-8 James is taking advantage of smaller guards and driving to the basket more frequently.

A bigger change is that James is having fun again. He wasn't himself with Davis around, perhaps because he didn't want to appear selfish.

Now the smile is back, and James is playing with the boundless joy that led to comparisons with Magic Johnson. He is leading, and the Cavs are following.

``It's earlier than I expected,'' James said, referring to his leadership role. ``But I knew it was going to come sometime. I've been playing this game long enough to know what I need to do.''

Via Associated Press

Handlogten out for season with knee injury

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Utah Jazz center Ben Handlogten will miss the rest of the season after tearing ligaments in his left knee.

Handlogten is scheduled to have surgery in the next two weeks, Jazz senior vice president Kevin O'Connor said Wednesday.

Handlogten, 29, twisted the knee going after an offensive rebound Friday night against Toronto. He averaged 4.0 points and 3.2 rebounds in 17 games this season.

Via Associated Press

T-Mac's walkout from Knicks game concerns Magic officials

While the Magic were relieved Tuesday when the results of Tracy McGrady's magnetic resonance imaging test on his strained were negative, they weren't happy that he left the building during their humilating 28-point loss to the Knicks in their own building on Monday night.

"I think it was very frustrating for him, but I would have preferred that we all stay together. Even if you can't support us on the floor, you could support us on the sideline," Davis said. "But Tracy is a team guy. He's not a selfish guy, and to say that he is would be painting the wrong picture. We're on the same page."

Via Tim Povtak of the Orlando Sentinel

Hudson out at least two weeks

"Wolves coach Flip Saunders said Troy Hudson is at least two weeks away from returning to the lineup after a magnetic resonance imaging exam revealed scar tissue in Hudson's right ankle."

Via Ray Richardson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press

Randolph's attorney enters not guilty plea

"An attorney for Trail Blazers forward Zach Randolph entered a not guilty plea to a charge of driving under the influence of intoxicants/controlled substance at Randolph's arraignment Tuesday at the Justice Center."

Randolph was arrested Dec. 2 after police pulled over his Cadillac sport utility vehicle for driving in the wrong lane and then reportly smelling marijuana coming from his car.

Via Norm Maves Jr.

Stackhouse to return late next month?

Arenas returns to Wizards' lineup

New York acquires Norris from Houston

Wells sits with a concussion

Artest shuts down James on rookie's 19th birthday

Moochie becomes a Knick

McGrady could be out a bit

Wizards' Arenas may be ready to play tonight

Wagner could return to Cavs by Jan. 6

February may be too soon for Hill

'No truth' to Vecsey rumor

Davis hasn't given up on Hunter

Hornets waive project Lang

Hawks waive Nailon, activate Henderson

Leon Smith on verge of becoming a Knick

Pistons activate Ham, put Fowlkes on injured list

Heat activate Zhi-Zhi, place Haslem on IR

Artest misses shootaround; declared out, then in, vs. Memphis

Najera out, Bradley doubtful for Dallas

McKie sits out game at Utah

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