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Kelvin Sampson, Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin

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It happens every time.  I should know better.  If I invest a decent amount of time in a post, you can rest assured that an interesting or even crucial story will break shortly after (if not before) I publish it.  The coaching update I posted this morning is no exception.  This isn't exactly a reverse mojo sighting... not like the Clippers buying out Sam Cassell, or signing Baron Davis, or trading Zach Randolph, shortly after I said those things wouldn't happen.  But it's annoying nonetheless.

And I really, really should have known better this time.  I actually wrote most of the coach post on Wednesday - but wanted to leave the LeBron Parade post on the front page through Thursday.  So I scheduled the coach thing to post late Thursday night.  Some day, I'm going to get the hang of this blogging thing.

Anyway, this Kelvin Sampson rumor is pretty interesting.  Adrian Wojnarowski reported yesterday that Sampson is a serious candidate for the job in Cleveland, and that the Clippers also have interest.  Brian Windhurst confirmed the Cleveland interest, so there seems to be something to this story.

Kelvin Sampson, in case you don't know, is a former NCAA coach and a two time college coach of the year.  His D-1 college coaching career ran from 1987 to 2008, with stints at Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana.  Those last two schools are significant, because they are the alma maters of the last two Clipper lottery picks, the 21-year-old current cornerstones of the future of the franchise, Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin.

Now, given that Gordon and Griffin are from the same high school graduating class and both entered college the same year, obviously Sampson did not coach both of them.  Sampson had already left Oklahoma for IU by the time Blake arrived in Norman.  But it's clear that he has a ties to both players.

We'll start with Eric Gordon.  The Indiana-based citizens of Clips Nation can provide more details, but Sampson and Gordon are closely linked in Hoosier history, and not necessarily in a good way to outsiders.  When Sampson took over at Indiana in March 2006, Gordon had already made a verbal commitment to Bruce Weber to play at Illinois.  When Sampson started recruiting the home-grown Gordon, it raised eyebrows - but it worked, as Gordon changed his mind and became Sampson's prize recruit in Indiana. 

Unfortunately, Sampson ran afoul of NCAA recruiting rules for the second time, and was fired during EJ's freshman year.  The rules violations were severe enough that the NCAA slapped a "show-cause" order on Sampson, essentially banishing him from any NCAA coaching job for five years.  Sampson then went to work for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, before landing as Scott Skiles' top assistant in Milwaukee two seasons ago.

For his part, Gordon supported Sampson throughout the controversy.  If you'll recall, EJ's draft stock plummeted during the second half of his freshman year in Bloomington as he struggled mightily down the stretch of that season.  His statistics from the first half of the season and the second half of the season look like two very different players.  Injuries certainly played a part in his drop off in production.  But Gordon has also said that the school's firing of Sampson was a factor.  The players actually boycotted the first couple of practices under the new coach and considered boycotting the season.  Gordon has said that Sampson is 'like a father' to him.

As for Griffin, although Sampson did not coach Blake Griffin, you can bet he recruited him.  Blake Griffin is arguably the most heralded high school basketball player in the history of the state of Oklahoma.  He was a High School junior in Edmond during Sampson's final season as the Head Coach in Norman - about 30 miles away.  Blake's older brother Taylor was recruited by Sampson and played his freshman season for him.  Of the 500 plus illegal recruiting phone calls and the thousands of other legal ones Sampson made while the OU coach, it's safe to say that a lot of them were to the Griffin household. 

So what?  Is any of this a big deal in choosing a coach?  It's a legitimate question.  It's interesting that in the midst of the whole "LeBron can pick his coach" thing we have a candidate with ties to two important current Clippers.  As the saying goes, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.  Well, in this case we have two birds in the hard and one in the bush.  The Clippers could do worse than to make a choice that would please Griffin and Gordon.

Do we know that it would necessarily please them?  I think it's safe to assume that if indeed Neil Olshey and Andy Roeser are considering hiring Sampson, that they have spoken to both G's about the idea.  We can be reasonably certain based on his prior comments that Gordon is in favor of the idea.  And there's no way this is going anywhere if Griffin DOESN'T like the guy.  The Griffin family is extraordinarily close, not to mention that dad Tommy Griffin is a High School coach and knows the game.  If Taylor or Tommy had anything bad to say about Kelvin Sampson, Blake would be more than inclined to listen.  So I'm working on the assumption that if the Clippers pursue Kelvin Sampson, it means that Griffin and Gordon support the idea enthusiastically.

While we're on ties to important Clippers, Sampson was also an assistant on the USA team that competed in the 2002 World Championships, a team that featured Baron Davis.  Now, that team was less than a roaring success, but the point is that Baron and Sampson have also worked together.

Can he coach?  I can't say that I followed his college career closely enough to make a definitive pronoucement on that.  I will say that it's been a long time - and I mean a LONG time - since a college coach made a successful transition to the NBA.  It's much more common for high profile college coaches to be NBA busts - Rick Pitino, John Calipari and P.J. Carlesimo, being but a few examples.  I like the fact that Sampson has served an NBA apprenticeship under Skiles in Milwaukee.  I like the fact that Milwaukee has overachieved significantly while he's been there, and improved massively on the defensive end.  I like the fact that Popovich thought highly enough of him from their time together at USA Basketball to give him a job after he left IU in disgrace. 

Comparing him to Calipari, I have a gut level reaction that perhaps Sampson would be able to make the transition more readily.  One gets the impression that most of Calipari's success at the NCAA level has been based on his ability to recruit - lottery picks and Rookies of the Year have been parading through Memphis and Lexington.  By contrast, Sampson had terrific success at Oklahoma with nary a pro prospect - Eduardo Najera is the only significant NBA player to play for him in Norman.  Given that you don't get to recruit in the NBA, I'd be much more concerned that Calipari's skills wouldn't transfer than that Sampson's wouldn't.

Should we be concerned about the ethical lapses implied by two consecutive NCAA rules violations?  Perhaps a little.  It's worth noting though that the NCAA rules seem more than a tad prosaic when viewed from the outside.  "He actually made phone calls to recruits?!  Why, the very thought of it!  I feel faint!"  Maybe the NBA, working with the guys who are openly getting paid to play hoops, is where he belonged all along.  Again, the Hoosiers and Sooners out there in Clips Nation can tell us more about these ethical issues.

There is no guaranteed method for picking a successful new coach.  The guys with NBA head coaching experience all have warts or else they wouldn't be available (or maybe they just aren't ready to go back to coaching, like Jeff Van Gundy).  The guys without NBA head coaching experience are really unknown quantities.  That would include Sampson.  The recent history of college coaches trying to make the jump to the NBA doesn't bode well for him.  But I do like the fact that he has been on an NBA bench for two seasons (i.e. he's not going straight to the pros from college) and that he's got a couple of decades of experience as a head coach on top of that.  In the end, the team could do worse than finding a candidate who they feel comfortable with, who also has the trust and confidence of the most crucial players.