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.