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Dunleavy is Still the Coach? What is the Precedent?

I hope that you've noticed by now that I don't like to make broad statements without backing them up.  I have strong opinions, and I've obviously got an avenue for sharing those opinions.  But I try not to say that something is right or something else is wrong, without providing some sort of justification.

The reason I bring this up is because it certainly seems to many of us that Mike Dunleavy Sr. should not have a job with the Clippers at this point.  That's definitely how I feel at any rate.

Now, the Clippers have never been a franchise to adhere strictly to the conventional wisdom.  They're mavericks (true mavericks, not like those wannabes in Dallas).  And decades of marching to the beat of their own drummer has yielded the worst track record in the history of professional sports over the franchise's 39 years, worse still in the 29 seasons under the current ownership.  So you can't argue with that kind of success (I guess because you can't argue with something that doesn't exist).

There's still time of course, but it's feeling more and more as if MDsr is going to keep both of his titles at least through the beginning of next season.  Again, far be it from the Clippers to do anything by the book, but if you were going to fire either your coach or your GM, you'd do it immediately at the conclusion of the season, for myriad reasons.  There are draft prospects to scout (you would want to give the new GM a chance to own his draft pick), there are job candidates to interview (Flip Saunders is already off the table and meanwhile teams like Sacramento and Toronto and Minnesota are also in the market for new coaches).  And there are messages to be sent - like the message to the fan base that 19 wins is not acceptable, regardless of the circumstances.  In short, there is every reason to act quickly and no reason to wait.  The fact that MDsr still has a job today is a strong indication that he'll be running another training camp for the Clippers come October.

And there's little or no indication that his seat is particularly hot.  With the Lakers starting a playoff run to what may well be another title, the local columnists can't be bothered to waste any ink calling for Dunleavy's head.  The obligatory end of season stories from various outlets stopped well short - way too far short, in fact - of criticizing the coach, essentially validating the 'just give me a chance with a healthy roster' refrain we've been hearing for 20 months now.  Only Ted Green, in a post on the LA Times' Fabulous Forum blog, seems to have realized that the emperor has no clothes, stating the painfully obvious after the season-ending embarrassment against the Thunder.  But Dunleavy himself has stated that he plans on retaining both titles, and no one within the Clippers organization has done anything to indicate otherwise.

And it all seems unprecedented.  Obviously the Clippers had some number of issues that were beyond anyone's control, particularly as regards injuries.  But even so, a combined 42 wins over two seasons is an unmitigated disaster.  In a league chock full of teams in the very depths of painful rebuilding projects (Memphis jettisoned Pau Gasol for nothing, Minnesota said goodbye to Kevin Garnett, Sacramento and Seattle/OKC got rid of, well, everyone), the Clippers have combined to win fewer games than any other NBA team over the last two seasons.  I beg of you, please do not gloss over that statement.  The Clippers, built around big name veterans making 9 figures annually, have fewer combined wins in the last two seasons than the Thunder. 

We've already pointed out on several occasions that virtually every other team in the NBA with a losing record this season has replaced their coach in the last 12 months - the three exceptions being the Warriors, the Pacers and the Clippers.  But maybe all those other teams overreacted.  Maybe we've entered some sort of immediate gratification era in which the itchy trigger finger of management pulls the plug before a coach has a chance to build anything.  Certainly Mark Heisler of the LA Times has in the past made compelling arguments for the value of consistency and continuity.  But is there any evidence of teams successfully weathering such a disastrous period and experiencing any success with the same coach?

Not wanting to simply rant and vent and scream that the man should be fired, I went back through the history of the NBA looking for precedents.  Namely, I looked for coaches who combined to win fewer than 26% of their games over the course of two consecutive seasons and managed to retain their job the following season.  In the 60+ year history of the league, it's happened four times.

  • Miami, Ron Rothstein - In their first two seasons of existence, 88-89 and 89-90 the Heat combined to win only 33 games under Rothstein.  Of course, we are talking about an expansion franchise, and they did manage to show some improvement, increasing from 15 wins in their first season to 18 wins their second.  Rothstein was allowed to coach one more year, the Heat won 24 games, and they replaced him with Kevin Loughery.
  • Vancouver, Brian Hill - Like Miami, the Grizzlies were an expansion franchise, although Hill's tenure was actually seasons three and four for the team, inaugural coach Brian Winters having been fired midway through season two.  Hill's Grizz won 19 games in 97-98 and then went 8-42 in the strike shortened 98-99 season - a .16 winning percentage that works out to about 13 wins for a full season.  So that's a pretty dreadful two season total, with the wins trending down to make matters worse.  Still, Hill was allowed to take the Grizz into training camp the following season - only to be fired before Christmas the next season with a last place 4-18 record.
  • Cleveland, Bill Fitch - Yet another expansion franchise, this is the one success story on the list.  Fitch, who ended his Hall of Fame coaching career with the Clippers at the age of 63, was a 36 year old rookie head coach with the expansion Cavaliers in 1970 (the same year the Clippers came into existence as the Buffalo Braves).  In 70-71, the Cavs won 15 games, but in 71-72 they improved to 23 wins.  Fitch kept his job, won 32 games the next season, and a couple seasons later led the team to the Eastern Conference Finals and won himself a coach of the year award in the process. 
  • Chicago, Tim Floyd - This is the only example in the history of the NBA where a non-expansion team retained a coach with a winning percentage below .26 beyond two seasons.  Inexplicably, the Bulls stuck with Floyd for 3+ seasons of bad and declining results - 98-99 they went 13-37 in 50 games (approximately 21 wins on a full schedule), the next season they won 17, and the season after that they won 15.  They let Floyd begin a fourth season at the helm, and finally fired him (again, before Christmas) with a 4-21 record.

That's it.  Four times.  Three of the four, it was an expansion team at or near their inception, so the expectations for success were by definition low.  Dunleavy, on the other hand, has been coaching a team that was playing in the Western Conference Semi-finals not so very long ago. 

It's also worth noting that in only one case did the patience of the franchise pay any dividends.  Floyd, Rothstein and Hill were all eventually fired, without ever producing a winning season or a playoff appearance for their teams - far from it, 24 wins by Rothstein was the best season ever for that group.  Fitch is the only coach in NBA history to have achieved any sort of coaching success with the same team after such poor back to back seasons.  And at least with Fitch, the trends were positive - 15 wins to 23 wins, with a brand new expansion team no less. 

It's hard to explain the Bulls' patience with Floyd, but there were definitely extenuating circumstances in Chicago.  Floyd's tenure with the club followed immediately after the Jordan/Jackson era, which included 6 championships in 8 seasons, including three straight.  But after the last one, Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause decided that they'd had enough of all that tedious winning, and blew up the team like no team has ever been blown up before or since.  A decade of massive success in Chicago had enured everyone to the reality of the NBA, and for several seasons the Bulls continued to lead the league in attendance, despite having one of the worst records.  In short, the Jerry's weren't playing by the same rules as everyone else in the immediate aftermath of Jordan, and as such no one seemed to notice or care that Floyd was having no success.  At any rate, it remains today the single most analogous situation to the Clippers own sad state of affairs with MDsr - and obviously patience was not a virtue in Chicago, where the Bulls never came close to competing under Floyd, but made the playoffs a couple of seasons later under Scott Skiles.

Now, just because it's never happened before doesn't mean it can't happen.  And just because everybody else would fire their coach in this situation, doesn't make it right.  As my dear sainted mother might ask, if all the other franchises were jumping off the Empire State Building, would you do it too? 

But, for the record, if Mike Dunleavy Sr. returns as the coach of the Clippers after winning a combined 42 games in the last two seasons, it will be only the second time in the history of the NBA that it was happened on a team beyond it's first five years of existence.  The fact that Dunleavy is also the GM, has been at the helm for six seasons, and has the team trending in the wrong direction the last three (47 wins to 42 to 23 to 19) are just a few more of the reasons that the conventional wisdom would say that he should be wearing a headset for TNT next season. 

But no one has ever accused the Clippers of being conventional.  Or wise, for that matter.