Who's To Blame?

Who's to blame when situations deteriorate?
Disgusting things you'd never anticipate?

When Fred Schneider first sprechgesang those immortal words in 1980, he was referring to a party out of bounds.  But they apply equally well to the 2008-2009 Clippers.  The desire to affix blame is pervasive in our society.  In Washington D.C. you hear the phrase "Now is not the time to point fingers" frequently - always followed by a laundry list of what the opposition party did wrong.  So let's point some fingers.

Has the Clippers situation deteriorated?  Yes.  Are we faced with disgusting things we never anticipated?  Well, given that none of us anticipated having the worst record in basketball, I'd call that a yes also.  So... who's to blame?

Well, for some it's pretty easy.  Take for instance the Sports Guy, Bill Simmons.  In a recent chat on ESPN.com (excerpted in a FanPost), Simmons put all of the blame on coach Mike Dunleavy Sr., loudly calling for him to step down in pretty scathing terms.   And that was before the last three games, which rank among the absolute worst of a very bad season.

Here's the thing you have to remember about Simmons.  He moved to LA in 2002 to write for the Jimmy Kimmel Show.  He's a comedy writer.  He's not a sports writer.  Everything he writes is meant to be funny, first and foremost.  So when he complains that it's Dunleavy's fault that:

My tickets cost $340 for a pair and I get to go watch Baron Davis jog up and down for 20 minutes a night looking like he just smelled a horrible fart.

He's trying to be funny.  And goodness knows, fart jokes are always funny.  But I hesitate to take his analysis of the overall situation too seriously.  For one thing, take a closer look at that sentence above.  Is that an indictment of Dunleavy?  Or is it an indictment of Baron Davis? 

For Simmons (and many commenters on this blog as well), it's all Dunleavy's fault.  He has made the players hate him.  He has forced Baron Davis into a situation where he will be unsuccessful.  He stole Baron's basketball ability and transfered it into an alien monster body.  But let's assume for a moment that it's true, and that Dunleavy is the worst imaginable coach.  Baron Davis is still a professional basketball player making $13M a year.  Does he not have the pride, the ability, the professionalism, the obligation to be better than the worst point guard in the NBA?  To place all of the blame on Dunleavy is facile.

For a little historical perspective, you might also want to go back and check out what Simmons had to say about Doc Rivers' contract extension a mere 22 months ago.  Rivers won an NBA title about a year later.  Which either proves that Rivers is a good coach, or that coaches don't matter, or that Simmons has no idea what he's talking about, or all of the above, or none of the above.  Just remember, Simmons is mainly writing jokes.  Don't take it too seriously.

When Simmons says, more than once, that the Clippers "hate" Dunleavy, what exactly is he basing that on?  I mean, it's a pretty good rant he goes on, but the actual criticisms boil down to "The players hate him" and "Baron Davis looks like he smelled a fart."  It's not the most detailed breakdown of the X's and O's I've ever seen. 

On the other side, there are some who think that the blame rests squarely, solely, and obviously on Baron Davis.  In a recent "Back and Forth" in ESPN the Magazine, Chris Broussard put all of it on Baron, with nary a mention of Dunleavy's culpability. 

The big problem in Clipperland is that they've committed five years, $65 million to an uncommitted Baron Davis. We all know how great Baron is when motivated, but when he's not motivated he can totally drain a franchise and that's what he's done in LA. Notice that Baron has played more than 67 games just once in the past 7 years, and not surprisngly, that was a contract year ('07-08). He was, ahem, motivated, and it worked because he got the Clips to pony up big bucks. Now that he's got his money, though, dude's just not motivated, especially in his hometown of LA, where he can work toward reaching his goal of becoming a movie producer in Hollywood. Sources say BD doesn't want to practice, watch films or run Mike Dunleavy's plays. I hear his antics are starting to rub off on the youngsters and turn off the vets.

So Broussard seems to think that Baron is the one and only reason for the farce that has become this season - although it is worth noting that his five fixes for the Clips (Insider required) include getting rid of both Baron and the coach.

There is a massive incongruity that jumps out at you when you look at the standings and the respective coaches in the NBA this season.  The Clippers have the worst record in the league.  MDsr is looking up in the standings at 14 other teams with a record of .500 or worse - and 10 of the 14 have a new coach since the end of last season.  So as I mentioned back in December, the Clippers, for better or for worse, are significantly out of step with the rest of the league with their handling of the situation, which has only gotten worse.

There's a well-informed voice in this debate that may be worth listening to.  Mark Heisler, NBA columnist for the LA Times, has referred on more than one occasion to the stability that comes with keeping the coach.  He has been squarely in the 'keep the coach' camp all season (although one wonders if his opinion has been swayed by the performances of the last few days).  Heisler realizes that Sterling is sticking with Dunleavy for the wrong reasons - specifically to save the money he'd have to spend on a new coach and GM - but he adamantly believes it will help the franchise in the long term to have some stability.

The reason teams change coaches before they change players is because they can.  Salary cap rules limit what you can do with your roster.  There are no such restrictions with coaches.  You can always fire Mike Dunleavy (career winning percentage .468, Clippers winning percentage .403), and hire a big name replacement like Avery Johnson (career winning percentage .735) or Jeff Van Gundy (career winning percentage .575) - sure, it costs you some money, but there are no rules that preclude doing it.

The options in dealing with Baron are more limited.  You can try to make a trade, but at this point his trade value is so low that it's impossible to get what anyone would consider equal value.  He's shooting 35%, and owed $54M over the next 4 seasons.  Might some borderline contender, believing they need a dynamic point guard to put them over the top, roll the dice hoping that a change of scenery will renew his spirit and they'll get the guy who led the Warriors into the playoffs two years ago as opposed to the sulky stiff we've seen in LA?  Maybe - but I'd have to call it a very long shot.  At this point, you'd be lucky to trade him in a straight salary dump.  Portland, who actually needs an upgrade at point guard, wouldn't touch him with a 10 foot pole, despite the fact that they could likely have him for Raef LaFrentz' expiring contract at this point.  Miami needs a point guard - would you take Mark Blount and Marcus Banks for him?  Basically, the likelihood of dealing Baron for any value is pretty much nil at this point.

But that's all getting into the nitty gritty logistics of making a change.  The question remains, what change should they make?  Change the coach?  Trade Baron?  Both?  Neither?

There are of course other possibilities, like trading a big man or hoping that Donald Sterling will sell the team and a top down culture change will yield dividends.  But for the purposes of this debate, I'm sticking to the core issue of Baron versus Dunleavy.

First of all, are we sure there is a Baron versus Dunleavy issue?  Pretty sure at this point.  The stylistic differences were apparent from the moment he was signed, and Baron has acknowledged having issues in a few moments of candor, although he's alwas backpedaled pretty quickly afterwards.  I haven't interviewed these guys, and I'm not in the practice gym, so all I have to interpret is what I see on the court.  And what I see is Baron Davis (and by extension the rest of the team) being apathetic and ineffective.  Is that because of his relationship with his coach?  Maybe, maybe not.  But as I mentioned in yesterday's recap, there's plenty of evidence to indicate that the team has quit on Dunleavy.

Which is quite ironic, when you consider that it's basically an entirely new team.  Usually a coach, unless he's completely incompetent (see Del Negro, Vinny), can get a team to toe the line for a season or so.  So while Dunleavy is currently the NBA's 3rd longest-tenured coach in his sixth season with the Clippers, he's actually got an entirely new team.  Al Thornton is in his second season under the coach and that's it - everyone else is brand new.  (Chris Kaman is in his sixth season with MDsr, but he's only played 15 games, so I'm not counting him.)  Usually you see teams who have stopped listening to a coach - the coach's routine gets old, his influence wears thin.  But it would appear that this team never actually started listening to the coach.

Dunleavy may have been hoist on his own petard in this case.  As GM, he built a team that he hoped could compete now.  He loaded up on veterans - Baron and Ricky Davis, Marcus Camby, Zach Randolph.  And he ignored the fact that many of these players came with lots and lots of baggage.  So in an attempt to win now with some problem children like Baron and Ricky and Zach (thank FSM that Jason Williams retired), GM Dunleavy has put coach Dunleavy into the hot seat.

There some question as to whether or not Dunleavy was ever a good coach?  I've certainly argued in the past that he was.  You're free to dismiss the Finals trip with the Lakers if you like - that team was led by Magic Johnson, and I could probably have gotten them to the Finals.  Of course his Portland team is the Rohrshach test - was he a very good coach (59 wins in 99-2000) or a very bad coach (monumental playoff collapse versus the Lakers)?  People tend to see what they want to see there. 

His early results with the Clippers speak for themselves.  From 27 wins the year before he took over, to 28, to 37, to 47 wins, and a trip to game 7 of the Western Conference semi-finals.  Moreover, he also changed the team from one of the worst defensive teams in the league, to one of the best.  He moved the organization toward respectability as well, convincing Sterling to re-sign Brand and Maggette to big contracts, and signing the first major free agents in the history of the franchise, Cat Mobley, Tim Thomas and... Baron Davis (it comes full circle).

Even at his best, his teams have never been particuarly inspiring on offense.  He improved the Clippers defense significantly.  But even during the 05-06 playoff run, the Clippers must surely have led the league in shot clock violations and/or bail out jump shots at the shot clock buzzer.

But since the 2006 playoffs (we're talking almost 3 years people) the team has been a complete shambles on both sides of the ball.  The high hopes for the team entering the 06-07 season were left completely unfulfilled.  The conventional wisdom in the Clippers front office is to blame it all on injuries - and to be certain, injuries to Sam Cassell and Shaun Livingston played their part in the 40-42 06-07 season.  But if you watched the games (as you know I did), you know that the team played poorly even when everyone was healthy.  40-42 and missing the playoffs on the last day of the season was devastating at the time, but now it seems positively heavenly by comparison.  The Clippers finished last season with 4 wins in the final 30 games.  Tomorrow in Memphis will be game 52 of this season.  So even if they win that game, they'll be 15-67 over a full 82 games - worst in the NBA over those 82 games by quite a margin.  (Seattle/Oklahoma City is next with 17 wins in those 82 games - no one else has fewer than 20.)  Again, injuries have been a huge factor, and I've always maintained that they DO matter.  No one would argue that the Clippers would have won 23 games last season with a healthy Elton Brand.  BUT, again I say, you also have to watch the games.  And in the games themselves, particularly this season, the team has been terrible, even when they've been relatively healthy. 

So even though he had three solid seasons with the team, even though he produced tangible results at first, the results of the last three seasons have more than squandered any coaching capital he had built up.  The results have been dismal, and injuries are no excuse.

I won't try to predict what I think is going to happen.  I have no idea.  For one thing, it's the Clippers - so the "Rational Actor" model of decision making goes right out the window.  Specifically, the current management structure of the team is in a terrible position to make this decision.  Sterling and his right hand man club President Andy Roeser aren't exactly basketball people.  Meanwhile, Dunleavy was extended in late 2006 (even as the team was already beginning their downward slide) and made general manager just 3 months ago.  He's been able to convince Sterling at each critical juncture that the right answer was to give him MORE control.  So short of him replacing himself as the coach (not out of the realm of possiblity, but not very likely), it's going to be up to Sterling and Roeser to fire him and choose his successors. The other organizational issue is that the two proposed solutions (trade Baron versus fire Dunleavy) are necessarily undertaken by two different entities.  Dunleavy is the GM - it's his job to shop Baron around the league.  But he's not likely to fire himself, as we've said.  So it becomes almost impossible to test the waters of a trade.  Imagine Andy Roeser saying to Dunleavy, "Coach, you have to trade Baron Davis by the deadline in a deal that Mr. Sterling will sign off on or you're fired."  That would be the height of organizational dysfunction.  Come to think of it, it's the Clippers - that's probably exactly what happened.

All I can say is what I would do. I would do something.  This has been going on long enough.

I would not get rid of both Dunleavy and Baron.  Changing one of them is going to be disruptive enough, not to mention difficult.  Changing both becomes doubly difficult - and isn't the theory that they're simply incompatible?  Changing one should in theory help make the other one competent.

The reality of the NBA salary cap is that a bad contract or two can doom your team for years.  If the best alternative for dealing Baron is a straight salary dump, that alternative is just as likely to be available later as it is now.  In fact, there's a distinct possibility that Baron will begin playing better at some point and increase his trade value again - he's shooting a ridiculous career low 35%, so it would be difficult to play worse.  It's a bad situation regardless, owing Baron Davis $54M for the next 4 seasons, but the best hope (and it's a long shot) is to keep Baron and hope he snaps out of his funk.

The idea has been floated (by myself among others) that Dunleavy could be retained as GM and Kim Hughes promoted to interim head coach, at least until the end of the season.  But given the latest developments (the team playing much, much worse with the veterans back) and the premise that Baron and the team dislike Dunleavy so much that they have quit on him, it seems untenable to keep Dunleavy as GM.  If the move is being made to appease Baron, I think you have to make a clean break.  That means Dunleavy is gone.

Offer the head coaching job to Eddie Jordan; he played up tempo in Washington and took them to the playoffs 4 years in a row, he turned Gilbert Arenas into an All Star; he's a good fit for Baron Davis.  If Jordan turns you down, you hand the team to Kim Hughes for the rest of the season and look at your alternatives in the off-season.  Kurt Rambis would be on my short list of assistant coaches to interview.

General Manager is more problematic.  I honestly don't know where you find young, 'up and coming' general managers.  Other than in San Antonio, that is.  But with Pritchard and Presti already poached from RC Buford's stable, you have to figure that the pickings are getting slim.  There's always the 'white former shooter preferably with ties to the team' approach (Steve Kerr, John Paxson, Geoff Petrie, Danny Ferry, Kiki Vandeweghe) - so interview Mike Smith and Eric Piatkowski.

But it's time.

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