GM. Or coach. Or both.
I know that for many if not most of the Citizens of Clips Nation, the time has long since passed to move beyond the Mike Dunleavy era. He produced one playoff series win almost three years ago, and nothing but mediocrity or much worse since.
If we're being honest about the situation, it's really the 40-42 06-07 season that is the biggest blemish on his resume. The team's combined win total of 39 wins since that season, which ties them with Memphis and Seattle/OKC - two teams in full fledged, ground up, rebuild mode - for the fewest wins in the NBA over that span is terrible and reason enough to warrant a change. But the injury excuses muddy the waters of the past two seasons, making it at least unclear and possibly unfair to blame MDsr for the team's worst-in-the-league performance. But recall that the 06-07 Clippers, coming off a great season and their first ever playoff series win in California, underperformed the entire season. Yes, Sam Cassell was less than 100% and Shaun Livingston went down in late February. But the simple fact is that Cassell was way past his prime and so expecting him to help the team a lot was unrealistic - I mean, it's not like he went to Boston and lit it up. As for Livingston, the Clippers were 26-29 at the time of his injury. Clearly they had underperformed significantly in those first 55 games. The fact that this all occurred BEFORE his contract extension even kicked in just adds to the pain. Sterling finally ponies up some big-boy money for a coach - and it all immediately goes south.
But we are where we are. Dunleavy's still the coach, with two years and $11M on that contract extension. So what happens now?
Let's assume for a moment that we believe his rhetoric that this team, when healthy, can compete for a playoff spot. Certainly there is plenty of talent on paper. So while it strains credulity to say that a playoff team (even a lower tier playoff team) turns into the worst team in the league not just when three starters are out, but pretty much all the time, let's give the coach the benefit of the doubt and say that maybe that's what happened.
Last night in Oakland marked game one of the healthy Clipper era. Injuries to Ricky Davis (who has been terrible all season and should not be in the rotation regardless) and Mardy Collins (a minimum salary player who was a throw in to the Zach Randolph trade) don't count. So in their first healthy game, they lost to a 23 win team missing 3 starters. An inauspicious debut, to say the least.
There are 15 games left now. Including the loss to the Warriors, owner Donald Sterling and team president Andy Roeser have a data set of 16 games, about 20% of an NBA season, with which to evaluate this roster and this coach/GM. So let's further assume that they're serious about making a change if necessary to improve the team - what's the magic number?
Dallas has a .603 winning percentage, which is good enough for the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs. That's about what it took last season by the way, when the Warriors missed the playoffs with 48 wins. So if the goal is to be good enough to make the playoffs, the Clippers really need to win 9 or 10 of their final 16 games to be in that conversation. And they need to get cracking, because they've gotten off to a bad start at 0-1 for the final 16.
On the other hand, the team's current winning percentage is .239. So they only have to win 4 games to slightly improve on that dismal record.
So, although we still don't have any real clue what's going to happen, let's say, just for fun, that 3 or fewer wins definitely gets MDsr fired, and 9 or more wins definitely gets him into training camp next season. What happens if it's somewhere in between?
That's my big fear of course: the Clippers play this last month and win enough games to provide a little cover for Sterling and Roeser to not have to eat the contract, but not enough games to actually prove they're competitive. Imagine they go 7-9 with a healthy roster: everyone is happy - WOW - we only won 15 games in the first 65 and then we won 8 of the last 17 (including the Nets game). What a turnaround! Um, sure... but it's still less than .500 basketball with a lineup that was built to win now. Project that performance out to a full season and it's the worst of all worlds - no playoffs, and no ping pong balls.
Looking at the remaining schedule is interesting in the context of this conversation. Including tonight's game against the Wizards, the Clippers have home games against four of the five worst teams in the league (not counting themselves): Washington, Minnesota, Sacramento and Oklahoma City. So winning home games at full strength against terrible teams doesn't prove much. (Actually, in a normal world, a loss in any one of those four should earn MDsr his immediate dismissal.) On the other end of the spectrum, they have seven road games remaining against playoff teams. Those are going to be tough games to win, all the more so because the opponent has much more to play for. Losing to Boston or the Lakers or Utah on the road? Well, that's to be expected.
Which leaves four games where the expected outcome is more in doubt: at Toronto, at New York, home against New Orleans and home against Portland.
Given the uninspiring play we've seen from this team the vast majority of this season, my expectations are very low. I think they'll lose at least one game to the dregs teams. Maybe they'll steal one on the road from New York or Toronto. But I'd be shocked if they were able to beat a playoff team, even at full strenghth. I hope I'm wrong.
The latest edition of ESPN the Magazine (I haven't found a link for this, apparently it's only in the print edition) says that Sterling has reached out to Lakers assistant GM Ronnie Lester. If it's true, it's somewhat encouraging - not the most creative approach perhaps, talking to the assistant GM for the other team in town, seems a little like if Sterling can't actually walk to the guy's office he wouldn't be able to find a candidate - but the fact that Sterling has identified at least one candidate is surprisingly proactive.
Among all the other questions is this: would MDsr be relieved of his coaching duties, his GM duties, or both? It seems pretty obvious that if the team is going to make a move, it's coach Dunleavy that is the first to go. Whether you competely buy in to the team GM Dunleavy has assembled or not, coach Dunleavy has clearly not motivated them to produce on the court. But it's always seemed pretty obvious to me that you can't do this half way - if he needs to be gone, he needs to be gone. Specifically, if it's a personality conflict with Baron Davis, then why would you want to leave him in the GM role? The fact that this rumor surfaced about a potential new GM seems to support the idea that Sterling is looking at making a clean break. There's no way they'd contemplate putting a rookie GM in place while leaving the former GM on the bench (at least I hope they wouldn't contemplate something so crazy).
It's difficult to say how Donald Sterling thinks - he's a strange guy. We've talked a lot about Dunleavy's contract and the fact that he's still owed $11M after this season. But it's not Dunleavy's contract that matters so much in this conversation - that's a sunk cost. What matters is the replacement cost. Hiring Kurt Rambis and Ronnie Lester away from the Lakers (or any other rookie head coach and rookie GM combo) would cost him about $2M per year for the coach, maybe $1M per for the GM (I don't know how much GM's make, but we know that Elgin said his $350K was out of line). So the minimum replacement cost is about $3M annually. Hiring Jeff Van Gundy or Avery Johnson or Flip Saunders or Eddie Jordan would cost significantly more, and I think we can safely say that ain't happening, as much as we might like it. The best case scenario would seem to be a reasonable choice of a first time head coach, first time GM costing Sterling about $3M annually in replacement cost.
In the cost benefit analysis, Sterling and Roeser need to examine that $3M against season ticket renewals, which will of course be disastrous. However, there's no guarantee that a coaching change is going to help significantly. The long time season ticket holders were clear in their meeting with Roeser that they want Dunleavy out - but I doubt seriously that any of them agreed to re-up immediately if the coach is fired.
So what's the magic number for Dunleavy to lose his job? Take the poll.