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Clippers Say They Aren’t Terrible, but . . . : Chaney Hopes His Experiments Find the Right Chemistry, Not Weird Science

Times Staff Writer

The Clippers may be the National Basketball Assn.'s answer to the 1962 New York Mets.

After going 0-for-the-exhibition season, the Clippers will open the regular season tonight in Sacramento against former playmate Derek Smith and his new team, the Sacramento Kings.

Said Clipper Coach Don Chaney: “We’re not that terrible of a team. We just have to develop some chemistry.”

Said Elgin Baylor, the Clippers’ new general manager: “Exhibition games are no true indication of how we’re going to be. We spent a lot of time experimenting in the preseason, trying to find the right combinations.”

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Whatever they found, the Clippers will try it out tonight in what might be Derek Smith’s revenge.

Smith has been upset with the Clippers since last season and said before training camp opened that he planned to score 40 points against his former team when they played.

A year ago, as the Clippers’ star in residence, Smith scored 36 points against the Kings in the season opener, leading the Clippers to a 108-104 victory. He played in just 10 more games, though, because of a knee injury and mononucleosis, and wound up the season in deep dispute with the Clippers over his health and the nonpayment of a bonus he said he was due. He left town vowing never again to play for the Clippers.

He was traded to the Kings last summer.

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“Derek can score 100 points as long as we win,” Clipper Coach Don Chaney said. “I’m not focusing on Derek Smith, we’re focusing on beating Sacramento.”

Clipper captain Marques Johnson said: “He’s obviously fired up. He’s a highly emotional person and he has a lot of bitter feelings about the Clippers and he’s going to try to take it out on us on the court.”

Guards Larry Drew and Mike Woodson, acquired by the Clippers along with two draft picks in the Smith trade, will start for the Clippers tonight. Drew and Woodson were hampered by minor knee problems during training camp.

Drew started at point guard for Sacramento last season, but he lost his job to Reggie Theus and asked to be traded.

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“I ain’t got nothing to prove to them (Sacramento management),” Drew said after practice Thursday. “I know what I can do and the Clippers know what I can do.”

Said Woodson: “The only thing I want to do is win. I don’t have anything to prove to the Kings. I have something to prove to the Clippers; that I can help them.”

The Clippers will open the season without point guards Norm Nixon and Darnell Valentine, although they may have Valentine shortly.

Nixon, who underwent knee surgery last July after he was injured while playing softball, may be lost for the season. He will be the color commentator on Clippers’ TV games.

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The Clippers have suspended Valentine for failing to report. He also has been holding out in a contract dispute but Baylor said Thursday that he expected Valentine to sign today. If that happens, however, Valentine will not play tonight.

Dwayne Polee of Pepperdine, one of three rookies who have made the team, will be the backup point guard until Valentine is ready to play.

Tim Kempton, a 6-10 center from Notre Dame, and Steffond Johnson, a 6-8 forward from San Diego State, are the other Clipper rookies. Kempton was a sixth-round draft pick, and Johnson was taken in the fifth round. Polee was taken in the third round. The Clippers didn’t have a pick in the first or second rounds.

Chaney experimented with several different lineup combinations as the Clippers went 0-6 in exhibition play. He used Johnson and Drew at guard, Cedric Maxwell and Kurt Nimphius at forward and Benoit Benjamin at center.

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Chaney said, however, that he’ll probably open with Woodson at guard and move Johnson to forward, his natural position. Nimphius would be used as backup center.

“I’m used to playing center,” Nimphius said. “I’m more familiar with the different centers around the league. I’m still learning about the forwards.”

Said Johnson, who was named the NBA’s comeback player of the year last season after averaging 20.3 points a game: “A lot of questions will be answered tomorrow night. We’ll get a chance to see where we’re at. Opening with Sacramento is better than opening with Boston, Philly or the Lakers.”

The Clippers got off to a great start last season, setting a team record by winning their first five games. Once Smith was hurt, though, they were a different team and missed the playoffs for the 10th straight season, finishing third in the Pacific Division with a 32-50 record.

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After a slow start, Benjamin came on strong in the second half of the season, however, and finished sixth in voting for rookie of the year.

Chaney, 40, was under fire midway through the season, but Baylor’s first act as general manager was to rehire Chaney.

Chaney said he doesn’t feel any pressure this season.

“I had more pressure last year than I’ve ever had in my entire life and it affected my family life,” he said. “I’m not going to let it happen again.”

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Clipper Notes

Center Benoit Benjamin and Forward Cedric Maxwell, both apparent victims of food poisoning early this week, practiced Thursday and say they’ll be ready to play tonight. Benjamin ate some Chinese food that didn’t agree with him, and Maxwell ran afoul of Italian cooking. “I had some bad fettuccine chicken in a restaurant,” Maxwell said. “I was saved because my baby daughter had some and started crying, so I only ate a little bit. The doctor said I might have been a lot sicker if I had more.” . . . The Clippers beat Sacramento in all five of their games last season. Expected to start for Sacramento are forwards Otis Thorpe and Terry Tyler, center LaSalle Thompson and guards Reggie Theus and Derek Smith. . . . Tonight’s game will be shown on Channel 5. . . . The Clippers will open their home season Saturday against Phoenix at the Sports Arena. They will play at Dallas Tuesday, then will visit Houston Thursday. The average margin of defeat in the Clippers’ six exhibition losses was 19 points. Benjamin averaged 16.2 points in five games to lead the team. . . . The Kings will retire jersey No. 6 before tonight’s game, honoring the fans, the team’s “sixth man,” for their support last season. 1986-87 CLIPPERS ROSTER

No. Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Age College Yr. 00 Benoit Benjamin C 7-0 245 21 Creighton 1 44 Michael Cage F 6-9 235 24 San Diego State 2 2 Larry Drew G 6-2 190 28 Missouri 6 4 Lancaster Gordon G 6-3 195 24 Louisville 2 8 Marques Johnson F 6-7 224 30 UCLA 9 31 Steffond Johnson F 6-8 225 23 San Diego State R 41 Tim Kempton C 6-10 245 22 Notre Dame R 19 Cedric Maxwell F 6-8 224 30 UNC Charlotte 9 40 Kurt Nimphius F-C 6-11 225 28 Arizona State 5 10 Norm Nixon* G 6-2 170 31 Duquesne 9 12 Dwayne Polee G 6-5 180 23 Pepperdine R 1 Darnell Valentine** G 6-1 183 27 Kansas 5 22 Rory White F 6-8 215 27 South Alabama 4 42 Mike Woodson G 6-5 198 28 Indiana 6

COACH: Don Chaney. ASSISTANTS: Don Casey, Brad Greenberg. *--on injured list. **--on suspended list.

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