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Dunleavy Files for Arbitration After Clippers Withhold Pay

Well, it seems that maybe things haven't changed around here as much as we had hoped.

According to Mark Heisler writing in today's LA Times, the Clippers have stopped paying Mike Dunleavy Sr., and Dunleavy has now filed for arbitration in the dispute.  This issue was first reported by David Aldridge two weeks ago, so props to DA for getting it right.

When the Clippers extended MDsr back in November of 2006, I commended the move.  Taken together with other decisions made by the organization, particularly the contract extension for Chris Kaman a month earlier, I interpreted these as good signs.  Not necessarily because I thought they were brilliant basketball moves in and of themselves, mind you.  Interestingly with the benefit of hindsight, I was more dubious about the Kaman extension than the MDsr extension at the time.  But the decisions were part of a larger trend that seemed to me to be more important than the deals themselves - the Clippers were acting like a real NBA franchise and needed to be taken seriously.

Long term contracts are the cost of doing business in the NBA, and Dunleavy's 4 year, $22M contract extension in 2006 was in line for a former Coach of the Year who had improved the team in each of his first three seasons in LA, culminating with a run to game 7 of the Western Conference playoffs.  So it was worth noting at the time that the Clippers had begun behaving like grown ups in NBA-land.

Except something went wrong.  The thing about signing a GUARANTEED contract is that you have to PAY IT.  If you fire a guy and then stop paying him, that's what we call an UNGUARANTEED contract.  And praising an organization for behaving in a professional manner and signing a coach to a guaranteed long term contract loses a little something if the organization turns around and chooses the decidedly unprofessional path of reneging on the deal. 

I've heard some maintain that this is not that unusual, that NBA teams frequently get into disputes with their former coaches over money and that we therefore shouldn't make too big a deal out of this.  Well, not so much... at least not as far as I can tell.  Off the top of my head, I thought of two other salary disputes between a team and a former coach not involving the Clippers - Larry Brown and the Knicks, and Don Nelson and the Mavericks.  And in each of those cases, the organization at least made a pretense of having a contractual position in the dispute.  A little more research this morning yielded a third case of team-coach arbitration - the Warriors stopped paying Mike Montgomery a little prematurely in 2008, a dispute stemming from when he began to work for Cal.  Given the number of former NBA coaches floating around out there, I'd say three cases of contract disputes is a pretty small number.  Of course, it's possible I'm missing others - let me know if you know about more.

As for the Clippers, they have their own little history of these disputes.  After Bill Fitch was fired in 1998, the Clippers ceased paying their former coach (sound familiar?), claiming that he was not actively looking for a new job.  Fitch 64 at the time, was forced to sue the Clippers. One seldom mentioned aspect of the Fitch situation is this - the Clippers signed Fitch to a two year extension in May of 1997 and then fired him before the extension had begun.  It's no wonder they were reluctant to pay, but it's the cost of doing business, however poorly you run the business.

So in case you're keeping track, that's two of the last four Clippers head coaches whom the organization has stopped paying before their full contractual obligation was met.  Of course, that information isn't particularly impactful to a huge number of people.  Just coaches who are considerting employment with the team.  Or really anyone thinking of signing a long term contract with them.  Oops.

It's no secret that the Clippers as an organization have long been dysfunctional and frankly tone-deaf, but the timing of this particular revelation is astonishing, even by their standards.  Entering a summer in which they need to hire a head coach and have as much as $18M to offer to marquee free agents, it's mind-numbing that they'd create a story that reminds everyone in the NBA of what a petty and irrelevant franchise they once were, and quite possibly still are. 

In fact, the last two chapters of the Dunleavy saga have seemed particularly juvenile and surreal, just like the bad old days.  How else can you explain announcing the firing of a guy who worked for you for almost seven years during halftime of a game?  What in the world could possibly explain the need to make that announcement in that manner?  Why could that news not have kept until the next morning? 

As for abruptly cutting off payments to the man, I feel compelled to point something out.  While it goes without saying that the remaining $6.75M on his contract is going to sting, and that the idea of paying him for doing nothing was a major factor in his lasting through seasons of 23 and 19 wins when they should have shown him the door long ago, the simple fact is he's not costing the organization any more now than he did before.  The financial issue with firing him is replacement cost, AND HE HASN'T BEEN REPLACED YET.  Assistant coach Kim Hughes took over his head coaching duties (and has since been fired) while assistant General Manager Neil Olshey took over as the GM.  So the Clippers have incurred exactly zero new salaries thus far as the result of severing all ties with MDsr.  Which makes the decision to stop paying him more spiteful than financial, at least at this point. 

It's worth noting that teams don't tend to win these disputes.  They go to arbitration, and the coaches get their money - they even get interest on the withheld funds.  In the midst of Nelson's battle with Cuban and the Mavs, he was pretty non-chalant about the whole thing: "I am making 5 percent on my money. That's probably better than I can do in the stock market or anything else. .... I'm not in a hurry. I'm not broke.".  I'm told that MDsr's contract is iron-clad in this regard.  It calls for arbitration, and covers interest and lawyer fees.  Which means that the Clippers are eventually going to pay him.  Which makes this situation even more bizarre.  Why show the organization in this terrible light in this most important of off-seasons for no reason?

There is of course one man whose fingerprints are all over this situation, and I've somehow avoided mentioning his name to this point: Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling.  When you list the positives of the Clippers situation, and ask yourself why LeBron James wouldn't consider coming to the Clippers when they have a solid core and southern California has great weather and LA is a huge media market, there's one obvious reply that just got more obvious.  Donald T. Sterling is why LeBron James won't be a Clipper. 

You might argue that LeBron's money won't be in dispute, that even Sterling wouldn't dream of breaching a player contract, or that the idea that LeBron wouldn't be earning his money is so far-fetched as to preclude any conceivable contract dispute.  Sure, that's all more or less true.  But an owner can impact a player in myriad ways beyond an individual contract, and frankly LeBron would be stupid to play for a man as erratic and boorish as Sterling.  I had almost deluded myself into believing that Sterling had changed, that he wanted to win badly enough to allow others to make the important decisions and that he was committed to signing the checks he needed to sign.  But there's not nearly enough evidence to support that conclusion, a long history of outlandish behavior to refute it, and these recent indications that little or nothing has in fact changed. 

How does an owner impact a superstar?  If you're LeBron and you ask Dan Gilbert to take on Antawn Jamison's contract to improve your chances of getting a ring, Gilbert does it - even though it'll cost about $35M in additional salary over three seasons, plus increased luxury tax bills, plus a first round draft pick.  Do you have a level of confidence that Donald Sterling would do the same to help you win that ring?  The guy who is stiffing his former coach for what amounts to chump change?  LeBron has his choice of six or so teams who will pay him an equal amount.  He can also choose to make even more with his hometown Cavs where Gilbert has bent over backwards for him.  When I was delusional and believed that Sterling had either changed or been sufficiently masked as to not truly effect the process, I thought the Clippers had an outside chance at signing LeBron.  Others have said from the beginning that he would never play for Donald Sterling, because he didn't have to.  They were right and I was wrong.  He won't sign here.  Not now.  You can forget it.

And if misery loves company, then Clipper fans have taken some comfort in recent years in knowing that other teams were dealing with similarly bad ownership, but with the planned sales of the Warriors and Hornets, it's going to get a little more lonely and miserable in the 'terrible ownership' camp.  For 19 seasons, Chris Cohan of the Warriors has been the only NBA owner who could approach Sterling in terms of overall dysfunction and futility.  George Shinn of the Hornets, accused of rape in 1997 and more or less forced out of Charlotte by the bad publicity though he was never convicted of a crime, was the only owner who could compete with Sterling (adulterer, sexual harrasser, shameless self-promoter, housing discriminator, racist, etc.) on the (alleged) scumbag scale.  Both of them will be former NBA owners by the beginning of next season.

In fact, the main contenders for worst owner in basketball at this point would seem to be eccentric meddlers with super deep pockets  - guys like James Dolan in New York and Paul Allen in Portland.  Owners who have spent the better part of their tenures far above the luxury tax, but who have made some bad decisions along the way.  That's a problem that Clipper fans would dearly love to deal with.  When Sports Illustrated again named Sterling the worst owner in the NBA a year ago, it felt a little like a well-earned lifetime achievement award.  Now it feels like Donald is earning it all over again.

Am I overreacting to a relatively simple revelation about a contract arbitration?  Maybe.  But the last thing this organization needs right now is to give journalists, broadcasters, free agents, coaching candidates and fans a reason to dust off the mantra of "Same old Clippers."  For no apparent reason other than the whim of their notorious owner, that's exactly what they have done.