Yesterday I was asked by a friend if I thought Mike Dunleavy was a bad basketball coach. It was a good question.
Dunleavy’s tenure with the Clippers is tough to ignore. He’s had one winning season in six years and one of the worst overall winning percentages in NBA history during that time frame. In the most important aspect of coaching, wins and losses, Dunleavy failed quite a bit more than he succeeded.
But you know what? That doesn’t necessarily qualify Dunleavy as a bad coach. Good coaches fail magnificently all the time. Good coaches get fired all the time. Sometimes, for whatever reason, it just doesn’t work.
Just take a look at the resume of one of the best head coaches in professional sports in Bill Belichick. For 5 years, Bill Belichick was head coach of the Cleveland Browns, a franchise permanently hampered with an inordinate amount of bad luck, just like the Clippers. Belichick’s tenure as Browns head coach was pretty similar to Dunleavy’s tenure as Clippers head coach. Belichick had just one winning season in 5 years highlighted by a lone playoff win and a lackluster overall winning percentage of 46%. No one openly blamed the Browns when they let Belichick go. He didn’t produce wins. He deserved to get fired. Did that make Belichick a “bad” coach? Of course not. He was still young and in a less than desirable situation. Dunleavy’s on the opposite end of the spectrum as far as age goes, but he too walked into one of the worst situations in all of sports. Look, I’m not saying Dunleavy is anywhere near the level of coach that Belichick is. All I’m saying is that there are numerous factors that go into being a “good” coach and “bad” coach. The line between success and failure in professional sports is a very thin one. Even the best coaches can find themselves on the wrong side of the line.
Mike Dunleavy is still widely regarded around the league as one of the best X’s and O’s guys out there. He’s an insanely hard worker who puts a ridiculous amount of time into preparation. His post-centric offense and emphasis on defense is a smart formula for winning when executed properly. Despite all this, Dunleavy had trouble consistently winning games. Throughout last season it looked like the players had tuned him out completely by playing uninspired basketball most every night. Like every other follower of the Clippers, I was adamant about Dunleavy being released of his coaching duties. He didn’t have the players’ ears any more. It appeared he had lost the team.
It didn’t look like that was the case this season. Even in the most embarrassing losses of the year, the Clippers fought hard to get back in the game, most notably when none other than Baron Davis scored 23 points in a single quarter in a comeback attempt against Minnesota. I don’t think Baron or the rest of the team ever quit on Dunleavy or the season itself. Unlike prior years, both parties fulfilled their duties. The players played hard, and the head coach tried everything he could to make it work. It just never happened…and maybe it never would have. Sometimes a team needs to hear a new voice, needs that fresh start, needs to have a renewed sense of faith in their leader. I understand that. Mike Dunleavy understands that.
Did Dunleavy deserve to be released from his head coaching duties? Absolutely.
But does that make him a bad coach? I don’t think the answer to that is as cut and dry as it seems.