Dunleavy fires back at Sterling for ultimatum
Round 2, and in addition to getting the impression that Elgin Baylor has been technically knocked aside as Clippers general manager, Mike Dunleavy came out swinging, telling Donald Sterling, you want to make a change in coaches, “Be my guest.”
“It would be the biggest mistake you ever made,” Dunleavy said Tuesday in response to Sterling’s win-now-or-else comments made here a day earlier.
“It’s his team and he can do whatever he likes . . . but look, you can find any coach you want, bring him in here and run the situation. But I don’t think they are going to do as good a job as I do. And that’s period.”
Dunleavy said he was “shocked” by Sterling’s critical remarks, and while Sterling maintained the Clippers “absolutely” can still have a successful season and put it on Dunleavy, the coach said, “Where we are today as far as making the playoffs, nobody in their right mind would bet on that.”
For most folks around here, you say Sterling isn’t in his right mind, and you’re not going to get much of an argument.
But Sterling sounded different Monday, blaming himself for the team’s wretched history, and insisting now he will do whatever it takes to put a winner on the court.
To accomplish that, Sterling said, the coach needs to do a better job. The coach, meanwhile, said he has been sabotaged by people in the Clippers organization who have no business making basketball decisions.
“In my humble opinion,” Dunleavy said, “yes, that’s the situation.”
He said the Clippers’ present plight was predictable, and so over the summer he worked on a pair of deals the front office nixed -- contending now they would’ve made the team more competitive.
“You give me the budget,” Dunleavy said, “and I’m going to be OK with it. I’m not asking anyone to go to the luxury tax.
“But if we gather information and put deals in place that I think benefit the team and somebody who is not in basketball operations disagrees with it, sorry, you’ve just taken it out of my hands.”
Dunleavy thought he had a deal with Dallas in the summer to trade Corey Maggette, eligible for free agency after this season, for guard Jason Terry. But Sterling, who has said he will not meddle in player personnel but who has always professed a desire to keep Maggette in a Clippers uniform, refused to approve the trade.
Dunleavy also wanted to sign former San Antonio free-agent guard Beno Udrih, but the Clippers’ bean counter, Andy Roeser, decided Udrih wasn’t worth the money it would take to sign him.
Dunleavy said he thought Baylor was in agreement on both deals, but couldn’t recall for sure. He suggested calling Baylor.
“We discussed those deals and Dunleavy knows that,” Baylor said. “Once I knew Maggette wanted to be here and I believed we could sign Maggette [at the end of this season], I wanted to keep him here.”
As for Udrih, Baylor said, “It didn’t make a difference to me” whether the Clippers signed him.
Put it all together, and internally the Clippers appear to be a mess, with Dunleavy implying it would be best if everyone just got out of the way and allowed him to plot the team’s future.
“We are in a great situation as long as basketball people around here make the basketball decisions,” Dunleavy said. “As long as I am here, I’ll take full responsibility for it, and I guarantee you everybody is going to be happy.”
Dunleavy said everything was going just fine for the Clippers, which means everyone was listening to him, until he pushed Sterling into spending $55 million on a contract extension for Chris Kaman.
“I went to bat for Kaman, [Sterling] stepped up to pay the money to get him, then last year Kaman got injured early, and while he didn’t have a great year, he didn’t have a terrible year,” Dunleavy said. “But based on that, they stopped drinking the Kool-Aid and some suggestions and some of the things that I wanted to go forward with, we didn’t do.”
An improved Kaman now appears worth the big money, re-enforcing Dunleavy’s contention that he knows what he’s doing, which puts him in direct conflict with Sterling.
Sterling invited Baylor to join the Monday interview, and then said he expected better out of Dunleavy and Baylor, or changes will be made. As part of that discussion, he says he expects Baylor to do what he can to acquire a good player before the trading deadline, a player with the potential to turn the Clippers’ season around.
Dunleavy found that almost laughable. “Are we getting Kobe, Dwyane Wade or LeBron James? I would agree with that, but even with those guys right now, we’d have to go [something like] 34-10 to make the playoffs.
“I would only make deals to help our future -- anything else is suicide. Anything else and you become the New York Knicks. Now if you want to do that and take on big contracts and long-term deals to potentially hit a home run or get some kind of turnaround, that’s not the direction I would go as a businessman or if I owned the team.”
Sterling’s directive, though, to improve the team by the trading deadline makes one wonder whether he’s setting Baylor up to take the fall for this season’s disastrous record. He still owes Dunleavy $17 million on a contract, and if Dunleavy is so determined to call all the shots, then why not let him?
“I don’t know of any team that’s going to give up a terrific player and Donald T. understands that,” Baylor said, which tells me he wasn’t listening when Sterling spoke. "[Dunleavy] isn’t acting as GM and coach. Those jobs come with specific descriptions. He’s not running the show; we operate as a team.”
Dunleavy said he and Baylor agree for the most part, but spend any time around Dunleavy and without question he’s moving ahead with a plan of his own. Should Baylor agree with it, great.
Baylor said he’s not worried that he will be the one to be dismissed at season’s end, but Sterling’s comments with Baylor sitting at the other end of the room Monday were the first in memory to be directed so pointedly at Baylor.
As for Dunleavy, Baylor wouldn’t say whether he agreed with Sterling’s suggestion that some of the players need more coaching.
Dunleavy, though, showed no such restraint. “I totally disagree with that. I can disagree. [Sterling is] saying it, but I don’t buy it. I don’t think it’s factual.”
Dunleavy says he has respect for Sterling, and said he signed on to be coach of the team believing Sterling would do what it took to field a winner, even though others felt differently.
But he disputed Sterling’s contention that injuries cannot be used as an excuse for a team now with only 12 wins.
“I’m not using injuries as an excuse,” Dunleavy said before using injuries as an excuse. “But you can’t put your head in the sand either. We have $30 million in players sitting in suits at each game because of injuries. Let’s go into every game and let me take $20 [million] to $30 million off everybody’s bench.
“I think our franchise is in great shape. There are a lot of other teams struggling in this league and they’ve got no hope. We don’t have a chance to be good, we have a chance to be really good.”
Dunleavy says he appreciates Sterling’s frustration, and believes some of it might have to do with season-ticket renewals, but he says Clippers fans understand what’s going on, and will have the patience to hang with the team.
“I’m not sure we’re packing enough faith in our fans; I think our fans are more intelligent and sophisticated and understand,” he said.
“Anybody who knows basketball, they know what we have and what we’re sitting on when Brand and Shaun Livingston come back. As long as you guys don’t raise ticket prices, they tell me, I’m happy and I’m on board.”
Sterling still wants the Clippers to win now, and while Dunleavy said he concurs, he said, “maybe it’s a flaw I have, but I never think in short terms as coach. I always think in terms if I owned this team what would I do.”
As I said, at times he comes across as owner-GM-bean counter and coach.
“I’ve never walked away from a fair fight in my life, and I’ve never backed down from speaking the truth,” Dunleavy said.
“I’m totally willing to be the guy on the line; just let me do it. You put the trust in me, gave me the contract, so let me do what I want to do and if it doesn’t work out, it’s all on me. I’m more than happy to take it, and confident we’ll be successful.”
T.J. Simers can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Simers, go to latimes.com/simers.