The Clippers made a decision Thursday many have been calling for since the 2007-08 season. Mike Dunleavy is no longer the head coach of the team.
I’ve long been conflicted about Dunleavy’s tenure as head coach. There’s a tendency to forget how bad things were 10 years ago, how Dunleavy’s hire coincided, almost to the week, with the Clippers’ matching an $82 million offer sheet for Elton Brand and a $42 million offer sheet for Corey Maggette. Those expenditures were unthinkable in the 90s, and Dunleavy’s arrival had something to do with that. Under Dunleavy, the Clippers became just another NBA franchise, one that succeeded and failed on the strength of its on-court execution and personnel decisions. Ten years ago, that wasn’t the case.
In 2005, he turned an improbable menagerie of players that included an aging Sam Cassell, a pre-medicated Chris Kaman, an undersized Elton Brand, a platoon of Corey Maggette and Quinton Ross, along with Cuttino Mobley into the 8th most efficient defense in basketball — something I thought was impossible on opening night that season.
But he also clearly didn’t have that kind of command and authority over the current Clippers’ team, a group he assembled as general manager. Even with Chris Kaman healthy, the Clippers have an awful time scoring points. They’re 23rd in the NBA in offensive efficiency and haven’t ranked in the top half of the league in that category under Dunleavy since 2003-04, his first year with the club.
It’s been a long time since anyone has patrolled the sidelines for the Clippers other than Mike Dunleavy. Kim Hughes, now be charged with that responsibility, has been credited with much of Chris Kaman’s progress. Whether Kaman remains the focal point of the offense will be Hughes’ decision, at least nominally.
But the person to watch most closely Saturday night wears #1.
It’s his team now.
The most immediate grounds for Dunleavy’s job pruning is the Clippers’ miserable 2-6 road trip completed on Wednesday, during which they lost decisively to the NBA’s two worst teams. But suggestions of Dunleavy’s demise have been lingering for a while. He suffered through a tumultuous six-plus seasons at the helm, but his true undoing wasn’t the Clippers’ underperformance, either this season or in the course of his tenure. Dunleavy’s greatest liability as Clippers coach was raising expectations, then failing to meet them…
… Whether it was the millions remaining on his contract, or the spate of injuries, or the bizarre circumstances that launched the Baron Davis era in Los Angeles, Dunleavy was able to weather last season’s 19-63 debacle. The same courtesy was afforded him when the Clippers sputtered out of the gate this season. After building some momentum after New Year’s, the team reverted to its early-season depths on the recent road trip. After the loss to New Jersey, an open discussion of stylistic differences again surfaced. This time, Dunleavy was on the losing end of that debate.
The blight surrounding the Clippers’ failures in the past 15 months has been different than the pre-2006 years, when fans and the organization were conditioned to be patient. The landscape shifted under Dunleavy’s feet after the Clippers took out Denver in the 2006 playoffs. Building a winner, however fleeting, established a precedent in Clipper Nation that couldn’t be undone. Donald Sterling opened his wallet, so frugality was no longer an excuse for losing. The Clippers, longtime residents of the mausoleum known as L.A. Sports Arena, now played in Staples Center and had a glistening new training facility, so amenities were no longer an issue in attracting talent. They had played meaningful basketball, so the franchise was no longer on a terminal course of futility.
Dunleavy had a hand in much of the progress, and on Thursday he fell victim to those modest achievements.