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Los Angeles' other team bidding for respect Clippers playing well, even without Smith


Anyone who has done the L.A. scene will tell you the City of Angels is no paradise. There is smog. There is traffic. There is too little water, too many actors and an abundance of rude waiters.

And then there are the Clippers.

For the past seven seasons, the Clippers have epitomized all that is bad about Los Angeles. The city's other basketball team has often been the brunt of jokes. Even worse, it has often been ignored.

That should begin to change this season. The Clippers, by hook, crook or lottery, appear ready to make the playoffs for the first time since the franchise was in Buffalo. It's not out of the question that the Clippers will find themselves ahead of the Lakers in the final standings.

"I know when I was in Portland, it was 'Well, you had a great year, but you didn't beat the Lakers,' " Clippers coach Mike Schuler said. "We were always compared to the Lakers, even up there.

"Obviously, when you're in the same town and the franchises have not been on the same page . . ."

The same page? These teams haven't been on the same planet.

The Clippers have provided the extreme counterpoint to the Lakers' success. The Clippers haven't won more than 31 games in a season since they moved to Los Angeles from San Diego more than seven years ago. The team has finished an average of 36.4 games behind the Lakers in that span.

In the truly dismal 1986-87 season, the Clippers scraped together just 12 victories and finished a staggering 53 games behind the Lakers.

"Losing is bad anywhere you lose," Clippers forward Danny Manning said. "It doesn't matter be it L.A., Alaska, Iowa or Kansas. If you lose, you lose. It's no fun."

The Clippers have looked good in bursts. Two years ago, when the team traded for Ron Harper, things appeared to be falling into place before Harper fell with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The Clippers put together a nice run in March with Harper back on the court and with the addition of center Olden Polynice.

Two bursts in the past two seasons is hardly proof that the Clippers are primed to turn the corner. That's why most will view this 5-4 start with skepticism.

But there are signs that this season will be different. Turnovers are down. Free-throw percentage is up. The Clippers beat the Lakers in the Forum -- for the first time in nearly a decade -- then beat the Suns the next night.

Perhaps the most significant accomplishment, however, is that the Clippers have won these games without Charles Smith. The team was 1-7 without its best player last season.

"It's very important that we've won some games without Charles Smith," Schuler said. "They have never done that before."

Smith, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, should return next month. He will join a lighter, more active Manning, the veteran influence of James Edwards and Glenn "Doc" Rivers and the new and improved Gary Grant.

"Gary Grant is an entirely different person," Schuler said of his point guard. "The guy I'm coaching this year is not even close to being the same guy of a year ago."

The same can be said of the rest of the team.

"I think the players realize there have been great expectations of them and it's never happened," Schuler said. "If you open up their hearts and look inside, I think you will find they were really embarrassed last year. So much more was expected of them, and it never materialized."

It should materialize this season. The Clippers have the talent. They have the depth. They have the veteran leadership they need to make a playoff run.

This team still has a long losing legacy to overcome. The next 10 days won't be easy, as the Clippers face Portland twice, Phoenix and Chicago.

But once the Clippers get past that stretch and Smith returns, the team should be ready to click. And remember, for the first time in eight seasons they won't have to compete with -- and against -- Magic Johnson in the Los Angeles market.

"The thing is, we let everyone think we are the other L.A. team," Harper said. "But when the season ends, we're going to have our own name."

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