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October 7, 2008

Elgin Baylor Leaves Clippers

After 22 years Elgin Baylor has left the Clippers under some bizarre circumstances. Apparently the end didn't go so well for Baylor, who upon his departure could only say:
"There is a dispute, and on the advice of my attorney they did not want me to discuss it ... That's all I can say."

It's sad to see Baylor leave this way, considering the 22 years of extreme loyalty he has shown Donald Sterling and the Clipper organization.

Baylor has had one of the most fascinating careers of anyone in the NBA. Up until his death, Chick Hearn always said that Baylor was the best player he ever saw. And Baylor was the first real superstar in Los Angeles basketball history when the Lakers moved here from Minneapolis.

He became the Clippers GM in 1986 and developed one of the worst track records of any executive to ever run any NBA team. However, his record should be viewed in context. Conventional wisdom has always been that Baylor was repeatedly hamstrung by Donald Sterling, who prevented the GM from acquiring any players that were remotely expensive. If reports are to believed, Baylor had numerous trade deals killed by Sterling and his tight budget, and the Clippers were never serious contenders for any high quality free agent. This manifested itself in the Clippers being an organization of misery, one in which players wanted to get out as quickly as they arrived.

When Baylor finally was given the opportunity to use a larger portion of the salary cap, he wound up acquiring Elton Brand and a host of complementary players that would lead the Clippers to the Western Conference Semi-Finals in 2006 and earn Baylor Executive of the Year honors.

Still, I would argue that Baylor deserves plenty of responsibility for the shortcomings of the Clippers through the past two decades. When a GM is running a team on a tight budget, it is incumbent on that GM to be creative. Prior to about 2000 or 2001, what Baylor was allowed to try, failed spectacularly for the most part.

Additionally, low-budget GMs need to draft well, and no GM in NBA history has drafted more first round busts than Baylor. His list of first round draft picks includes Reggie Williams, Joe Wolf, Danny Ferry (who refused to play in LA), Bo Kimble, LeRon Ellis, Randy Woods, Elmore Spencer, Terry Dehere, Lamond Murray, Greg Minor, Lorenzen Wright, Michael Olowokandi, Darius Miles, Melvin Ely, and Yaroslav Korolev. It's very hard to build a strong organization, when your team almost goes 0-for-the-1990s in the draft, especially when most of those picks are in the lottery. Baylor's best picks in the 1990s were his draft day trade for Brent Barry, his pick of decent power forward Loy Vaught, and his selection of Lamar Odom, even though Odom was never happy with the Clippers and left for Miami as soon as he could.

Still, some time around 2000 or 20001, something seemed to click for Baylor. While Sterling opened up the purse strings a bit, Baylor started making some very solid moves. He made several clever moves on draft day in 2000 including one that brought in Corey Maggette, and on draft day in 2001, he acquired Elton Brand. Some of his other moves also worked out, as he traded Marko Jaric for Sam Cassell, recognized that he shouldn't give max contracts to Maurice Taylor and Michael Olowokandi, and shrewdly drafted Chris Kaman and Al Thornton.

Unfortunately for Baylor, he was also the victim of bad luck and difficult circumstances. The franchise very nearly stole Kobe Bryant from the Lakers, but ultimately that didn't work out. Shaun Livingston suffered one of the worst knee injuries one could ever witness, and his career stalled as a result. And just days after pulling off a coup in signing Baron Davis, Baylor saw his organization get screwed over by Elton Brand who signed with Philadelphia after leading the Clippers to believe he'd stay.

By the last few years of Baylor's tenure, it also seemed like Mike Dunleavy was effectively calling the shots in the front office. Still, Baylor never publicly complained, and he appeared to play an important role in the decision-making process. Oddly enough, Dunleavy now takes over the GM role at a time when just months earlier, he was feuding with Sterling through TJ Simers' columns in the LA Times. One wonders just how this situation will play itself out.

At the end of the day, Baylor is a great basketball man, who showed remarkable loyalty to the Clippers organization for years. While it's unfair to blame him for most of the Clippers misfortunes -- that responsibility ultimately lies with the owner -- he does deserve criticism for his draft picks and many of his smaller scale moves. Still, I'd argue that in the past few years, Baylor has been a pretty solid GM, and the Clippers should be praising his years of service rather than forcing him out the door.

At the age of 74, it seems unlikely that Baylor will become an NBA GM again. This may be an opportune time for him to be reconnected with the Laker organization though, where he enjoyed his playing success, and serve as some sort of consultant. He has plenty of basketball wisdom to offer.

October 5, 2008

Dodgers Advance to NLCS

The Dodgers won their first playoff series in 20 years tonight, beating the Cubs 3-1 to complete a remarkable 3 game sweep. The Dodgers were clearly the better team in the series, outplaying the Cubs in every single game.

James Loney once again stepped up with a big hit and Russell Martin seems like he's in a zone for the playoffs. Hiroki Kuroda, Cory Wade, and Jonathan Broxton all got out of jams, preventing the Cubs from doing any damage. Broxton really seemed to grow up tonight, and his stuff looked about as good as I've ever seen it.

Next the Dodgers face either the Phillies or the Brewers. With the way the team has played over the past few weeks, one would think that LA will be the favorite in the NLCS. The Phillies are a stronger team with one of the best lineups in the game. Their pitching staff isn't that strong after Cole Hamels, and their bullpen is above-average but not spectacular. Milwaukee limped into the playoffs, and I'm not sure if they have much left. They need to rely on CC Sabathia getting fabulous starts, but that might not happen if he keeps going on short rest.

Regardless, tonight's victory is certainly one to savor for Dodgers. There's been a ton of frustration with this team for past 20 years, and it's great to see them finally breakthrough.

October 3, 2008

Dodgers Up, Angels Down

--The Dodgers now have a 2-0 series lead against the Cubs, and all of Chicago is in panic. The Cubs certainly did everything they could to lose Game 2, as each of their infielders committed at least one error, but some credit should go to the Dodger pitching staff.Chad Billingsley has been the best young pitcher on the West Coast this season not named Lincecum, and he proved his worth in shutting down the Cubs lineup.

Now we'll see how the Dodgers do against an excellent pitcher in Rich Harden. The Dodgers need to continue working the count against Harden (who doesn't have a ton of stamina), and try to get to the bullpen early.

So far the Cubs have dominated the national media narrative for this series. While I'd like to see the Dodgers get a little more credit for their solid play since the Ramirez deal, it's not bad for the pressure to be place upon someone else.

--After winning 100 regular season games, the Angels are now down 2-0 in their series with the Red Sox. The Angels have a terrific team, but I don't like how their roster is built for the postseason.

I've always felt that power is an underrated commodity in the postseason, and acquiring Mark Teixeira didn't turn the Angels into a great power hitting team overnight. They don't have the power depth to match the Red Sox. The Halos had 11 hits tonight, and 10 of them were singles.

Pitching-wise, the Angels are stronger than Boston on paper, but in a short series the Red Sox have the horses to compete. Also, the Halos have to be disappointed with their "Cy Young candidate" or "MVP candidate" in Francisco Rodriguez. As I noted a few weeks ago, his record save total would be far more impressive if he didn't also have 6 blown saves. Tonight, he threw a fastball to JD Drew, right as Buck Martinez said on TBS that he absolutely shouldn't, and Drew crushed it to centerfield for the game-winning home run. That home run alone might have knocked $1 million off of K-Rod's annual salary for his next contract negotiation.

The Angels do have some hope in Game 3, largely because I don't think Josh Beckett is pitching healthy. But to win this series, the Halos may need some help from heaven.

--Finally, congratulations to Candace Parker on winning the WNBA MVP Award for the Los Angeles Sparks. It's a shame though that the Sparks were eliminated in the Western Conference Finals by the San Antonio Silver Stars.

October 1, 2008

Dodgers Take Game 1

For the first time in 20 years, the Dodgers have taken a lead in a playoff series. That's thanks to James Loney and his grand slam in Game 1 at Wrigey Field in the 7-2 Dodgers win over the Cubs.

The Dodgers were effective offensively because of their plate discipline. Ryan Dempster struggled with the Dodger hitters all night, but staved off bad situations until his 108th pitch in the 5th inning resulted in Loney's Grand Slam. This allowed the Dodgers to face the bullpen early, and they gradually added to the lead.

The Dodgers are also significantly boosted by the presence of Rafael Furcal in the lineup. He might not be 100%, but I'd argue that Frucal at 75% is better than a healthy Angel Berroa or Nomar Gaciaparra playing with whatever ails him on any particular day. The Dodger pitching staff hasn't gotten the credit it's deserved all season long, and the bullpen is underrated too. Making Greg Maddux the closer tonight though was, well, very interesting.

Now all of the pressure in this series is on the Cubs. They were the team on the cover of Sports Illustrated last week, and they have everyone in Cubs nation hoping and praying that they're destined to win it all in the 100th anniversary of their last title. Game 1's result has much of Cubs nation freaking out.