Expectations too high
Mike Dunleavy is no longer the Clippers' coach because he set the standards too high
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.
When the Clippers signed Dunleavy to a four-year contract in the 2003 offseason, it was hailed as a monumental moment for the franchise. Naysayers told Dunleavy he was nuts to accept a gig with a franchise notorious for its unwillingness to invest in talent. Dunleavy answered that he had been assured that he would have a voice in personnel decisions and that the organization would retain -- and even sign -- free agents.
In the days after the announcement of Dunleavy as coach, the Clippers matched $124 million in offer sheets to keep two of their prized young studs, Elton Brand and Corey Maggette. Along with center Chris Kaman and swingman Bobby Simmons, the Clippers were quickly becoming a young, upstart outfit.
For Dunleavy, a strict formalist who has what one scout calls the thickest playbook in the league, Brand personified everything he could ask for in a star scorer. Brand was a classic power forward with timing, precision and a firm dedication to Dunleavy's preferred sets -- pick-and-rolls and pin-downs that produce good shots from 17 feet in. Brand flourished in Dunleavy's structured offense and quickly became everyone's favorite underrated hero.
In the summer of 2005, Dunleavy added two guards who fit his deliberate style, Cuttino Mobley and Sam Cassell. To put the Mobley signing in perspective, his five-year, $42 million contract was the largest ever extended by the Clippers to an unrestricted free agent. It was an enormous symbolic moment in the history of the franchise, and yet another signal that the worm might have turned for the Clippers.
With Quinton Ross and lanky wunderkind Shaun Livingston added to the mix, Dunleavy had sculpted the 2005-06 Clippers into a team that reflected his coaching sensibilities. Dunleavy now had a backcourt that preferred to back down smaller defenders in a slow, half-court game He had big men who could find shots for themselves on the block, and smalls who knew how to set cross-screens for those bigs. He had shot-blockers all over the court and a defensive specialist in Ross, whom he could stick on any perimeter player in the game. Maggette was Dunleavy's least favorite of the bunch, for his inattentiveness on defense and tendency to stop the ball on offense. But even he had value as a voracious rebounder and a bowling ball who had a gift for drawing contact off the dribble and manufacturing points at the stripe.
When the team earned the first playoff series win in franchise history over Denver in May 2006, it was basketball glasnost for fans of Los Angeles' other team. Dunleavy was widely heralded as a defensive mastermind as the Clippers frustrated Carmelo Anthony into submission. The Clippers lost the conference semifinals to Phoenix in seven games. In the first overtime of Game 5, Dunleavy substituted rookie Daniel Ewing for Cassell with the Clippers leading by three and 3.6 seconds remaining. Ewing's assignment was Raja Bell. After Bell drained a fallaway 3-pointer over an outstretched Ewing, the decision became the first bloody shirt as Dunleavy's fortunes soured in subsequent seasons.
The heartbreak against Phoenix notwithstanding, the good will between the coach and the organization was strong enough to earn Dunleavy a four-year, $22 million extension in December 2006, even as the Clippers were struggling to find their footing in the new season. The Clippers' reliance on Brand down on the left block and lack of outside shooting allowed opponents to sag defensively. Creative adjustments on the fly aren't in Dunleavy's nature, and he could never crack the code, even though Brand continued his individual exploits. Although the defense remained solid, the Clippers stagnated in the half court as they drifted to the bottom third in the league in offensive efficiency. The result was neither entertaining to watch nor, at 40-42, successful enough to return to the postseason.
Brand ruptured his Achilles tendon working out with Kaman in August 2007, an injury that gave Dunleavy a virtual mulligan for the 2007-08 season. Minus Brand, the team floundered with a dispirited Maggette, an aging Cassell and a band of cast-offs reminiscent of the Clippers teams of yore. Brand returned for the last couple of weeks of the season, but it was nothing more than extended rehabilitation.
The nightmare truly began for Dunleavy on July 9, 2008, when Brand -- widely expected to re-sign with the Clippers -- bolted for Philadelphia in the dead of night. The Clippers had lured Baron Davis with the expectation that they would pair the mercurial point guard with Brand to create a potent pick-and-roll tandem. With Brand gone, Dunleavy was robbed of his greatest source of comfort, the one dependable weapon in his offensive arsenal.
Davis' improvisational style was an odd fit for a structuralist such as Dunleavy, who commanded each offensive set from the sideline. Dunleavy insisted that the pairing could work. After all, Dunleavy's preference for post-up guards was widely known. For all his freelancing in the open court, Davis was, above all else, a big, physical 1 who did his most efficient work backing down opposing guards at the left elbow.
Dunleavy the general manager went out and acquired Zach Randolph -- hardly a natural running mate for Davis -- but the team never came together. Kaman, Davis and Randolph all missed significant time to injuries, a fact Dunleavy pointed out on a nightly basis when challenged about his team's performance. When Davis was healthy, he openly questioned Dunleavy's predisposition for structure. Meanwhile, Kaman bemoaned the player movement, stating in an open locker room that he didn't know half his teammates. And the franchise, which had seen record-setting season-ticket purchases after the playoff run, saw that brief spotlight fade as the old punch lines returned.
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.
Kevin Arnovitz is an NBA contributor to ESPN.com and ESPNLosAngeles.com and the author of ClipperBlog.