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.''