In April 1986, the Clippers were completing their second season in Los Angeles. They were 32-50 and going nowhere. Across town, the Lakers were dominating the headlines. So, it was natural that the Clippers would try to bask in the Lakers’ reflected glory by tapping one of the Laker greats of the past. In this case, Donald Sterling decided that Elgin Baylor as GM of the Clippers. Baylor has sat in that post ever since. Of course, not much has changed in Clipper Land. The Clipps are still struggling as a franchise and they still are dwarfed by the Lakers. Is Baylor to blame? Well not really. Technically Elgin Baylor is the GM of the Clippers. But we all know that evaluating the Clippers’ personnel moves does not lie solely with Baylor. Sterling calls the shots and Baylor goes to Secaucus, New Jersey each spring. I don’t mean to understate Baylor’s decision making authority but its clear that the Clippers, for better of for worse, are a Sterling creation.
And mostly it’s been for worse. Since the 1986-87 season (Baylor’s first year) the Clipps have been over .500 once (1991-92) and even that was a so so 45-37 record. They have made the playoffs only three times in these 18 years and won four total playoff games. But there is a rub to this failure. Many are quick to point out that Sterling, having made his money buying up depressed real estate and selling it for large profits, employs the same risk averse strategies in putting together Clipper teams. Indeed agent Mark Terimini said in a Los Angeles Magazine article that “[w]hen you’re dealing with the Clippers from a contractual standpoint, you’re dealing with a mind-set that’s not aggressive to paying assets on the talent side, their style has been basically to wait for players to come to them and sign them on their terms, if at all possible.”
So what is the worth of a quasi-GM report in this case? Well, not much. But by looking at the Clipps’ moves over Baylor’s 18-year tenure, we can at least address the much-debated question of whether Sterling could have or should have better balanced his conservative fiscal bend with the desire to put the best possible team on the court.
The Clippers’ futility is best evidenced by seeing the huge numbers of coaches they have employed since 1986 and the fact that most of them are retreads. Check out their year-by-year coaches:
Year Coach W-L
1986-87 Don Chaney 12-70
1987-88 Gene Shue 17-65
1988-89 Gene Shue 10-28
Don Casey 11-33
1989-90 Don Casey 30-52
1990-91 Mike Schuler 31-51
1991-92 Mike Schuler 22-25
Larry Brown 23-12*
1992-93 Larry Brown 41-41*
1993-94 Bob Weiss 27-55
1994-95 Bill Fitch 17-65
1995-96 Bill Fitch 29-53
1996-97 Bill Fitch 36-46*
1997-98 Bill Fitch 17-65
1998-99 Chris Ford 9-41
1999-00 Chris Ford 11-34
Jim Todd 4-33
2000-01 Alvin Gentry 31-51
2001-02 Alvin Gentry 39-43
2002-03 Alvin Gentry 19-39
Dennis Johnson 8-16
2003-04 Mike Dunleavy 28-54
*Denotes playoff appearance
Twelve coaches in 18 years. This is not great continuity. Of course with the notable exceptions of Larry Brown (who blew town when he saw the team was all leaving as free agents) and Bill Fitch, there are no big names who coached the Clipps and in fact there are a couple of awful names in here too. Don Casey was not well prepared (remember his time with the Nets too?) and Bob Weiss admitted to mailing in his time with the Clipps.
Fitch’s tenure was a bit stormy as he inherited a bare cupboard (Ron Harper, Mark Jackson, and Danny Manning all left town). In fact, Fitch for his first two games of his Clipper career played the Blazers in Japan and were wiped out both times. After the two blow outs, Fitch akready joked about leaving his team in Japan. But Fitch built a decent team eventually (which fell apart when Loy Vaught had career-destroying back problems).
In the end when Fitch was fired, Sterling refused to pay Fitch for money due under the contract and they even ended up litigating. Fitch’s attorney on Sterling: “Donald Sterling just can’t help himself. He is known throughout the basketball community as being extremely reluctant to part with his money. This situation is no different. Sterling just can’t stand paying Fitch for not coaching. He, therefore, sued Fitch, hoping that he would just roll over. Let me assure you, Fitch will not roll over.” Fitch’s suit is still pending.
In order for a team like the Clipps to be successful, they really need to pay for a coach who will stick around a while. Other teams that try to keep payroll down, Utah most notably, have kept stability by keeping a coach around with a large stature. Indeed, going through a rung of coaches combined with constant personnel changes creates instability. Obviously no coach could make the playoffs with some of the ugly Clipper teams but clearly the team can’t build to something meaningful until the team has a coach that feels like the voice of the franchise. The good news is that Dunleavy is a good coach. If he chooses to stay here long enough, the Clipps at least might finally have fighting chance of building a good team.
The Draft. If you’re a bad team, you really need to hit on some picks to break the cycle of losing. Well, the Elgin Baylor Clipps certainly have had there fair share of picks. It should also be noted that drafting seems to be the one area where Sterling has given Baylor and company some autonomy to make picks–mainly because draft picks aren’t usually expensive. Of course there are some exceptions to this rule. Remember, when Sterling decided to trade the pick that was Antonio McDyess because he looked like he might be expensive? In any event, drafting has been Baylor’s main duty. That and sitting in on the Drat Lottery. Here’s Baylor’s first round drafting record:
1987 Reggie Williams (4th Pick)
Joe Wolf (14th Pick)
Ken Norman (19th Pick)
1988 Danny Manning (1st Pick)
Charles Smith (3rd Pick)
Gary Grant (15th Pick)
1989 Danny Ferry (2nd Pick)
1990 Bo Kimble (8th Pick)
Loy Vaught (13th Pick)
1991 LeRon Ellis (22nd Pick)
1992 Randy Woods (16th Pick)
Elmore Spencer (25th Pick)
1993 Terry Dehere (13th Pick)
1994 Lamond Muuray (7th Pick)
Eric Piatkowski (15th Pick)
1995 Brent Barry (15th Pick)
1996 Lorenzen Wright (7th Pick)
1997 Maurice Taylor (14th Pick)
1998 Michael Olowokandi (1st Pick)
Brian Skinner (22nd Pick)
1999 Lamar Odom (4th Pick)
2000 Darius Miles (3rd Pick)
Keyon Dooling (10th Pick)
Quentin Richardson (18th Pick)
2001 none (traded Tyson Chandler for Elton Brand)
2002 Chris Wilcox (8th Pick)
Melvin Ely (12th Pick)
2003 Chris Kaman (6th Pick)
The trend in Clipper drafting is pretty clear. They’ve been relatively successful with their mid-first rounders (Barry, Norman, Grant) but they’ve been absolutely killed with their top picks. Research has shown that top three picks are where most of the NBA stars are found (and to a lesser extent in the top five). When you get picks in that range, you must convert on some of them. Sometimes due to bad luck and sometimes do to bad choices, the Clippers have not done well with their top five picks:
– In 1987, they took mediocre shooter Reggie Williams with Hall of Fame talent like Kevin Johnson, Scottie Pippen, and Reggie Miller on the board. Put this pick in the bad choice category.
-In 1988, the Clipps had the consensus first pick in Danny Manning. Manning played well as a Clipp but due to knee injuries wasn’t quite the Magic Johnson clone we all thought he’d be. The Clipps didn’t miss a real Hall of Famer for Manning (arguably Mitch Richmond and Rik Smits) but that Manning didn’t develop as much as he might’ve was some bad luck. (They also got Charles Smith for Hersey Hawkins which was a fair trade of top draft picks).
-In 1989, the Clipps took bust of busts Danny Ferry second overall. The Clipps did parlay Ferry into solid guard Ron Harper but a second pick usually yields more value. This was a weak draft and the Clipps only missed out on Sean Elliott and Glen Rice (good but not great players).
-As we mentioned above, in 1995, the Clipps traded the second pick (Antonio McDyess) for Brent Barry, Rodney Rogers, and Brian Williams (aka Bison Dele). This was a decent package but McDyess was an All Star talent. In addition, the Clipps could’ve had Rasheed Wallace (who admittedly could’ve been a problem in this environment) and Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett. Bad drafting here.
-In 1998, the Clipps again had the first pick. This time the Clipps shocked everyone by taking project Michael Olowokandi instead of some serious talents like Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Mike Bibby, and Dirk Nowtizki. Bad drafting again.
-In 2000, the Clipps took Darius Miles third overall. Miles wasn’t that type of talent but that draft was so shallow that he was probably the right pick at that time.
-In 2001, the Clipps finally got an All Star with the top pick by trading the second pick (Tyson Chandler) for vet Elton Brand.
Seven top five picks over 18 years and the Clipps really blew three or four of them (if you count the Ferry deal). Had bad luck with Manning’s injuries and the weak talent pool in 2000 and hit it once with Brand. In all, you have to say Baylor and company have not drafted well. The Clipps will have the second pick again this year, in what appears to another shallow draft. In order to really bust out of its rut, the Clipps and Baylor really need to find another star in the draft.
One our first articles examined Sterling’s personnel moves at length. In a nut shell, we have seen that Sterling’s modus operandi is to not pay free agents. He has a number of young players with potential seeking big deals and with few notable exceptions, Sterling has let the players walk. As frustrating as that strategy my be to Clippers fans, Sterling has been right in almost all his free agent decisions. The group of free agents have almost all sucked or, at the very least been overpaid, after leaving L.A.. Here’s the group:
Danny Manning: went to Suns in 1994-95 and played well until blowing out his knees in the middle of 1994-95
Ron Harper: in 1994-95 went to the Bulls and was an overpaid role player for five years
Loy Vaught: went to Pistons in 1998-99 and promptly destroyed his back, ending his career
Lamond Murray: went to Cleveland in 1999-00, played solid but his large contract has made him a pariah in Toronto
Brent Barry: traded away because they didn’t want to pay him. Ended up playing well for Seattle with a fair contract too
Rodney Rogers: signed with the Suns in 1999-00 and was up-and-down, frustrating the Suns and now the Nets
Maurice Taylor: Signed with the Rockets to a ridiculously bad contract in 2000-01, he has been injured and ineffective
Lorenzen Wright: Signed with Atlanta in 1999-00. Has been a decent big man since.
Elton Brand: re-signed by Clipps in 2003-04 and has been great
Corey Maggette: re-signed by the Clipps in 2003-04, has been very good
Lamar Odom: Clipps declined to match his offer by Heat in 2003-04, he has played well but remains a risk
Michael Olowokandi: let him sign with Minnesota in 2003-04, where he has been an anchor—in a bad way
Sterling’s risk averse strategy clearly worked with free agents. A cynic might note that the Clipps solid record in not overpaying free agents is partly a result of their failure to find many good players to begin with. But the bottom line is that Sterling manages his salary cap well.
In terms of trades, the Clipps have made remarkably few big trades over Baylor’s tenure. The notable deals have been mixed: they traded the pick that could’ve been McDyess/Rasheed/Garnett for filler but they also counterbalanced that (almost) by nabbing Brand. Despite their relatively few major trades over this span, it should be noted that the Clipps have been rumored to be involved in some other big trades. Sam Smith in the Jordan Rules reported that the Bulls flirted actually flirted with trading Michael Jordan for the Clipps young talent in the late 1980s (Charles Smith, Danny Manning, Ron Harper, and Gary Grant). In addition, they Clipps pushed hard going after Pippen in 1994-95 when it appeared that Pippen wanted out of Chicago. Ultimately, Pippen refused to report to the Clipp, quashing any deal. Overall, however, the Clipps transactions center around the draft and usually letting free agents go.
So, is the Sterling Way worthwhile? From a profit perspective, it seems pretty good. Truly, Sterling made a good investment. In fact, Forbes magazine reported that the Clipps made a $16 million profit in 2003, twice the average franchise profit for that year. Further, Sterling bought the Clipps for $12 million in 1981 and the franchise is now worth over $200 million.
Yeah, Sterling runs his business well from a profit stadnpoint but all this just begs the question whether he could balance the business end with the need to compete. Insight into Sterling’s managing style was provided by a deposition transcript of Sterling published Houston Chronicle. This transcript was taken by Fitch’s lawyer in the aforementioned breach of contract action:
Q — Do you play a role in the final decision to sign a player, re-sign a player, draft a player, not sign a player, anything like that?
Sterling — No.
Q — You don’t play any role in that?
Sterling — No.
Q — Let’s say signing a player.
Sterling — The basketball people do that.
Q — OK. And the basketball people being?
Sterling — Well, there is a personnel director. There is the general manager. There’s — I don’t even know. There’s some other people in that department.
Q — OK. Do you have any input whatsoever in the decision making, or is it just, they just let you know what they’re doing.
Sterling — They let me know what they are doing … I really don’t have the experience.
Q — How about [Clipper coach during 1993-94 season] Bob Weiss? Have you ever known him to lie?
Sterling — I don’t know who he is. [Weiss also sued Sterling for withholding salary after Weiss was fired].
So, Sterling is clearly a cagey guy. You certainly can’t fault him for running his business well from a profit perspective. But its clear from reviewing some of the Clipper moves that they are not run at an optimal balance. There is a possibility to compete here. Whether Sterling ever seizes is it doubtful. There have been some rumors that Kobe Bryant could be coming Clipper Way. I personally don’t ever seen Sterling taking that kind of financial risk for the mere opportunity to win a few more games. That’s just not the way he is programmed.