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Let's Talk About the Clippers' Coach - Again

When an ordinary game recap in which I said that a fourth quarter collapse wasn't the coach's fault spawned over 300 comments, it was pretty obvious that this was a collectively raw nerve for the Citizens of Clips Nation.  Some citizens are even questioning whether my beautiful, wonderful, precious media credential has blinded me to the reality of the situation and turned me into the mouthpiece of the organization, for fear that I might become persona non grata in Playa Del Rey.  All in all, it seems a situation screaming out for a front page post, maybe even one of my extra-special thousand worders. 

But for some reason, I feel like I've covered this territory before.  I wonder why?  Oh that's right.  Because I have.  Here and here and here.  That's over six thousand words on Mike Dunleavy Sr. as coach of the Clippers written from December 2008 to April 2009 (I know, I counted them).  And that's just three posts.  There were others, if you care to look.

In re-reading these posts, I am bemused by the notion seemingly held by some citizens that I am an apologist for MDsr, that I have somehow been on the fence regarding his employment status or perhaps even a supporter of retaining him.  I try to be even-handed, I try not to be shrill and I have plenty more to say about the Clippers such that I don't have to dwell on the coaching situation.  But neutral?  Here's what I wrote in February before the All Star break:

All I can say is what I would do. I would do something.  This has been going on long enough....  I think you have to make a clean break.  That means Dunleavy is gone.

Is that clear enough for everyone as to what my opinion is? 

But it's just my opinion, and the simple fact is, he's not gone.  Moreover, it's not black and white, because nothing ever really is.  When I look through the greys, I draw a conclusion.  But it doesn't mean I'm right.  It's also true that you have to take the current information into account.  I certainly would have made the change last February.  I certainly would have made the change in April.  Would I have done it after the OKC loss?  How about after the Golden State win, five days earlier?  They've been through another training camp, they're nine games into the season.  He's still the coach, and it doesn't make sense to overreact to individual game performances.

In April I made the historical argument, looking at the team's performance over two seasons and other analagous teams in NBA history.  The bottom line is that MDsr is in some pretty dubious company at this point, still with the same team after coaching them to a .256 winning percentage over two full seasons.  Almost any other organization in the NBA would have already fired the guy.  But who knows?  Maybe they would all have been wrong.

There's the very real question of how much the coach controls - if the players are bad, no coach is going to change that.  Not to mention the question of finding a replacement.  There were a record number of firings last season - organizations getting rid of their coaches because the team was playing poorly, ostensibly in the hopes of playing better.  How'd that work out for those teams? 

  • Calvin Kenny Natt, Kings, 11-47 last season, gone;
  • Ed Tapscott, Wizards, 18-53 last season, gone;
  • Kevin McHale, Wolves, 20-43 last season, gone;
  • Ron Tony DiLeo, Sixers, 32-27 last season, gone;
  • Lionel Hollins, Grizzlies, 13-26 last season, 1-8 this season;
  • Scott Brooks, Thunder, 22-47 last season, 4-4 this season;
  • Jay Triano, 25-40 last season, 4-4 this season;
  • Alvin Gentry, 18-13 last season, 8-2 this season.

Half the replacements last season were truly interim - in place until the end of the season, when a real coach could be hired.  Which, if you subscribe to the 'coaches matter a lot' school of thought, is a terrible solution - let's knowlingly waste three-fourths of the season with a head coach who clearly is not in our future plans.  Only two of the eight interim coaches had winning records after taking over the team - not surprisingly, the two who were taking over 07-08 playoff teams.  One of them is now gone.  The other took over a team that had a winning record when he took the job.  Oh, and doesn't that name seem familiar?  He's 8-2 this season.  This Gentry guy must be a pretty good coach.  Too bad the Clippers can't hire him.

At any rate, the closest thing to a success story on that list is Scott Brooks.  Jay Triano had a worse winning percentage than Sam Mitchell whom he replaced, and the roster has been completely revamped this year, so it's disingenuous to credit an early 4-4 record to his coaching.  As for Brooks, the team played better under him, that much is clear.  But for the 'coaches don't matter, players matter' argument, he does have some great young talent, and it would make sense that team would improve as they develop and mature.  It's certainly way too early to say that Scott Brooks is a great coach, or even a significant upgrade over P.J. Carlesimo for that matter.

The Hornets fired Byron Scott yesterday.  If you want fuel for the fire in the 'coaches matter/coaches don't matter' debate, you don't need to look much further than the list of Coach of the Year winners.  Gregg Popovich is the only guy on that list still with the team where he won the award - and most of those guys were fired within a couple seasons of winning, leading some to talk of a COY Curse.  (Oh, hey look at that.  Mike Dunleavy Sr. is a former COY.)  Will the Hornets be better off under Jeff Bower with help from Tim Floyd?  And should they maybe have checked with their franchise player before making a hasty move?  (Of course the irony here is that Scott's 3-6 Hornets waxed MDsr's 3-6 Clippers on Monday, but that's another story.)

So that's the reality of making a mid-season coaching change - it's not a great solution.  This is one of those grey bits.  If you fire the coach, who is the coach?  Of course, it's extra-complex with the Clippers, since MDsr is the coach and the GM.

A big reason I didn't want to get into this at this time is because nothing has really changed.  If the Clippers didn't fire MDsr last season, why would we expect them to fire him this season?  And it's tedious making the same old arguments if nothing has changed.

Why didn't the Clippers fire him last season?  It's impossible to know for certain, but we know several potential reasons, and we know the official story.  The official story revolves around words like 'stability' and 'loyality' and especially 'injuries'.  So if the Clippers didn't fire MDsr last season because they valued stability and loyality and because they did not hold him responsible for the team's poor performance because of injuries to key players, then how is this season any different?  Blake Griffin has yet to play a game - I'd call him pretty key.  And Eric Gordon has now missed two with at least five more coming up.  So the injury excuse is in full effect.  Do they value stability less?  Are they less loyal?  If the Clippers were to make a change now, they'd look like hypocrites.

Of course, that doesn't mean they won't.  And they may or may not care if they look like hypocrites.  Of course, those likely weren't the real reasons in the first place.  It remains highly unlikely that the notoriously parsimonious Donald T. Sterling is going ask MDsr to walk away from the most lucrative coaching contract in franchise history.  Not with attendance way down.  Not with $2.7M settlements to pay.  The injuries to Griffin and Gordon give the coach and the organization very convenient cover to stay the course.

So something else has to change.  It's not enough for the team to play poorly as they did against the Hornets and Thunder.  We've been there, we've done that and the coach remained.  It's also not enough for the players to appear to quit on the coach.  Not that it has appeared that way so far this season, but it certainly did for most of the second half of last season, and no change was made, so that would not seem to be enough.  (David West's comments about Byron Scott are interesting in this case.)  So until something else happens - perhaps an open conflict between the coach and one or more players - there's no reason to expect a change.

Actually, there is one thing that's different this season.  Unlike last year, where the default interim coach was Kim Hughes or Jim Eyen, with no head coaching experience, we now have John Lucas on the bench, who recently confessed to wanting to be a head coach again. But given that Lucas took the job partly as a favor to his friend Dunleavy, it might be awkward for the Clippers or Lucas to make that change without the current coach's buy in.  I've wondered before if perhaps MDsr was self-aware enough to have hired his own replacement when he brought in Lucas - in his role as GM, to have given the team a fall back in case they continued to underperform with the current coach.  Is it possible that GMMDsr would kick himself upstairs and hand the reigns to Lucas?

So there, I wrote about it all again.  And I mostly said a bunch of stuff I've said before.  And I don't expect anything to change.  And maybe the team will play great when Gordon and Griffin come back and we'll all be happy that they kept MDsr.  We'll just have to wait and see what happens.

I hope they still let hang around in Playa Del Rey.