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Should Mike Dunleavy Sr. Be Fired?

Should is a funny word.  There is no answer to the question of whether Mike Dunleavy Sr. SHOULD be fired, because there is no should in this case.

But if we were looking to buy or sell a house, we’d look at the other houses in the same neighborhood to try to establish a price.  Let’s have a look at the coach ‘comps’. 

Washington won their 4th game last night.  Memphis, Golden State and Sacramento each won their most recent games, giving all of them 6 wins on the season now.  The Thunder have had the worst record in the league since the Clippers and Wizards won their first game, and that does not seem very likely to change.  But other than the Thunder, no one has a worse winning percentage than the Clippers.

Four teams in the league have 4 wins or fewer:  the Thunder with 2, and the Clippers, Wolves and Wizards.  Notice anything about those four teams?  The Clippers are the only one not to have fired their coach.

Of the three teams with six wins, Memphis’ Marc Iavaroni and Sacramento’s Reggie Theus are hanging by a thread (although Reggie’s thread may have gotten stronger with their win over the Lakers last night).  Don Nelson of the Warriors does appear to be at least as safe as MDsr, if not more so.  But he is (a) a legend and (b) playing without one of his best players.

Across the entire NBA, 14 of the 30 teams (the same number that miss the playoffs, coincidentally) currently have a losing record.  Of those 14:

  • 4 coaches have already been fired;
  • 3 more are reported in the press to be very likely to lose their jobs soon.  Iavaroni and the Grizzlies, Theus of the Kings and Mo Cheeks of the 76ers are all on very thin ice.  Last Friday Chris Sheridan of set the odds at 1-1, 3-2 and 19-1 respectively.
  • 4 are in their first season with the team – they are more likely to be given more leeway to work their way through the issues. 

Of course, Mike D’Antoni of the Knicks and Larry Brown of the Hornets are also extremely high visibility hires who are not going anywhere any time soon (soon being a relative term in Brown’s case).  The other rookie head coaches are Scott Skiles in Milwaukee and Vinny Del Negro in Chicago, and the Knicks, Bucks and Bulls are all arguably exceeding expectations, so there’s another reason to give them more time.

That makes 11 out of 14 coaches with losing records who are either already gone, in serious trouble, or escaping scrutiny because they are new in town.

Don Nelson of the Warriors, Jim O’Brien of the Pacers and Dunleavy are the three that seem to be safe, without the extenuating circumstances of being the new coach.

Nelson, as we mentioned, has played the entire season without one of their most important players: Monta Ellis.  (It's worth noting that injuries kept the microscope off of MDsr last season.)  He also led the team to a playoff win two seasons ago and 48 victories last year (after the team had missed the playoffs for 9 seasons before that) so he has built up some good will.

O’Brien’s lack of scrutiny is almost as perplexing as Dunleavy.  But I have not heard any rumors that his job is in trouble.  Wins over the Lakers and Celtics have no doubt helped, but after opening the season 5-5, the team is 2-8 in their last 10, so don’t be surprised if his name starts getting mentioned. 

Which brings us to MDsr.

Let me be clear.  I’m not necessarily advocating that he be fired.  The debate in the comments after the last game was pretty interesting - it's pretty clear some citizens are very upset.  One school of thought is "Hey, we have to do something" and the other is "Starting over just sets the team further back."  There’s merit to both arguments.  Obviously, Oklahoma City and Toronto and Minnesota and Washington did something – but does anyone really think that Scott Brooks or Jay Triano or Ed Tapscott or (FSM forbid) Kevin McHale are the answer?  Basically, those teams have committed to letting their players get a little older before they get a real coach.  Which is probably fine if you’re the Thunder.

With only 30 teams in the league, each coaching situation is unique.  In the Clippers case, you’ve got a veteran coach (third longest continuous tenure with the same team at 6 seasons, if you can believe that) with a new team.  So one of the arguments often used for getting a new coach – "The players have started tuning him out" – doesn’t seem to fit.  How could they be tuning him out after 6 weeks?
By the same token, unlike say Don Nelson in Oakland, he doesn’t have the track record to fall back on.  Yes, they won a playoff series in 2006.  But in the three seasons since they have:

  •  Wildly underachieved to win 40 games and miss the playoffs, compiling a 49% winning percentage.
  •  Won 23 games, 5th worst in the league, compiling a 28% winning percentage
  •  Opened this season 4-17 – a 19% winning percentage.

57% to 49% to 28% to 19%.  I don't know about you, but I don't like the trend.  Yes, there were some (semi-valid) excuses.  Yes, there were devastating injuries last season, which is why he did not come under scrutiny at the time (and by the way, I agree that he deserved that particular "Get out of Jail free" card).  Yes, the team is new and a little banged up this season (although not nearly as much as last season).  (There was in fact not a good excuse for 06-07, Livingston’s injury notwithstanding.  It’s not like the team was above .500 when Livingston was healthy, and MDsr’s handling of the Maggette situation left much to be desired.  However, they did win 40 games, competing for a playoff spot until the final week of the season.)

The accumulation of these problems, with the steady deterioration of the winning percentage, fairly begs for action to be taken.  Can the franchise really afford to sit idly by while they re-emerge as a nightly Jay Leno punchline

On the other hand, the turnover in the roster, which has continued into the season with the acquisition of Zach Randolph, does argue for some patience.  Which is exactly what Andy Roeser called for in his statement after the Orlando loss.

It's always darkest before the dawn.   We like our players and as hard as it is to say, we just need to be a little patient until it all comes together.

Apparently, Roeser has been moonlighting writing Hallmark cards.

Indeed, if you have any confidence in this coach, if you think his success with the 05-06 team was something other than a fluke, if you think he can be successful with this personnel, then patience is the right call. 

But if you believe there’s a more fundamental problem, then patience is not a virtue.  It’s disconcerting in the extreme that the Clippers disappear so completely from time to time.  Isn’t it the coach’s job to motivate a team before a game?  Well, it would be difficult to look less motivated than the Clippers at Memphis last week.  And isn’t it a coach’s job to manage the game?  Some of the blame for end of game collapses against Dallas and Orlando (and myriad others) can be placed on the players on the court – but some has to be placed on the coach as well.

In the final analysis, one of the reasons that so few people are talking about Dunleavy being on the hot seat is financial and historical.  Dunleavy signed the most lucrative coaching contract in the history of the Clippers’ franchise in 2006.  He is under contract until summer 2011, and owed at least $12M.  He’s also just been promoted to General Manager.  Firing him outright means finding TWO replacements, and paying them, while continuing to pay him.  Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling once tried to get out of paying Bill Fitch the $1M he owed him because he didn’t think Fitch was looking hard enough for a new job (Fitch was in his 70s at the time).  He’s not happily going to leave $12M on the table.  The other option would be to retain MDsr as the GM and hire a new coach – but you’d have to have his buy-in to do that.  And you’d end up with Kim Hughes or Jim Eyen in the first chair.  It may be a better answer than doing nothing; but it doesn’t seem like a great answer.

By the way, as a point of comparison, Eddie Jordan signed a 3 year, $12M extension with the Wizards in 2006.  He’d be expecting a similar annual salary to coach elsewhere.  Any other name coach is likewise going to command at least $4M per.  You pay at least that for Avery Johnson, Flip Saunders… any one who’s ever won anywhere.  That’s the replacement cost.  You can pay less for a first time coach.  You can try your luck with Kim Hughes.  Mark Jackson would cost more than Hughes, if he’ll even take the job.  I think someone should take a look at Kurt Rambis, but that would have to wait until the off-season since assistants don’t change jobs in the middle of a season.  But there’s no obvious answer out there.

I said it before – it’s not my money.  It’s easy for me to say “Fire the guy.”  (It’s even easier for some of the other Citizens of Clips Nation to say it.)  Sterling and Roeser may well wait this entire season, simply because making a move will be expensive.  But there needs to be a limit to the patience plan.  Winning 20% of the games with this roster is not good enough.