Donald Sterling’s plan to skip paying ex-GM and coach Mike Dunleavy has apparently backfired. According to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com, the arbitrators of the case awarded Dunleavy $13,517,000 to be paid right away.
While the Clipper Organization disagreed with the ruling (of course), and plan to search out their various options going forward, Dunleavy’s lawyer Mike Clements doesn’t believe there will be any further legal proceedings.
“They’ve got no place to run,” Clements said in a telephone interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com. “This was a binding arbitration. Any lawyer who litigates will tell you that the grounds for challenging an arbitration award are exceedingly narrow and would not apply here.
“An attack on the award would really be an attack on the arbitrator and there’s nothing at all to justify such an attack. That doesn’t mean they might not make it, they might see it as a free shot. But there’s nothing that would justify it.”
The initial defense hinged on Dunleavy’s resignation being true and not forced, however, anyone who had followed the Clippers during that time period would know that Dunleavy was fired. Even still, the Clippers made another misstep, if their argument was to hold water.
Clements also argued since the Clippers paid Dunleavy in full during the month he was acting only as the team’s general manager, it signified the team did not regard him as breaching his contract by resigning as coach.
“There’s a principle of law that intent of the parties to a contract are determined by their conduct before a dispute,” Clements said.
“They continued to pay Mike a full salary due under the contract for a month, then out of the blue they fired him, never gave him any explanation and didn’t pay him a penny.
“If he had resigned as they said, then why did they continue to pay him if they didn’t owe him? It was just nonsensical.”
Now, the Clippers will have to pay Dunleavy more than they would have if they would have just paid the rest of his contract.
Dunleavy was fired in the fourth year of a five-year, $22-million contract. The award reflects both the money that remained due on the contract, money that had been deferred, and interest on the money Dunleavy would’ve collected had the Clippers been paying him since March 2010. The arbitrator ordered that it be paid immediately.
Not only was this a mistake financially (plus there had to be legal fees), but it was just yet another bad bit of publicity for both the NBA and the Clippers. The NBA has had many run-ins with Sterling, and at least this one was minor in comparison to the past gaffes, but refusing to pay a coach just looks tacky and unprofessional.
But the bigger issue is how this will affect the Clipper teams in the future. The Clipper coaching job has rarely been an attractive position, largely due to outsized expectations for pretty mediocre talent, although that has dramatically changed now with Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon on the team. And if VDN morphs into an top level coach, this won’t be an issue (I mean, Doc Rivers turned into a great coach, so VDN can, right? Right?). But if VDN doesn’t improve and the team needs to find a very good head coach, then Sterling’s and the Clippers’ prerogative to force the fired coach to take legal action to pay is a huge reason to not join the team. After all, even teams loaded with talent don’t always win games at the rate of that talent, and that usually gets blamed on the coaching staff. Forgiveness is not doled out to coaches in large quantities, but rather exchanged for their high pay and the contracts that are long enough to rarely be lived out. However, with the Clippers fighting for every penny from their coaches, regardless of how low they have to stoop, they won’t be quite as attractive to excellent head coaches.