Mike Dunleavy may no longer hold coaching duties for the L.A. Clippers after stepping down last Thursday in a decision the Clippers said was "reached mutually," but Dunleavy's task remains the same as general manager--getting L.A. back to the playoffs for the second time since 1997 and ultimately beyond.
Dunleavy the general manager certainly did a better job of setting up Dunleavy the coach this year than in 2008-09, when a dysfunctional Clippers squad limped to a 19-63 finish. This year's team has already surpassed that win total and might still harbor outside postseason aspirations in the Eastern Conference. (In the loaded West, no way.) Still, there are glaring weaknesses that must be addressed for the Clippers to truly contend.
The first big decision Dunleavy faces is the future of Marcus Camby, whose contract expires at season's end. Camby could help a lot of contenders between now and then, and with the Clippers 7.5 games out of a playoff spot, there's no compelling reason to hold on to him. The trick will be finding the right fit, since the Clippers won't want to compromise their coming cap space by taking on contracts that extend beyond this season unless it's to acquire promising young talent.
Cleveland, which could offer Zydrunas Ilgauskas, is the most obvious potential destination. However, the Cavaliers will probably have their pick of several players, and Camby's short-term deal isn't a huge draw for them. Portland, which could certainly use short-term help in the middle, would be able to find enough money only by packaging Steve Blake, Travis Outlaw and another player, a lot to give up even before considering what the Clippers would ask from the deal (a first-round pick or a young player).
One interesting wild card? Oklahoma City, should the Thunder want to speed up its timeline a bit. Camby would improve Oklahoma City's rebounding and interior defense, and the Thunder has several picks to offer in addition to the ability to save the Clippers some money by sending back Etan Thomas and using cap space to swallow the difference in their contracts (about $500,000 over the rest of the season).
Whether he is dealt now or plays out his contract, Camby is unlikely to be back next season. That's OK, because his spot in the starting lineup will be ably filled by Blake Griffin when the No. 1 overall pick returns to action after surgery to repair his fractured left patella ended any hope of him playing during his first season in the NBA. The year off won't help Griffin, who will have to spend much of his summer rehabbing instead of working to improve his game, but the phenomenal statistics he posted in his two years at Oklahoma portend him being an instant contributor. Griffin was projected for 10.6 WARP this season before his injury.
The problem is that essentially swapping Camby for Griffin leaves the Clippers more or less where they are now, which is a couple of players short. Any way you slice it, L.A.'s starting five of Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Rasual Butler, Camby and Chris Kaman has been very effective. The starters have outscored opponents by 13.8 points per 100 possessions while on the floor, per BasketballValue.com. Just two teams in the league (Boston and Dallas) have done better with their most used lineup. The Clippers are also 10-4 when they start those five players.
Unfortunately, that means when anyone else has started L.A. has gone 11-25. The Clippers have lost all six games they've played without Kaman and are 4-8 when Gordon has sat out. Simply, the team boasts only one effective reserve in backup power forward Craig Smith, so any other bench player getting extended playing time has been a major issue. DeAndre Jordan rates at replacement level over the course of the season; every other Clipper reserve rates below that mark.
As bad as it sounds right now, that's not a terrible thing heading into next season. It's easier to upgrade the bench than it would be to fix a severe talent deficit in the starting lineup. Smith is a good example. The Clippers got him from Minnesota by being willing to take on Sebastian Telfair's $2.7 million player option for 2010-11. While both Smith and Butler will become free agents this summer, the Clippers will have assets to add to their roster, including a sure lottery pick and somewhere in the neighborhood of $8-$12 million in cap space depending on where the cap is set.
The best move for the Clippers might be to address the small forward position in the draft, since that is the only spot where they don't have a starter entrenched for the foreseeable future. Another solid draft pick will be critical for the Clippers, who saw their momentum derailed in the middle of this decade by a series of futile first-round selections. From 2004 through 2007, the Clippers struck out on all three of the first-round picks they made (Shaun Livingston, Yaroslav Korolev and Al Thornton) in addition to losing one pick in an ancient trade made before Dunleavy's arrival. Since then, Gordon and Griffin have replenished the team's supply of young talent.
Barring the chance to add a marquee contributor, the cap space will allow L.A. to bring back Butler and Smith or add other reserves on smaller contracts. The Clippers could make use of the space as they did last summer in acquiring Butler, taking advantage of the desperation of other teams to shed payroll in order to remain under the luxury tax. That often means acquiring players on shorter-term deals with less risk than would be offered in free agency. Add in the development of the young Jordan, who has been sporadically effective at age 21, and the Clippers could put together a competent eight- or nine-man rotation by next season.
That leaves one important issue: Who's running the show? Dunleavy promoted loyal assistant coach Kim Hughes to the top spot on an interim basis when he stepped down, surprisingly passing over the more experienced John Lucas. Hughes will get the next two-plus months as an open audition for the permanent job. He's promised to push the tempo, though Saturday's 98-81 loss to San Antonio (a game that featured about 93 possessions a side, up from the 90.7 the Clippers averaged under Dunleavy, but also 21 L.A. turnovers) gave Hughes some pause.
As premier Clipper observer Kevin Arnovitz noted at True Hoop, the biggest task for Hughes or whoever follows him on the bench may not be Xs & Os but instead forging a working relationship with Davis. The point guard is a key figure because of his own inconsistent effort as well as his role as the veteran leader of what is otherwise a fairly young group of core players. The danger with Hughes is that Davis may abuse his privileges given the coach's inexperience as a head man and interim status. Looking at the available coaches, it's tough to find a veteran who could earn Davis' respect without alienating him. One interesting possibility: Paul Silas, who successfully coached Davis with the Hornets but has been out of the NBA for five years now.
I'm not convinced Dunleavy was one of the Clippers' biggest problems, but the dual role of coach-GM has an awfully unsuccessful track record in the NBA. From that standpoint, it is probably best that Dunleavy focus on front-office work for the final year-plus of his contract. The Clippers have some important moves to make over the next six months, and if Dunleavy handles them correctly, this team has the chance to contend for the playoffs next season.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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