Clippers Face Tough Choices

Times Staff Writer

Team or buffet line?

The Clippers' day of reckoning is approaching as free agents Michael Olowokandi and Andre Miller negotiate with Denver, Corey Maggette talks to Utah and teams line up to extend offer sheets to Elton Brand if he's still on the market when the free-agent signing period opens Wednesday.

The Clippers, notorious for letting players go when prices were a lot lower, have never been under such siege, with all but one of last season's starting five about to get $40 million-plus offers.

However, in a break with their tradition, they're now out-bidding the field for Brand. Clipper vice president Andy Roeser confirmed Monday they raised their offer to Brand over the weekend from $65 million over five seasons to $78 million over six, moving beyond the $74 million other teams have as their limit.

Brand's suitors include Utah, which has to replace Karl Malone; San Antonio, which has to replace David Robinson; and Miami, which has to replace Alonzo Mourning.

The Spurs considered offering a front-loaded $74 million deal, with $22 million payable immediately. They may, instead, pull out of the bidding, even though Brand has become their No. 1 prospect.

San Antonio has already lost out on Jason Kidd, P.J. Brown and Malone, and can't afford to spend 15 days wrangling with the Clippers, who have the right to match any offer and are promising everyone they'll do it.

Instead, the Spurs may go to their fall-back option, Minnesota's Rasho Nesterovic.

Indeed, the Clippers understand they can discourage bidders by tying them up for the entire 15 days and are promising to use each and every day.

"Let me impress one thing upon you," Clipper spokesman Joe Safety said Monday. "We will use the whole runway."

Jazz officials were also told the Clippers would probably match on Brand but last week were still planning to extend an offer. According to a source, Jazz General Manager Kevin O'Connor said, "We've got to do what we've got to do."

Meanwhile, Brand's agent, David Falk, is traveling the country, seeking more options for his client. Said a source: "David's been writing offer sheets for weeks."

However, Clipper officials aren't sure how far owner Donald T. Sterling, whose biggest previous commitment was Eric Piatkowski's five-year $15 million deal, will let them go to keep their other players.

"Depends on the price," a team official said last week.

Olowokandi is unrestricted and the Clippers have no right to match. Sterling has little regard for Olowokandi, who has been considered gone by team officials for months.

But new Coach Mike Dunleavy made an eleventh-hour appeal to keep him. Olowokandi's agent, Bill Duffy, is expected to meet today with Clipper officials.

If it doesn't work out here, Olowokandi has other opportunities. He was to meet Monday night with Denver owner Stan Kroenke at the Summer Pro League in Long Beach, presumably to receive an offer. He's also on the list in Miami and Orlando, to name two others.

Miller and Maggette, both restricted, were both negotiating with Denver and Utah. In a surprise, Miller wound up as the Nuggets' choice, instead of going back to Salt Lake City where he played in college at the University of Utah. The Jazz then upped its offer to Maggette and stole him.

Miller's offer is reportedly $50 million over six seasons, Maggette's $45 million over six. Their agents have said they'll accept the offer sheets.

Of the two, the Clippers are more inclined to match on Maggette, but as a team official noted, "I've heard he might get a $7-million offer and that's a lot of money."

There is less chance the Clippers will match on Miller, who was a disappointment in his only season here. The Clippers still have cheap help at point guard with Marko Jaric under contract for two more seasons at $1.9 million and $2.1 million and Keyon Dooling locked up by the rookie cap for $2.3 million this season, plus the right to match any offer next summer.

The Clippers also have Lamar Odom, a restricted free agent, and Piatkowski and Sean Rooks, both unrestricted, so what happens starting Wednesday will determine their future.

"The free-agent period begins Wednesday and then we'll see what happens," Roeser said. "We've said all along, we like our players and we expect to re-sign our players."

Actually, they've said it annually but never with as many of them to lose.

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