Last season, when Clipper coaches had become frustrated with what they saw as a questionable approach to each game, a test of sorts was conducted before the team faced the Lakers one night at the Sports Arena.
On the board in the locker room that lists the expected opposing lineup and the offensive and defensive tendencies of each player, along with instructions on how to counter them, the list began: WORTHY . . . GREEN . . . ABDUL-JABBAR . . . SCOTT . . . JOHNSON . . .
Only one Clipper, Danny Manning, either realized the mistake or thought it important enough to point out that Kareem was no longer playing. The team's response was slightly better several weeks later when coaches jokingly wrote on the same board that a victory would be worth an extra $200 to each player; still, only a few players noticed the possibility of tip money made on behalf of Donald T. Sterling, hoax or otherwise.
So when Coach Mike Schuler looked downcourt from the visitors' bench at Charlotte Coliseum last month, saw Bo Kimble shoot a jump shot while 7-foot Benoit Benjamin had a made-in-heaven mismatch in the low post against 5-3 Muggsy Bogues, he shouldn't have been surprised. Schuler turned to courtside observers and screamed sarcastically, "Basketball intelligence!" He doubtless has since realized that it was no isolated incident.
Repeat performance is what this organization is about, after all--mainly poor season after poor season, though none as disappointing as this. Olden Polynice and two draft choices from the Seattle SuperSonics for Benjamin means the Clippers can expect to have a center playing hard every night, but certainly does not address the real problems.
And what are they?
Take the team chemistry.
"It's real bad," said one player, requesting anonymity. "Like a cancer."
Whoever said it's going to get worse before it gets better must have had the Clippers in mind. Gary Grant this week asked to be traded. Danny Manning's agent hoped the same would happen to his client. Bo Kimble's frustration over lack of playing time grows daily, and he is not very good at biting his tongue, either. Loy Vaught feels the same way. And all of this doesn't begin to broach the notion of jealousy over roles and money.
"It's not so much the guys aren't getting along," the same player said. "The guys know what it takes to win. But there's a lot of 'I know I'm better than you, but you make more money or play more.' It's that kind of atmosphere."
The Clippers are 16-35 and need to finish 14-17 to equal last season's record. Reaching .500 would take 25-6. Schuler figures his team has until the end of the month to declare itself a playoff contender--on the court, that is--looking as much at its performance as how much Seattle (24-27 in the eighth spot in the West) might bend while playing 10 of 13 on the road.
This isn't about injuries, either. The Miami Heat, playing without Rony Seikaly and Willie Burton, came from 15 points down in the third quarter to beat the Clippers at the Sports Arena in December. Caught in transition after making a trade in January, the Hornets were without Armon Gilliam or Mike Gminski and still won at Charlotte. Last week in Sacramento, the Kings beat the Clippers without their leading scorer and rebounder, Wayman Tisdale, and starting point guard Rory Sparrow.
That might be the season's most meaningful development in the long run: Injuries are not the problem.
"Each and every one of us is accountable," said Ken Norman, now the senior Clipper in terms of service after Wednesday's trade of Benjamin. "But there are not enough soldiers on this team. We talk about doing whatever it takes to win, but we don't mean it. Look at the world champions--we have more talent than Detroit. I have great respect for (the Pistons), but we have more talent than any team in the league. The coaches have given us great game plans. Schuler, he's more fired up before games than the players are. We don't go out and compete . We go out and play basketball, but we don't compete."
But there's plenty of fault to go around.
This is Elgin Baylor's team. As general manager, he has drafted or traded for each player and selected the coach. He is someone who has paid attention to chemistry in putting it together . . . and now must live with this.
"I'm not happy about the results," Baylor said. "And I guess when we lose, you have to say the chemistry isn't good, either.
"What's puzzling is that this is the same team as last year. We've added two new players--Vaught and Kimble--and both are rookies and both have potential. But we're just not playing with the same enthusiasm that we had last year."
So, he is worried that this group might never reach fruition, for reasons that have nothing to do with ability. "Yeah, you could say there is some concern," Baylor said.
A recent move to right the Clippers' ship came in January, when Baylor joined the team in Indiana. On an off night, he held a team meeting, without coaches, that was supposed to clear the air. It didn't.
"Nothing was said," another player claimed. "It was like there were no problems."
When the players weren't going 100% for Gene Shue a few seasons back--was that two or three coaches ago?--Shue was fired. There already have been reminders of that kind of effort during 1990-91, but no one is wondering if Schuler is buying or renting.
It will soon become inevitable that fans will ask how much longer Schuler has, for this is an organization whose history of coaches is surpassed only by its annual accumulation of high draft picks.
It might also soon become inevitable that someone in power will take a hard look at a group of underachievers--not just the players--and make decisions. They can't protect against knee injuries, but some problems are curable with the proper treatment.