When the Los Angeles Clippers make a move of any significance as a franchise, they face a daunting challenge. Not only must they make a good business decision, as must any other organization -- the Clippers must deal with an additional level of scrutiny, one reserved for an organization about whom everyone tends to expect the worst.
Let's establish right up front that this is not fair, in the same way that it was never fair that your little sister always got her way. Of course it's not fair that the Clippers as an organization are assumed "clueless until proven clued in" but hey, life isn't fair sometimes. That's the way it is, and the Clippers as a franchise have worked for several decades to earn their reputation.
I often find myself being one of relatively few media voices defending the Clippers when others are assuming the worst. Since the day Blake Griffin arrived in L.A. various members of the media began speculating about when he would leave, how the Clippers would not be able to re-sign him, how he'd be a Laker or a Maverick or anything but a Clipper by 2013. I pointed out time and again how unlikely that was and indeed we now see that Griffin has signed an extension to remain a Clipper for many years to come, which was always the only reasonable outcome.
However, in the case of the organization's decision to promote Gary Sacks to the position of Vice President of Basketball Operations (essentially their general manager), I'm afraid I'm now on the other side of the argument. Because to the outside world, the perception is that this is the Clippers being the Clippers, and perception is reality.
Let me reiterate that the criticism I'm leveling here is not really fair. I have little insight into this particular decision making process, and I have little knowledge of Gary Sacks. For all I know he may be the absolute best person for this job. He certainly seems to have the support of Griffin and the rest of the team, and that definitely has value. Nor do I have any complaints about the manner in which the Clippers handled their front office business this summer, purportedly with Sacks as one of the primary decision makers along with head coach Vinny Del Negro and Club President Andy Roeser. Really, the only concrete evidence I have on this matter -- the endorsement of key players like Griffin and the completion of what I would term to be a successful off-season of transactions -- is quite favorable to Sacks' candidacy.
But consider this: four years ago, Elgin Baylor was the VP of Basketball Ops, Neil Olshey was the Director of Player Personnel, Gary Sacks was the Assistant Director of Player Personnel (in his 15th season with the team at the time), and Mike Dunleavy was the Head Coach. As of today, all of those people except for Sacks are gone, Vinny Del Negro has replaced Dunleavy as the head coach, and Sacks is the only person left on the basketball operations side. Does that mean that Sacks is now doing a job that three people were doing four years ago?
Or consider this: in the 26 years since Baylor first got the job, the Clippers have not hired a general manager from outside the organization. That's over a quarter of a century.
Now I have nothing against promoting from within. It's a valid business practice, it indicates a certain loyalty to the employee's of the organization, it's a perfectly acceptable model. I will say however that generally while one might expect a very successful organization to promote from within, when an organization has a bad track record you might think they'd want to bring in someone from the outside, try a different approach, get some new blood. The Clippers have a track record that speaks for itself over the decades.
While we're on the subject, am I the only one that sees irony in the Clippers touting Sacks' 18 seasons with the franchise as a selling point? The Clippers won-loss record over those 18 seasons is 515-913, a winning percentage of .36. When you've been working in the Spurs front office in relative anonymity for many years, that's something that looks good on a resume. The Clippers? Let's just say that had the captain of the Titanic survived, he probably wouldn't have included that job on his CV.
Am I being unkind? Yes, of course I am. But I won't be the only one. The Clippers have done much in the last decade or so to overcome their reputation for parsimony and ineptitude, at least where the roster is concerned. The team has gone after free agents aggressively, shrewdly pursued trades, and generally gotten Donald Sterling to open his wallet to build a competitive team.
But the bush league antics seem to remain par for the course where management is concerned. From the bizarre way that Dunleavy was fired, to the petty dispute over his contract, to the ongoing habit of the team to have key front office people work without a contract (Olshey was an "at will" employee which is why he was free to leave for Portland so quickly and no doubt Sacks is likewise working a season at a time), the Clippers remain very much the Clippers when it comes to hiring and firing front office personnel.
Here's hoping that Sacks does a terrific job in his new role. As I've said, he's got some key endorsements and he did a good job this summer, so he's off to a good start. It's also open to debate as to exactly how important a GM is on a basketball team -- I was never one to believe that the loss of Olshey was devastating simply because I never believed that Olshey had performed any miracles. Likewise, I doubt that Sacks could screw things up too badly. For instance, when Chris Paul becomes a free agent next summer, any number of potential GMs would probably figure out that the smart thing would be to offer him a really big contract and ask him to sign it.
But perception is reality, and if the perception surrounding this decision is that the Clippers eschewed a formal search for qualified candidates outside the organization and instead succumbed to inertia and hired the next guy in line because it was the easiest and least expensive thing to do, well it's difficult to see it any other way.