The Sterling Storm

As many of you are already aware, there has been a confluence of articles about Donald T. Sterling today.  High pressure from the Northeast (Boston and New York) met today with turbulence from the West (LA) to form a storm of controversy over the Clippers' owner.  The timing is understandable, but the sheer number of pieces written still qualifies as unusual if not bizarre.  I mean - this has been going on for 25 years; did everyone just notice this week?

Obviously, Sterling's MLK tirade, followed by an airball at the trade deadline and then finally the buyout of Sam Cassell, drove the timing of columns from Peter May of the Boston Globe and Mark Heisler of the LA Times, not too mention a brief followup from TJ Simers, who was at the start of this latest mess.  A feature by Joe Nocera in Play Magazine, the New York Times' quarterly sports publication, actually ignores recent events completely, focusing exclusively on the economic story of the bad sports owner - with you-know-who as exhibit A.  By the way, yours truly ClipperSteve is quoted in Nocera's piece.

Are there revelations out there today?  Well, if it is indeed true that Sterling and MDsr literally haven't spoken in 6 weeks since they conducted that schoolyard argument via Simers in January, it's certainly disturbing, if (surprisingly) not surprising.  Sterling is by all accounts a train wreck on the interpersonal level.  The fact that they hadn't spoken in the immediate aftermath of their January kerfuffle is all you really need to know.  Whether or not they've spoken since is almost irrelevant - Sterling and MDsr are not friends, nor will they ever be.  The extent to which Sterling and his minions allows MDsr to do his job is the real question here.  

Unfortunately, these articles raise significant concerns there as well.  Let me say one thing that is strictly my opinion.  I do not believe for a minute that Elgin Baylor and MDsr came to Sterling and said "We want to trade Cassell and Williams and our lottery pick to the Grizzlies for Mike Miller and we have absolutely no reservations about this and it is exactly the right thing for the team and there is no downside."  If they'd said that, the deal would have been done.  But they didn't say that.  No way.  Because there was a downside.  I doubt the deal was killed STRICTLY based on a veto from DTS.  

Let's be clear - while both Heisler and May take oh so funny digs at DTS' preference for rookie contracts because they're cheaper, there is a distinct advantage to rookie contracts, which is that they are... well, cheaper.  It ain't just about money people - the salary cap is real, and Mike Miller at $9.8M in 09-10 makes the Clippers' worst case scenario significantly worse - namely, what if Brand and Maggette leave and they're NOT under the cap far enough to bring in somebody else?

Interestingly, the closest precedent for the proposed Miller trade is the one that the Grizz made on draft day 2006 when they sent Shane Battier to the Rockets for 8th pick Rudy Gay.  The Clippers pick will likely be around there, in what figures to be a MUCH better draft.  And while Miller is a better scorer than Battier, it's not clear that he's a better player, and he makes a lot more.  I suppose the fortunes of the Grizzlies since that trade mean that they should have kept the veteran over the youngster - but if you offered all 30 GMs either Rudy Gay or Shane Battier today, a lot more than half of them would take Gay.  I probably would have made the Miller trade, but it wasn't a no-brainer, and if Sterling was the first guy in the Clippers organization to raise doubts about the trade, then the team is in much worse shape than I thought.

Does the fact that MDsr and Baylor thought they had a deal to send Cassell to Memphis excuse them for getting nothing for him?  To me, no, it doesn't.  Watching Anthony Carter stink up the court for the Nuggets the other night, and hearing the ESPN crew discuss how badly Karl wanted Cassell, just proves what I've said all along;  Denver would have traded for him.  Yes, it meant giving up 'glue guy' Najera.  The upgrade at the point guard is a no-brainer compared to the loss of Najera on that team.  A Denver deal should have been in place in case the Memphis deal fell through.

Still, it can't be easy for Baylor and MDsr to try to run a team where the owner is so delightfully clueless, yet in the end won't let them do their jobs.  May's account of Sterling having no idea what a buyout is, while his people were deep in discussions with David Falk about buying out Cassell, would be pure hilarity if I wasn't so emotionally invested in his prized possession.  Never mind the absurdity of not returning phone calls from a guy to whom you owe $17M.

But none of this is new.  The issue has been the same for the entirety of Sterling's ownership.  Can the Clippers ever be successful when the organization is so dysfunctional?  And rest assured, it's dysfunctional, at least at the top - Baylor and MDsr can try to work around their clueless boss, but it's less than ideal, even when he's not countermanding decisions despite a total lack of expertise on the subject.  The fact that the team made it to the Western Conference Semis a couple seasons ago is encouraging certainly - but sustained success may be too much to hope for as long as Sterling owns the team.  Put it this way - Jerry Buss recognized paying additional luxury tax was worth it in acquiring Pau Gasol - that would never happen with DTS.  He only recently went past the salary cap, forget about the luxury tax threshold.

Not to get all pseudo-psychological, but the biggest problem may be the ongoing Clipper attitude.  The same day all these Sterling articles were published Chris Kaman said this to Jonathan Abrams in the LA Times:

Basketball can go one way or the other, and it's not going the way we want right now.  I don't think it's going to for the rest of this year to be honest. Regardless of injuries or not injuries, we should still play the right way and we don't and it's frustrating.

Really?  Things won't go well 'for the rest of the year'?  There's 7 weeks left in the season, and Elton Brand could be back for most of that time.  Kaman himself has been less than 100% for a variety of reasons for over a month.  Why wouldn't things be better when the team is healthier?  Sure, the team is on a 5 game losing streak, but 3 of the losses came to teams with a legitimate claim to 'best team in the NBA'.  Meanwhile, the unlikely performance in Denver and the more unlikely win over Utah means there have been two very positive developments in the last six games.  Why is Kaman dismissing the possibility of ever again performing well this season?  Because he's a Clipper.  Each time a negative thing is written about the boss, everyone in the organization takes one more hit to their confidence, at least sub-consciously.  At the end of the day, who wouldn't want to play for another organization?  

In the end, Nocera's article is the most telling.  Fine, Sterling nixed the Miller trade.  But why?  What has he been doing for 25 years?  Nocera tries to give us a little insight into why Sterling acts this way.  And basically we find out that Donald Sterling is a very patient man, and a very rich man.  He has figured out that he can make lots of money simply by holding onto his assets, while spending the profits on acquiring more assets, not on his existing ones.  Sports ownership and real estate turn out to be very similar enterprises - you don't have to be smart or nice or even competent.  If you have enough money to buy into the game, and you have the patience to stay the course, you'll make money.  This is why Sterling will never fire MDsr, no matter what he says.  He's already paid for this coach - why would he pay for another one, when his franchise will increase in value no matter what he does?

As for the fact that Sterling has not spoken to MDsr in 6 weeks?  We should all be so lucky.

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