Mike Dunleavy has stepped down as the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, but will remain general manger of the team. The Clippers have needed a new coach for a while now, and this move should only help them. But Dunleavy staying on as GM leads to a host of new questions.
First off, Mike Dunleavy is a pretty good coach. LA fans may remember that Jerry West pulled him out of nowhere to replace Pat Riley in 1990, and was rewarded when Dunleavy guided the Lakers to an upset over Portland in the 1991 Western Conference Finals. A few months later, Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive, and Dunleavy still rallied the Lakers to a playoff appearance.
Afterward, Dunleavy left for Milwaukee to become the Bucks' Coach/GM and after several lousy years, he stepped down as coach while remaining as GM (sound familiar?). That arrangement lasted one season before Dunleavy was hired to be the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers. He guided Portland to two consecutive Western Conference Finals, doing his best to keep the talented "Jail Blazers" under control.
With the Clippers, Dunleavy led the team to its most successful season ever, a 2006 appearance in the second round of the playoffs, one round further than the Lakers. But Dunleavy's Clippers never came close to repeating that success. Part of that was due to injuries which seemed to ravage the team every year. But Dunleavy no longer seemed able to motivate his players and his defensive-oriented system clearly did not suit his personnel. He especially clashed with Baron Davis who thrives in a more up-tempo system, like the one he played in Golden State.
Most basketball observers felt Dunleavy should have been fired last year, or even earlier, but it's been widely assumed that Donald Sterling didn't want to pay the $5.5 million a year Dunleavy is owed through next year and a whole other coaching staff. Before today, Dunleavy was the only coach/GM in the NBA, and it's very difficult to do both jobs at the same time. But again, Sterling reportedly didn't want to have to pay for a new GM as well.
Kim Hughes is the new interim coach of the Clippers and no one knows what to expect from him. It's interesting that he was the assistant chosen over John Lucas, who actually has head coaching experience, but Dunleavy told ESPN Radio's Steve Mason and John Ireland that he felt Hughes was more familiar with the players.
The real question is how Dunleavy will continue to impact the Clippers as GM. There's no other NBA GM who makes close to $5.5 million a year, so it remains to be seen if he will stay on after next season. We also don't know if Hughes will be given a shot at becoming the permanent head coach, or if the Clippers will want to bring in a more established coach next year. And we have no idea what role Dunleavy will play in hiring a new coach. I actually think that Dunleavy has done a reasonably good job with personnel moves since Elgin Baylor left, finding ways to obtain cap space while still bringing in quality talent.
With Davis, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, and others, the Clippers have the talent to be a playoff team. Next year, they'll get a major boost with Blake Griffin coming back. But the Clippers need a coach who will run a more up-tempo offense to suit Davis' strengths.
Byron Scott would sound like a great candidate except that him and Davis did not get along in New Orleans. Avery Johnson might also be a good choice, but he would probably want to take more control of the team than Dunleavy would allow. Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau is long overdue for a head coaching job, but he might be more defensive oriented than the Clippers need.
If there's one thing we've learned about Donald Sterling's coaching hires, it's that you can expect the unexpected. Kim Hughes is now the Sterling's 17th head coach in the 20 years he's owned the franchise. But this is an organization that has the potential to be successful and just needs the right coach to lead them. The current arrangement simply comes with more questions.
Earlier this evening I spoke with Fred Roggin about Dunleavy and also gave my Super Bowl pick on The Filter.