- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Take a second to imagine all that raw talent on the Clippers' roster being handed to the best free-agent coach on the market this summer.
Jeff Van Gundy.
Now forget that was ever suggested.
There's no point dwelling too long on the intoxicating prospect of Van Gundy teaching the Clippers' kiddies how to play, or anyone from that coaching class, because owner Donald T. Sterling is not going to pay for that sort of hire. There are perpetual whispers about Pat Riley or Larry Brown being lured back to L.A. -- assuming, of course, they got divorced from their current teams -- but the reality of Sterling's stewardship renders those ideas fantasies, too.
Sterling is loathe to spend on his free agents and isn't willing to burn any of his considerable profits on the guy who decides who plays. All of which explains why Dennis Johnson, named Monday as the interim replacement for the fired Alvin Gentry, actually has a chance to stick beyond the final 23 games of the club's latest lost-at-sea season.
It's probably not a great chance, given that DJ was beaten out for the job by Gentry in the summer of 2000. It's also true that a 24-game stint isn't much time to prove oneself, because the Clippers long since lost touch with a legitimate playoff run. We might have learned more about DJ's readiness had the change come, say, at the All-Star break.
Yet it's still more likely that Johnson will be coaching the Clippers next season compared to any of the established bench men who will be looking for work this summer. Your Mike Dunleavys and Mike Fratellos, in other words.
There won't be a long line of big-name applicants, knowing what Sterling will be offering and especially after the way this season played out. Coming off a 39-43 finish in 2001-02 that made L.A.'s longtime laughingstock franchise hipper than ever, the unraveling started with an opening night loss to Cleveland and didn't stop. By the time Gentry was dismissed -- despite season-long signals he would survive the season -- the Clippers were in last place in the Pacific Division at 19-39 and firmly established as the biggest disappointment in town, having squandered the prized opportunity to capitalize on the Lakers' 11-19 start with a spotlight-stealing run of their own.
On a long list of culprits, Gentry has to accept some culpability. In those 39 defeats, the Clippers gave away an eye-popping 19 fourth-quarter leads. Coaching has to factor in there somewhere, and general manager Elgin Baylor made it clear he wants to restore some defense and discipline.
"Alvin is a laid-back type of guy," Baylor said. "I think DJ will be a no-nonsense type of coach. At this point, that's the type of coach we need. From a defensive standpoint, he definitely can add something. He was one of the best defensive players in basketball, and that's one area we're probably the weakest in. We haven't been a very good defensive team and we should be because we have good athletes."
The Clippers' steady stream of injuries, starting in training camp, didn't help Gentry, and the Clippers' players haven't bathed themselves in glory. The coach, dare we say, didn't blow 19 fourth-quarter leads by himself. Andre Miller, the new point guard expected to spark a playoff push, has admittedly struggled to settle in his hometown. Gentry, meanwhile, had nothing to do with Lamar Odom, Michael Olowokandi and Quentin Richardson admitting in a Jan. 6 team meeting that the Clips had been playing selfishly all season.
Of course, in the end, the bulk of blame is rightfully heaped on Sterling, whose two-decade ownership run has yet to convince anyone that he is committed to winning anything. The Clippers' popularity gains in the past year-plus have made Sterling's team more profitable than ever, but he still hasn't re-signed even one of his prominent free agents to a long-term extension, just to prove he's willing.
Once extension talks with Olowokandi broke off, and the Elton Brand negotiations were put off until this summer, Gentry figured he'd eventually be fired. Human nature suggests that the locker room inhabitants were bound to look out for their self-interests with so much uncertainty about the future.
If it were solely Baylor's call to make the contract decisions, the Clippers probably wouldn't be in such straits. That's because Baylor likes much of the talent he has accrued and surely would have locked some of it up by now.
But contracts aren't handed out at Baylor's discretion and it's tough to predict who will or won't be back. Olowokandi is an unrestricted free agent and certain to bolt, but beyond that, the Clippers' other "stars" are all restricted free agents: Brand, Odom, Miller and Corey Maggette. If any of these four signs an offer sheet with a new team in the offseason, they run the risk that Sterling shocks the world and matches, potentially locking them into this environment long-term.
The next coaching search, by contrast, is a little easier to handicap, even if the timing of the switch Monday was curious. The Clips stood by Gentry at Christmas, when Atlanta jettisoned Lon Kruger after a similar start, and brought Gentry back after All-Star Weekend when some players thought a change was coming. Now, with less than a third of the schedule left and no playoff berth to chase, Johnson is asked to take over.
Cynics will say Sterling, fresh off finally signing a multi-year television contract to broadcast Clippers games locally, suddenly pushed for Gentry's immediate dismissal because the team had become unwatchable, clearly tuning out the coach as it settled into a 3-14 funk.
Longtime Clipper-watchers know that, for Johnson, the next 20-plus games really can amount to an audition. He's willing to work on Sterling's terms and that, at least for now, makes him next season's leading candidate.