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Further Thoughts on Elgin Baylor's Departure

If you haven't read Citizen Zhiv's comment on my first Baylor post, you really should.  I much prefer his take to my own. 

In fact, after re-reading what he wrote, and seeing the excerpt that ClipperBlog chose to use, I've decided that my first ramblings were off base.  Here's the money quote:

Baylor is a link to "The Worst Franchise in Pro Sports" days.  He should have been fired each and every year since, say, 1987.  So that's about two decades of reprieves.

Citizen Zhiv turns that over and says that Elgin should have quit every year since 1987.  That's more apropos.  But here's the point of what I was trying to say. 

Baylor took over the GM responsibilities (if not the title) in 1986.  That season they won 12 games.  The next season they won 17.  In the first five seasons under Baylor, they averaged 60 losses per season.

When a franchise is losing 75% of its games, there are a few things that are likely to happen.  Maybe the coach gets fired.  Maybe the GM gets fired.  Maybe both.  It doesn't necessarily mean that suddenly the team is going to start winning.  But given that NBA teams are not built from lead by alchemists, these are some of the options an organization has at it's disposal to try to find a winning combination.  It's pretty standard stuff really:  fire the GM - let someone else give it a try.

From 1986 when Elgin Baylor first took over until they hired MDsr in 2003, in 17 seasons the Clippers had nine different head coaches - and I'm not even counting the interim guys; they bring it to an even dozen.  So the team tried the magic 'change coaches' lever on average every 18 months or so.  But they never played the GM card.  Why?

For me, it screams that the organization just wasn't serious.  One could attribute a noble motive of loyalty to Donald Sterling in this behavior - he was simply too loyal to Elgin Baylor to get rid of him.  But that argument would seem to break down in the happenings of the last few weeks, where he couldn't manage to make the transition without opening himself up to a possible lawsuit.  No, I think it was purely inertia. 

"Hey, Donald the team is still losing and still a laughing stock.  What do you want to do?" 

"Have Elgin fire the coach and get a new one." 

"Think maybe we should get rid of Elgin?" 

"Are you kidding?  Elgin can't very well fire himself and hire his replacement.  Who's going to do it?  Me?  I'm not qualified."

So when I say that Elgin should have been fired every season for the past two decades, certainly I'm using hyperbole, but I do have a point.  It's simply that a serious, professionally run sports franchise would have fired it's GM many times in those 22 years.  By showing up at the lottery in his Cosby sweaters year after year, Elgin came to symbolize how utterly disinterested the franchise was in improving.  It certainly wasn't even his fault - but that was the message he conveyed.

It's clear that this was not an easy job.  Sterling did not give Elgin nearly enough resources or support.  As Zhiv points out, one of the ironies here is that the final concrete vestiges of Clipper bush leaguism were washed away when the training facility opened a few weeks ago.  Elgin Baylor was trying to draft without a decent scouting department, to sell tickets to the worst arena in the league, to retain talent without the budget to pay competitive salaries, and to attract free agents without the advantages (like a training facility) of every other team in the league.  No wonder he wasn't very successful.

But even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in awhile, and Elgin had a few highlights as GM.  Among them:

  • The 1989 trade that sent Reggie Williams and the rights to Danny Ferry to Cleveland for Ron Harper and several picks, one of which became Loy Vaught. 
  • The 2000 trade that brought in Corey Maggette and a pick that turned into Keyon Dooling for a pick that eventually became Marcus Williams (the guard) - six years later.
  • The 2001 trade for Elton Brand, where the Clippers gave up the third pick in the draft (Tyson Chandler) and Brian Skinner.
  • The 2005 trade that netted Sam Cassell and a still future first round pick for Marko Jaric.

Still, do you notice anything about those highlights?  They're all trades - not a draft pick in the lot of them.  And even the highlights are lowlights if you scratch the surface a little.  Take that Ron Harper trade.  Ferry was taken with the second pick in the draft - despite the fact that he had made it clear he wouldn't play for the Clippers; despite the fact that he was overrated; and despite the fact that Sean Elliot and Glen Rice were on the board.  Meanwhile, Reggie Williams was the fourth pick the year before, ahead of Scottie Pippen, Kevin Johnson and Reggie Miller.  Harper was clearly the best player in the subsequent trade, but one would expect to have some good players with the 2nd and 4th picks in the draft.

Elgin Baylor was a great basketball player (although, as it happens, my earliest memories of the NBA are from the Lakers 1972 championship, just after his retirement).  He seems like a nice enough man.  But his career running the Clippers was undistinguished, to say the least.  It may not have been his fault - but a change was long overdue.