Continuing to break with their ignominious past, the Clippers have apparently reached a contract extension agreement with coach Mike Dunleavy for 4 years and $21M. Of all the unprecedented moves the franchise has made in the last few years (locking up Brand and Maggette long term, signing free agents Mobley and Thomas, re-signing Cassell, extending Kaman), this is the one that tells me, "Wow, things really are different."
Consider: player salaries are usually a bidding war. Brand and Maggette had offer sheets in hand, which the Clippers were allowed to match. Mobley was a replacement for Bobby Simmons, who actually signed for more with the Bucks than the Clippers paid Cat. Thomas signed for the mid-level, a de facto standard for quality free agents. Cassell had an offer from the Hawks. The fact that the players ACCEPTED these offers without being contractually compelled to do so speaks to the change in the culture, but the offers themselves, while unusual in Clipperland, were pretty mundane by NBA standards.
The Kaman extension was interesting in that it was the first time we've seen a Clipper extended, and it was a one-on-one negotiation, rather than an open bidding war. Even so, overpaid players like Sam Dalembert and Tyson Chandler were used to establish the price. There were even rumors of potential max offers in free agency. So, while $50M is certainly a big extension, it doesn't put Chris in the stratosphere of salaries. They paid him the going rate.
However, 4 years and $21M for a coach who is still under contract... well, this is hard to conceive of from Donald T. Sterling, the same man who fired coach Bill Fitch and then sued to try to keep from paying the salary he was owed. There are 30 NBA head coaches. This deal will make MDSr. the 6th highest paid coach in the league. Of the 5 making more, 3 of them (Jackson, Riley and Popovich) have each won championships (with an 's'). A fourth (Jerry Sloan) is the longest tenured coach in the NBA, an institution and a great coach for good measure. Only Nate McMillan's $6M per year contract in Portland seems out of place at the top of the list, but that number is certainly skewed by the fact that Paul Allen has more money than god.
The deal is even more remarkable when you consider that Dunleavy himself was on the other side of the table. In all of the player negotiations, MDSr was widely reported to be the one urging DTS, Baylor and Roeser to do the right thing. "Re-sign Brand and Maggette if you want me to be your coach." "Extend Kaman now, and then we'll discuss my extension." He's been the one pushing, pulling, prodding... bringing the Clippers organization into the real NBA. But in this case, the front office worked out an extension WITHOUT being told by MDSr that they had to do it. It's remarkable.
So the next question is, is he worth it? The short answer is, sure he is. Of course, coaches salaries have no impact on the salary cap. I'm an NBA blogger - it ain't my money, and unlike overpaying for a player, this doesn't negatively impact the team in any way. So it's easy for me to say he's worth it. But look at what the guy has done. The Clippers have improved every year that he has been the coach. As I've already pointed out, he's been the single biggest influence in changing the culture, in convincing the front office to pony up some money to re-sign players and bring in new free agents. Kobe and Gilbert turned the money down - at least in part because they weren't convinced that things were really different. So it took some time, but he has succeeded in making the Clippers legitimate, both on the court, and in the off-season.
Indicative of his impact, the Clippers have actually become a DEFENSIVE team during his regime. With a collection of players who for the most part are not known as great individual defenders, the team has improved defensively every season, to the point where they ranked in the top five in several key categories last year. That, my friends, is good coaching.
And although I've made a big deal about it being the 6th most lucrative per year deal in the NBA, there are a bunch of deals (10 to be exact) in the $4M to $5M range. It's a very nice contract, but over half the coaches in the league make at least $4M per, and it's pretty easy to argue that he deserves to be paid more than the median.
Coming as it does in the midst of a 4 game losing streak, while the team is a mere 6-6 and should really be worse than that, the news feels a little strange. With the exception of Jerry Sloan and a few others, most coaches have a shelf life. At some point, the buttons being pushed no longer work, and players tune the coach out. This extension runs through the 2010-2011 season. As of today, only Kaman is signed that long. Believe it or not, Dunleavy is already the longest tenured coach in the franchise's California era, and will tie Jack Ramsay's all-time franchise record of 4 full seasons BEFORE the new 4 year extension kicks in. Will he coach the team 8 consecutive seasons, through 2011? Probably not - coaches move on mid-contract all the time, for lots of different reasons. But for the time being, the question of who is in charge is not an issue, and despite the team's current funk, the players all still support and enthusiastically follow their coach.
Another milestone for the former `worst franchise in sports.'