The Clippers, floundering near the bottom in their first National Basketball Assn. season in Los Angeles, fired Coach Jim Lynam Wednesday morning and replaced him, at least for the time being, with assistant Don Chaney.
At a Sports Arena press conference about six hours before the Clippers' game with the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night, General Manager Carl Scheer cited the Clippers' 22-39 record as the reason for Lynam's dismissal. Chaney will coach the team for the final 21 games.
A decision on a permanent coach will be made after the season, but Chaney is considered the top candidate. Lynam, 43, was in the final year of his two-year contract and will be paid for the next six weeks. Chaney has not yet negotiated a new contract.
"This move gives us an opportunity to view the team under Don Chaney's direction and see how it responds," Scheer said. "We have a lot of problems, and I'm not expecting Don to be a miracle worker. It will give us a new direction and a fresh approach. It was my opinion that the team was not moving in a positive way."
Chaney, 38, played in the NBA for 12 years and was on the Boston Celtics' championship teams in 1969 and 1974. After retiring in 1980, he was an assistant with Detroit for three seasons and had been Lynam's top assistant the last two seasons.
"This is a big moment for me," Chaney said. "It's similar to winning the playoffs."
Lynam ended his two-year reign as the Clippers' coach with an overall record of 52-91. Last season at San Diego, the Clippers finished in the Pacific Division cellar with a 30-52 mark. Going into Wednesday night's game, they were six games behind Utah for the last Western Conference playoff berth and had lost six straight games and 17 of their last 20.
The Clippers have the worst record in the NBA since the halfway point of the season. Lynam's final two games as coach were losses on consecutive nights to Golden State and Kansas City, two of the four teams with worse records.
After Sunday night's overtime loss to the Kings at the Sports Arena, Scheer seriously began considering a coaching change, he said. Tuesday afternoon, Scheer met with Clipper owner Donald T. Sterling, president Alan Rothenberg and general counsel Arn Tellam.
"It was a unanimous decision," said Scheer, who added that Sterling had not ordered a change. "We all reviewed where we are going and what needed to be done."
Wednesday morning, Scheer called in Lynam, Chaney and Brad Greenberg--the club's other assistant coach--and told them the news. Greenberg, who played for and coached with Lynam in college, will remain as Chaney's assistant.
Although his job security had been in question since early in the season, Lynam said Wednesday afternoon from his Manhattan Beach home that his firing was "mildly surprising."
A week ago Wednesday, after the Clippers had lost to Houston, Scheer said he called Lynam at home and said that barring "unforeseen circumstances," Lynam would not be replaced, at least until the end of the season April 14.
At that time, Scheer had said: "I told Jimmy not to worry about being replaced. . . . It would take 46 straight blowout losses and a riot in the locker room for me to replace Jimmy now."
Explaining his startling reversal, Scheer said at Wednesday's press conference that the losses to Golden State last Saturday and to Kansas City Sunday had convinced him that the team was in need of immediate change.
"I had hoped to be able to wait until the end of the season," Scheer said. "That had been my objective. But I weighed the direction the club was going and I felt it wouldn't be in the franchise's best interest to keep it going the same way. When you have a guy in a coma, you look for signs of life. But in our case, the machine showed a flat line.
"This, obviously, was not an easy decision. It's one I've wrestled with for a long time." Lynam said he had not felt misled by Scheer's vote of confidence.
"It was mildly surprising," he said, sounding upbeat as usual. "You know that (being fired) was a possibility. But the timing of it was surprising to a slight degree. I think the problem in Carl's mind was that, lately, we had not won games in which we have played well enough to win.
"I really can't honestly say that I felt more pressure than any other NBA coach feels. Everybody has pressure to win, and I certainly felt that."
In his 14 years as an executive in the defunct American Basketball Assn. and the NBA, Scheer has earned a reputation as a general manager who does not meddle in daily coaching decisions. About two weeks ago, though, Scheer met with Lynam and made several strong suggestions. Scheer told Lynam to pick up the tempo offensively and to use rookie guard Lancaster Gordon, who had spent most of the season on the bench.
"Since Jimmy and I had that conversation, it still hasn't improved even though he tried," Scheer said. "The team's problems can be attributed to a combination of things. But the result is that we had won only 3 of our last 20 games. When you stop playing teams like the Lakers and Philadelphia and still can't be competitive against Golden State and Kansas City, you need to do something."
Scheer would not specifically discuss Lynam's failings, but Clipper players have privately complained about Lynam's insistence on using a set offense and his inability to relate to veteran players.
After being told of the change Wednesday morning, several players defended Lynam.
Said center Bill Walton: "I'm not a big believer in blaming the coach for the players not playing well. Certainly, there are things that haven't been under Jimmy's control. I have been injured for five or six weeks, and we've had a lot of other injuries."
Said guard Derek Smith: "I never once said Jimmy did a lousy job coaching and I'm not going to say it now. The players just haven't done well. I'm man enough to take some of the blame and I hope the other guys are man enough, too."
Said guard Norm Nixon: "You're never really ready for a coaching change. Jimmy did the best he could. Right now, we have to salvage the season. It's hard to change now, because we're three-quarters of the way down the stream."
So Chaney, who is very popular among Clipper players, will be in charge of the final quarter of the season. After 17 years in pro basketball as a player and assistant coach, he said he has no doubt that he's prepared to become a head coach.
"Right off, I think there will be a change," he said. "Looking back at the history of the NBA, after a coaching change, teams win their next couple of games. I plan to make a lot of demands on the players and I hope they respond."
The Clippers, under Chaney's direction, figure to be a running team on offense and to use a defensive trap in many situations. Chaney said that style is similar to the one used by the Celtic teams on which he played.
"I also want this team to get closer together," Chaney said. "Our effort, especially on defense, this season has left a lot to be desired. You must change faces when you become a head coach. But because I'm a former player, I know what goes through a player's mind."
Lynam said that Chaney would have been his choice as a replacement.
"I think it certainly was the logical and intelligent choice," he said. "If you make a move at this point, you should go with someone who knows the team."
Obviously, Chaney is hoping to become more than the interim coach. He said that he feels no pressure to turn the Clippers around immediately. "I believe that winning now would help me in the future, but in speaking with Carl about the situation and timing, he doesn't expect miracles from me," Chaney said.
Lynam said he will stay in Southern California for the next few weeks. He said he still feels challenged by the NBA but has not ruled out returning to college coaching, where he experienced success at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia.
"Jimmy came in with a lot of class, and he leaves with a great deal of class," Scheer said. "He'll go on to other coaching jobs and have great success. I don't think the book is closed on Jim Lynam."
But Lynam's chapter with the Clippers has been written.