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Clippers’ Victory May Be Last for Fitch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sources close to Clipper owner Donald Sterling say that he has decided to fire Coach Bill Fitch.

But that is subject to change. With Sterling, nothing is done until it’s done.

“Nobody in authority has said anything to me,” Fitch said. “I’m going to make my plans for next season. If anything happens, I know I’ve done my best. And I guarantee you it won’t be the last time I’m sitting on an NBA bench.

“Nobody has said boo to me. It’s not going to happen.”

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Sterling has heard the complaints, the complaints one expects to hear about a coach who won only 17 games: that he should have gotten more production out of his players and that he should have gotten more enthusiasm out of his players.

That might be a fair argument if Fitch knew who his players were going to be from one game to the next.

Instead, he had to deal with losing:

* Forward Bo Outlaw as a free agent before the season began.

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* Forward Loy Vaught for the rest of the season in December because of back surgery.

* Guard Brent Berry in a February trade because Barry made it clear that he wouldn’t re-sign with the team.

Fitch, who has a career record of 944-1,106, had other problems he couldn’t control.

He spent all season looking for a consistent point guard, but never found one.

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Center Isaac Austin came over from the Miami Heat in the Barry trade and everybody from Sterling on down started wearing “I like Ike” buttons, imploring Austin, a free agent heading into this off-season, to stay.

But as it turns out, it is hard to like Ike every night. Some nights, he indeed looks like the dominant man in the middle the team so desperately needs. On other nights, he struggles. He was averaging 15.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game for the Clippers heading into Saturday night’s season finale.

Is Austin worth the big bucks he is expected to ask for?

Does he even want to stay in L.A.?

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The Clippers have to answer the first question before they worry about the second.

They have another big worry: Will Vaught, also a free agent, return?

Vaught, Lamond Murray and rookie Maurice Taylor, all forwards, were the bright spots for the Clippers in 1997-98. With increased playing time, Piatkowski can supply a much-needed scoring punch if he rounds out his game. Guard James Robinson showed enough to deserve a roster spot.

Guard Darrick Martin, who shot only 37.4% from the field entering Saturday’s game, and fellow guard Pooh Richardson, who shot only 37.9% and averaged 4.3 points, were both disappointments. So were centers Stojko Vrankovic and Keith Closs Jr.

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Fitch, who still has two years left on his contract and is owed $4 million by the Clippers, shrugs off talk of possible replacements and speaks with excitement about the rebuilding job ahead.

The bottom line is, the Clippers need to keep Vaught, find a point guard and get an effective big man in the middle, whether it’s Austin or somebody else.

If the Clippers can’t fill out their shopping list, Red Auerbach in his prime wouldn’t make a difference.

You can get a new building, new uniforms, a new coach and even a new name. But if you don’t get better players, you aren’t going to fool anybody.

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