The Clippers may be the team to beat in the Pacific Division.
This is no joke, no misprint, at least based on the first 10 percent of the season.
Consider that they’re now 4-1 on the road, where they were 12-29 last season.
The addition of point guard Sam Cassell, still one of the league’s best, may have been the NBA’s best offseason acquisition. The acquisition of Cassell and fellow veteran Cuttino Mobley appear to more than offset the departure of Bobby Simmons, the league’s most improved player last season.
A trimmed-down Elton Brand has been their best player. He’s been averaging 23.3 points (10th in league), 9.5 rebounds (13th), 2.25 blocks (7th) and 59.3 percent shooting (5th).
Said Brand, "I’ve never been on a team with veterans you can hold accountable."
Last year the Clippers were too young, he said. But now they have experienced players locked up with long-term contracts.
"It manifests itself in a swagger. There’s a confidence that’s never been here before, a feeling we can compete and win.
"There always was the feeling because of the teams I’ve been on, no pun intended, I’ve been branded a loser. But I see guys like Garnett, McGrady, the super-duper max guys missing the playoffs, and it shows you need a team."
About the only negative is that Corey Maggette is unhappy coming off the bench.
At first coach Mike Dunleavy appeared to be bringing him along slowly after Maggette suffered a hamstring injury. Later, Dunleavy opted to stick with Quinton Ross, who averages single figures but is their best defender.
"I ain’t no sixth man," Maggette said.
Dunleavy said, "I haven’t really talked to him (Maggette) about it because it’s my decision who plays when and where."
Also, there are concerns about whether Shaun Livingston, last year’s lottery pick, is too frail. He’s once again injured (a back problem this time); his career so far consists of 30 games played
But all in all, Dunleavy appears to have won so much confidence from mercurial owner Donald Sterling that the longtime penny-pincher is spending money.
Sterling even agreed to put up $100 million to go after Kobe Bryant and to freeze all personnel moves for a year to preserve their cap space.
IKE A STARTER?
Ike Diogu, the Warriors rookie who is coming back from a hand injury suffered in training camp, is going to get minutes immediately because the Warriors are getting killed down low.
Starting power forward Troy Murphy has gotten better in the low post, and the Warriors have posted guards Baron Davis and Jason Richardson with some success.
Still, coach Mike Montgomery can use more offense in the paint.
That need for low-post scoring, coupled with the roster’s shortage of physical big men, means the rookie from ASU could wind up starting if he plays well.
One experiment Montgomery has consistently brought up is playing Diogu and Murphy together, though both are listed as power forwards. Diogu would work the inside and Murphy the outside.
The only problem is on the defensive end.
Neither are stoppers in the paint, but if they can hold their own, it could work.
A YOUNG SHAQ
Dwight Howard accomplished a bit of NBA history Tuesday, becoming the youngest player ever to record at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game.
Howard had 21 points and 21 rebounds in the Magic’s 85-77 defeat of the Charlotte Bobcats. Howard accomplished the feat at 19 years, 342 days. The top overall pick of the 2004 NBA Draft doesn’t turn 20 until Dec. 8.
Atlanta’s John Drew previously held the record, scoring 44 points and grabbing 20 rebounds in 1974 when he was 20 years and 47 days old.
Howard also badly outplayed Emeka Okafor, the player picked after of him in the NBA draft last year; more and more league observers are wondering whether Howard, who came to the NBA out of high school, is starting to surpass Okafor.
Magic coach Brian Hill even compared Howard, who is averaging 16.4 points and 11.7 rebounds to "a young Shaquille O’Neal."
He should know, having coached Shaq for the first four years of his NBA career.
But if the Magic got the best player last year, there’ no doubt they had the worst draft pick this year.
Orlando selected 6-foot-11, 240-pound power forward Fran Vazquez of Spain, with the 11th selection, passing on several more established American players, one of which was Sean May, the outstanding player of the Final Four last spring.
Vazquez ultimately refused to join the Magic, instead deciding to sign a four-year contract with a professional team in Spain. May was chosen 13th by the Charlotte Bobcats.
May said, "Orlando wasted a good draft pick. . . They had a lottery pick, and for what?’’
Raptors rookie Charlie Villanueva put a smile on four-year-old Blake Glass’ face last week in Philadelphia.
After pre-game warmups, Villanueva went over to talk to Glass and his father Greg. Blake suffers from Alopecia Areata, the same skin disease that Villanueva has had since he was 10.
The disease causes hair loss on the scalp and body.
Villanueva sat with the youngster for 10 minutes and Blake was wearing a Raptors jersey with his favorite player’s name.
"You know, it’s a beautiful thing when I can help and I see how much of a role model I am to these kids," said Villanueva.
"I think everything happens for a reason and I think this happened to me (getting the disease) in order for me to help little kids like Blake."
• "Scottie’s one of the quickest learners I’ve ever coached. Big difference." — Tex Winter, the veteran Lakers’ assistant coach, referring to Scottie Pippen, on Lamar Odom’s struggles as the team’s point forward, a concept that the club might abandon.
• "If I make it, it would be the highlight of my career, besides being drafted. You always dream about one day playing in the All-Star Game and being amongst your peers." — The Nuggets’ Marcus Camby, one of the early season’s best players.
• Phil Jackson says he preferred coaching the Lakers over the Knicks because of the tougher press in New York, which he says is full of "snakes and nastiness and innuendos . . . those things I knew I was going to be able to live without."
• The Blazers, an early surprise, are getting great production out of their center position. Joel Przybilla and Theo Ratliff have combined to average 8.3 points, 13.0 rebounds and 3.5 blocks.
DID YOU KNOW?
• Jalen Rose’s 551-game streak of scoring at least a point ended Wednesday when he failed to score and committed four fouls, three offensive, in seven minutes of uninspiring action.
Afterward, the Raptors’ $15-million man complained about playing so little.
• The Suns host the woeful Raptors Tuesday, visit the Rockets Wednesday then host Jason Kidd and Nets on Friday.