- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Los Angeles Clippers are rapidly undergoing their most radical transformation since Mike Dunleavy came aboard as head coach in 2003. With Dunleavy dismissed -- first as coach in early February, then as general manager earlier this month -- the Clippers are finishing the season with former assistant coach Kim Hughes on the sideline. They also have promoted assistant general manager Neil Olshey to general manager.
Sources around the league maintain that, barring extraordinary circumstances, Olshey will be the Clippers' man in the front office going forward, but things are less settled on the coaching front. Even if you buy the Clippers' line that the job is Hughes' to lose, compiling a 5-16 record isn't the best way to forsake the interim tag.
Hughes laid out two goals when he took over the team: get out and run, and buckle down on defense. The Clippers averaged 94.3 possessions per game under Dunleavy and just 95.2 under Hughes, a marginal gain. Truth be told, the Clippers aren't equipped to play much faster than that, something Hughes suggests that he now grasps.
It's a bit harder to gauge Hughes' performance as a defensive coach because the Clippers traded away Marcus Camby, one of the best basket protectors in the league, three games into Hughes' tenure. But one fact is indisputable:
The Clippers have been a horrible defensive team under Hughes.
How bad? The Toronto Raptors have the NBA's most porous defense, allowing 110.1 points per 100 possessions. In Hughes' 21 games as head coach, the Clippers have allowed 112.3 points per 100 possessions.
There's some thought that the Clippers might keep the head-coaching job vacant into the free-agent period -- a tacit signal to a certain superstar that signing with the Clips would entitle him to choose his own coach. Barring that improbability, it's likely the Clippers will soon be in the market for their next head coach, presumably someone they envision sticking around to build a winner. It will be an enormous hire for a franchise with an intriguing core of talent and more help on the way.
What should the Clippers be looking for?
There are countless variables to consider. Should the organization spend the money on a top-shelf coach with a winning pedigree? How important is the capacity to coexist with Baron Davis? Given the pair of 21-year-olds to which the Clippers are staking their future, should player development be a priority? Should the Clippers look for a coach more inclined to push the ball, or would a half-court practitioner be better? Why not roll the dice on a high-risk/high-reward innovator, even if the résumé is shorter?
The Clippers have plenty of choices, but here are some of the better ones:
Tried and true: Jeff Van Gundy
If the Clippers want a proven entity who can build the necessary infrastructure to win, Van Gundy would be the choice. He has compiled a career coaching record of 430-318, with an additional 44 postseason victories -- and the Clippers would have to compensate Van Gundy for that record of success. The former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach would create a culture of accountability. He ranks defense and rebounding as the most important attributes for success. Offensively, Van Gundy traditionally has implemented deliberate pick-and-roll offenses around dominant centers. That kind of structuralism probably would not be to Davis' liking. But if Davis is truly interested in winning, he'll sublimate his stylistic preferences and work with Van Gundy to construct an inside-out offense where Blake Griffin and Chris Kaman can flourish.
Deserves a second chance: Dwane Casey
Recent history has been kinder to Casey than the Minnesota Timberwolves were in January 2007. They fired Casey when the team was 20-20 in his second season as head coach -- an overachievement when you look at the Wolves' opening night roster that season. Minnesota has won fewer than a quarter of its games since (and went only 12-30 under Randy Wittman the rest of the way in 2006-07, never winning consecutive games). Casey is a creative, defensive-minded coach who has compiled a fascinating array of experiences. He coached the Japanese national team for five years with luminary Pete Newell, then spent 11 years on the Seattle bench alongside George Karl, Paul Westphal and Nate McMillan. Casey is widely praised for his organizational skills and his passion for X's and O's. McMillan, in particular, trusted Casey to prep both him and the team with a coherent plan before each game. In Seattle, Casey also became familiar with the implementation of advanced stats while Dean Oliver was with the team. Casey is an assistant to Rick Carlisle in Dallas and has been a finalist in both Chicago and Philadelphia. In retrospect, he was probably the right choice for both teams, and he would be a smart pick for the Clippers.
From the assistant ranks: Elston Turner
How's this for a résumé bullet point? The Rockets' 2009 playoff run. As a longtime assistant to Rick Adelman -- first in Sacramento, now in Houston -- Turner is a key reason the Rockets consistently take the floor as one of the best-prepared teams in the league. He earns universal praise for his intuitive grasp of the pro game and, just an important, his ability to communicate that knowledge to players. The Rockets' cross-matching, defensive flexibility and prompt rotations gave the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers fits last spring, and much of that effort was conceived by Turner on the Rockets' dry erase board. What kind of offense would Turner bring to the Clippers? First-time head coaches -- particularly those who have focused on defense -- often deploy the offensive systems they learned from the mentor. In Turner's case, that would mean installing Adelman's read-and-react corner offense in Los Angeles. The Adelman motion-oriented system is a smart combination of improvisation and structure. There is very little play calling from the sideline, something Davis would appreciate. But players have specific imperatives to space, cut and screen within the confines of a three-man game. Turner has been a finalist for head-coaching jobs in recent seasons, specifically in Sacramento and Phoenix. He would bring fresh life to an organization looking to change both its culture and the way it conducts business on the court.
University challenge: Jay Wright
The list of marquee college coaches who have successfully made the jump to NBA head coach is very short. Whether it's because pro athletes are less malleable or because the schematics of the pro game are so different from the NCAA, the transition has humbled everyone from John Calipari to Lon Kruger. Many current NBA head coaches have some college experience, but most put in their time as assistants before assuming their duties as leading men. Among the current crop of Division I coaches, Villanova's Wright inspires the most confidence among executives around the league (though there's still a collective skittishness in NBA front offices about reaching into the college ranks for a head coach). Wright has two things going for him that would give him a fighting chance: presence and creativity. Those fond of Wright note that he's confident, honest and affable and has the right kind of temperament to impress players at the next level. In addition, the four-guard offense he's been running at Villanova would translate very well to an increasingly perimeter-oriented pro game. At some point, a high-profile college coach will crack the code. Will Wright be that guy?
European import: Ettore Messina
The arrival of European players in the past decade has had a profound stylistic influence on NBA basketball, as have the offensive schemes of Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, who coached eight seasons in Italy. It's only a matter of time before NBA front offices examine the pool of coaching talent in Europe the way they scout junior national teams abroad. Many believe that Messina, who is currently leading Real Madrid in Euroleague playoffs, belongs in the NBA if he so desires. In his four years with CSKA Moscow between 2006 and 2009, Messina led the Red Army to two Euroleague titles and two runner-up finishes. Messina has been a master of smart, inside-out basketball. He likes to rely on his big men to initiate the offense with strong pick-and-rolls, with shooters spacing the floor along the perimeter. Messina's name has surfaced in conjunction with several NBA coaching vacancies in the past couple of years. The prospect of his drawing up offensive schemes for Davis and Kaman, developing Griffin into a complete post player, and refining Eric Gordon's playmaking is nothing short of fascinating.
Biggest upside: Dave Joerger
When teams go into rebuilding mode, the smart ones exercise patience and prepare for the long term. They accumulate a collection of young, talented players who can grow together. Why not meet the challenge of selecting a head coach with the same approach? Rather than hire a retread or go for the flashy name, the Clippers could ask themselves, "Who is the brightest young coaching prospect in the NBA?" Put that question to enough NBA insiders, and you'll hear Joerger's name more than a few times. The 36-year-old Memphis Grizzlies assistant came up through the IBA, CBA and the D-League, where he won five championships in seven years as a head coach. Last July at NBA Summer League, Joerger coached the Grizzlies' squad. The team's perfect record was not just a product of its collective potential. The Grizz were simply better-prepared, more motivated and far more innovative than the competition. In person, Joerger comes across as a guy with a plan. He's fluent in X's and O's, but also aware that outworking your opponent is often the best recipe for success. When they meet for training camp this fall, the Clippers likely will have three top-10 picks on their roster ages 21 or under -- Griffin, Gordon and this June's lottery selection. A young coach with similar promise could be the best way to build something meaningful in Los Angeles.
Kevin Arnovitz is an NBA contributor to ESPN.com and ESPNLosAngeles.com and the author of ClipperBlog.
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