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Dunleavy Out As Coach - I Did Not See That Coming

As I mentioned in my Hawks recap last night, I'm sick.  In fact, I was in bed asleep most of the day.  I actually heard the news from the ClipperWidow, who heard it on NPR.  So that's a first - she knew important Clipper news before I did.  Thanks to Seth (the artist formerly known as Phoenix Stan) for getting the news up on the front page while I lay in bed. 

So here are the facts.  Mike Dunleavy Sr. is no longer the coach of the Clippers, but he remains the General Manager.  Assistant Coach Kim Hughes is stepping in as the interim coach for the rest of the season (that's 33 games).  The news was announced by the Clippers today including prepared statements from MDsr.

This saga has of course been long and drawn out.  During the 07-08 season in which Elton Brand was hurt, the Clippers won only 23 games, which would have gotten many coaches fired.  But the massive number of games lost to injury was viewed as a mitigating factor, a decision I supported at the time.

Then, when that 23 win season was followed up with a 19 win season, it became a major issue.  The Clippers retained Dunleavy as head coach far longer than almost any franchise in NBA history had in similar circumstances.  The reasoning once again focused on the team's injury problems, but frankly the excuse had long since worn thin.  For one thing, the team did not suffer nearly as many injuries last season as it did the season before.  For another, it mostly played lackluster and uninspired basketball even when healthy.

I wrote a lot about the Clippers' need to move forward with a new coach last year.  When it didn't happen, and when Blake Griffin ended up missing the entire season this year, I assumed he was safe for the rest of this season at least.  The team was performing better on the court (they've already surpassed last season's win total) and there were plenty of injury excuses still - if he'd remained coach before, I assumed he'd remain coach through this year.


So for a move to occur now, while the team has a semi-respectable .429 winning percentage, is certainly a surprise.  The losses in New Jersey, Minnesota and Cleveland over the last eight days were embarrassing to be certain - but the injury excuse card was readily available, with Blake Griffin out for the season, Marcus Camby hurt during the Nets game, and Chris Kaman missing the next two.  So if this is a case of Dunleavy being forced out, it's hard to figure.  Why now?

Of course, if you take the announcement at face value, Dunleavy wasn't forced out at all.  Rather, GMMDsr is merely relieving CMDsr of his duties so GMMDsr can concentrate on basketball operations.  This has of course been a possible face-saving exit strategy throughout this ordeal.  In fact, in an interesting coincidence, I suggested this exact scenario (Dunleavy relinguishes the coaching reigns while remaining GM, Hughes takes over on an interim basis) a year ago tomorrow, Feb. 5, 2009.  For what it's worth, I started floating the idea in December 2008

None of this occurs in a vacuum.  Dunleavy has the rest of this season and all of the next remaining on his 2006 contract extension.  (Surely among the worst contract extensions in the history of the NBA - he went from 47 wins in the season before he got the extension, to 40 wins in the final year of his old contract after the extension had been signed but before it had kicked in, to 23 wins in the first year of the contract, to 19 wins in the second year, to relieved of his duties in the third year.)  He's pulling down about $5M per season on that deal, and the conventional wisdom has always been that injuries and patience were really just convenient excuses for Donald Sterling to avoid firing his coach and paying him $5M to do nothing.  Of course, by retaining GMMDsr and promoting Hughes to the first chair, Sterling avoids the replacement cost of hiring a new coach and GM.  He is paying exactly the same amount the rest of the season for a general manager and a coach.  Elegant.

One assumes that some newly visible fissures between Dunleavy and Baron Davis were at least part of the timing.  After clashing for most of last season, the coach and the point guard made a big deal about being on the same page this year.  But bad losses to last place teams have a way of bringing simmering tensions to the surface.  After the losses in New Jersey and Minnesota, Baron made comments about not playing with "freedom" and that the team needed to be more "free-flowing".  The next day, the LA Times' Ben Bolch quoted a defensive sounding Dunleavy saying "None of those [free-flowing] teams have ever gone past the first round [of the playoffs]".  A fanpost by Citizen Nelsan about the situation looks pretty prescient today.

So where does this all leave us?

Again, if we are to take the announcement at face value, you can assume that the Clippers will be actively trying to improve their roster over the next six months.  Face-saving exit strategy or not, it's actually true that there are a lot of things on the horizon for a GM to be thinking about. As MDsr said in the press release:

I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the ideal time for me to direct my efforts toward the many personnel opportunities that lie before us, such as the trade market, the Draft and the free agent process. We fully expect to be active and productive on all those fronts.

The fluctuations in the salary cap estimates over the last year have been difficult to follow, and the simple fact is that no one knows exactly what the cap is going to be when LeBron and others hit the market in July.  But with arena attendance not off as much as previously predicted, the Clippers are suddenly within spitting distance of an actual max offer to LeBron (or Wade or Bosh).  With both of them playing well and neither being particularly easy to move, it seems likely that the big contracts, Chris Kaman and Baron Davis, aren't going anywhere.  But by moving either Al Thornton or Sebastian Telfair (or both), the Clippers can actually be in a position to make a legitimate offer - something that few other teams can actually do.

Or perhaps GMMDsr will use some of his many, many trade chips (Marcus Camby, a decent sized trade exception, several other expiring contracts, a future first round pick from the Wolves) to make a big move now and pre-empt the summer of 2010.  Can he land a name on the level of LeBron or Wade?  Certainly not - of course few names are on that level.  But there's little doubt that several former All Stars could be had for the right price this month.  Do the Clippers really want Caron Butler or Josh Howard or Richard Jefferson?  I'm not convinced, but if they could be had cheaply enough, it might be the right move. 

The point is, there is a lot for a GM to look at, and it's hard to do that while diagramming plays.

What becomes of the head coaching position?  Interim coaches rarely get the pre-fix removed from their titles - although Scotty Brooks managed to do it in Oklahoma City.  The Clippers might suddenly look like a pretty cherry job this summer, with a solid unit in place and Blake Griffin and possibly a high-priced free agent on the way.  It's interesting that they handed the reigns to Hughes - he was the logical choice last season, but with another assistant on the staff who happens to have head coaching experience, it's a little surprising that they went with Hughes instead of John Lucas.  I like Hughes, and I think he has the type of personality that might get a temporary boost out of the players during the remaining 33 games.  But it's impossible to know how might perform as an NBA head coach over the long haul.  Lucas has hinted this season that he'd like another crack at a head coaching gig, and one assumes he'll be under consideration this summer.  Will the Clippers go after a high profile coach while paying their GM $5M?  Will a high profile coach want the job, given the likelihood that GMMDsr will be looking over their shoulder?  Then there is the potential impact of a coaching search on the free agent market.  Does LeBron's high school coach need a job?  Maybe the Clippers could pull an Ed Manning.

Obviously we'll be talking about this for weeks to come.