TrueHoop: Donald Sterling
Special to ESPN.com
You’ll have to excuse the long-time Clippers fans who experienced a moment of hesitation instead. There was still time on the clock, after all, and if any team could allow an unprecedented five-point play at the buzzer, well, you know how the old saying goes: It’s the Clippers.
Please understand that's a conditioned response more than anything else. Seasoned fans of the team tend to spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for the other shoe to drop, having already been robbed of the innocence necessary for unbridled optimism.
Just in the past decade: Raja Bell’s corner 3 over Daniel Ewing, Shaun Livingston’s knee exploding in a million pieces, Elton Brand’s departure, Baron Davis’ failure to arrive, Neil Olshey leaving and Vinny Del Negro staying. How many times can you get your heart broken before you start to protect against it?
Time helps, of course, and the significance of each of those moments faded with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but one constant remained present during it all -- one Donald T. Sterling.
There’s never a bad time for racial prejudice to be exposed and extinguished, and the timing on Sterling’s comments coming out seemed to vindicate those who brought their umbrellas out even though the weather (of course) looked great. Any follower of Sterling’s past transgressions knew he was liable to do something incredibly damaging to the franchise just by being himself, and this was it, with the Clippers fresh off a win and looking like title contenders for the first time in franchise history.
While everyone with the Clippers bunkered down and waited out the ensuing storm, NBA commissioner Adam Silver did something that just about everyone associated with the team in any capacity had hoped for: He lifted the dark cloud, banning Sterling for life.
It’s fitting that it took the removal of a man clearly against equality for that to happen. Clippers fans never deserved Donald Sterling and Donald Sterling certainly didn’t deserve them, and now that the weight of trying to ignore such a deplorable figure has been erased, there’s a sense that only the most common roadblocks to an eventual title remain. Hamstring injuries, foul trouble, depth. The same types of things every other team is dealing with.
And while the resolution from Sterling’s ban won’t be nearly as tidy or be handled as quickly as some like to think, there’s reason now for organizational optimism where there wasn’t before, even as things are unsettled.
Sterling always held the power to veto trades and signings, which is something he didn’t take for granted even when he was the most uninformed basketball mind in the room, which was always. There are many successful franchises with a less-than-desirable person at the top, but he always hindered the Clippers from developing the trust necessary for something sustainable. Sterling also got to cut corners financially wherever he saw fit. He knew what things cost, but never what they were worth.
Current and former employees have had varying levels of success at getting Sterling to sign off on trades and to see the bigger picture, but it’s hard to ever feel safe working for such an unpredictable boss. The evaluation process for most positions was impossible to decipher, although it certainly seemed like merit usually fell well behind financial convenience and affability. Employees and a franchise subject to the whims of a man like Sterling could never really reach their potential.
A skeptic might say “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” when it comes to Sterling, but the bar is remarkably low here. The Clippers have certainly made great strides over the past few seasons, but historically this is still the worst franchise in professional sports. There are plenty of potential candidates who will be more qualified both as owners and human beings to replace Sterling, which is something the NBA has fortunately come to understand after allowing multiple offenses like this to slide for so long.
While it’s certainly possible that outside forces -- mainly Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder -- could dampen the excitement brought on by the first-round series win over Golden State and Sterling’s ban, the feeling derived from his departure is something that will live on well past the immediacy of a playoff series.
D.J. Foster is a contributor to ESPN.com and the executive editor of ClipperBlog. He has written about the Clippers for ESPN Los Angeles, NBC Sports, Bleacher Report and Clippers.com, the team’s official website.
Because it has to be.
The public at large doesn't care that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban criticizes officials, actions that have cost him up to $500,000 in a single fine. Breaking solidarity during the last NBA lockout cost Miami Heat owner Micky Arison half a million as well, but that's nothing more than a local news item.
Even the highest NBA fine dropped on a team to date -- $3.5 million for the Minnesota Timberwolves negotiating a secret contract with Joe Smith -- doesn't make the national office water-cooler talk. Illicit dealings like this are chronicled in the business pages seemingly every day.
Each of these situations is a crime against league bylaws. They don't inspire media members halfway across the world to ask the president of the United States to weigh in, as Barack Obama did from Malaysia.
What the recording allegedly made by Sterling represents is a completely different ballgame.
The ugly words, dropped in such a casual tone, are a crime against society, a slight to human decency. People who had never heard of Sterling, never even heard of the Los Angeles Clippers, are rooting for NBA commissioner Adam Silver to do the right thing. They care.
Silver's first major challenge ranks right up there with the toughest things David Stern faced -- the "Malice at the Palace" fight, the Tim Donaghy scandal, Latrell Sprewell choking P.J. Carlesimo -- in his 30-year tenure.
The only case comparable to Sterling's is that of Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, who in 1993 was fined $25,000 and kicked out of Major League Baseball for a year for her racist comments. Three years later, she was pulled away from operating the team, and never regained control, after making a positive comment about Hitler.
But Sterling's remarks are more troublesome for the NBA than Schott's were for Major League Baseball. Sure, the words are just as disgusting, just as unacceptable. But with Sterling, one can hear the words allegedly coming from his mouth; Schott's comments were made in private conversations to employees, or read on a printed page of deposition transcript.
Then there's the great multiplier.
In the nearly 18 years since Schott made her last troublesome remarks, the Internet and social media have exploded. The world has gotten smaller. Indiscretions are magnified, and words, especially bad ones, move at lightning speed. In 1996, it was possible that someone didn't see or hear about what the Reds owner said. Today, the odds that anyone with a computer, TV or phone hasn't heard the Sterling TMZ recording are slim.
That's why Silver has to give Sterling the biggest penalty his lawyers will allow, and he has a lot of options, as ESPN’s Lester Munson has outlined. The eyes of the world are on him. And, unlike almost all other league crises that require fines or suspensions, people who never watched a single NBA game this year, or maybe even in their lifetime, are waiting for Silver to make Sterling pay.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesIf the Clippers aren't careful, they might find themselves looking up at the competition for Chris Paul.
After Del Negro was let go May 21, Sterling told the Los Angeles Times that it wasn’t “off base” to suggest the Clippers’ players were calling the shots. Sterling also said, “This is a players' league, and unfortunately, if you want to win, you have to make the players happy.” Meanwhile, on radio this week, both in Los Angeles and nationally, Del Negro has rejected opportunities to dispel the idea Paul was behind the coaching change.
It was only a matter of time before we caught word of Paul’s displeasure, and you can’t blame him. First, the notion that Paul was the primary force behind the decision to replace Del Negro is patently false. Management wanted Del Negro gone in March 2012 and, again, when the Clippers bowed out to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of this season’s playoffs. If anything, Paul has been more deferential than he had to be with regard to Del Negro’s fate. He didn’t object when the team decided to kick the can down the road and pick up Del Negro’s option for the 2012-13 season last summer, and he stayed below the fray during deliberations this spring even though he had the leverage to flex his muscles. Letting Del Negro's contract expire was management’s recommendation and Sterling’s final verdict -- and Sterling knows it.
Paul makes a point to be cautious about his public comments. As much as he might ride teammates in practice or officiously tell them what to do on the floor, he almost never calls out fellow players -- or coaches -- publicly. It takes a fair amount of discipline to carry oneself this way, but, despite Paul's best efforts, Sterling is effectively calling him a coach-killer.
The substance and timing of Sterling’s remarks are bizarre, given Paul’s pending free agency. The Clippers have been widely viewed as Paul’s likely destination, largely because Paul has achieved a certain level of comfort as a Clipper. Know what compromises that comfort? Being falsely and publicly accused by ownership of sabotaging a coach.
Even with the Clippers sitting as favorites to retain his services, Paul was always going to explore his full range of options; that’s what intelligent businesspeople do. Always take the meeting, after all. Whether those are courtesy meetings or legitimate two-way interviews will depend on Paul’s mindset going in, and, as it stands now, this most recent development isn’t helping the Clippers’ cause.
NBA general managers are some of the best salesmen around. They wouldn’t have scored their coveted positions if they weren’t. At some point in the first week of July, these top-flight recruiters will employ their powers of persuasion to convince Paul that he’s better off with their organizations than with the Clippers.
Atlanta Hawks president of basketball operations and general manager Danny Ferry, with new Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer beside him, will have the chance to sit with Paul and pitch him. Ferry can tell him, “Chris, you know how you’re always saying there’s no franchise you respect more than the Spurs? Well, welcome to Spurs 2.0. That's the template here, and we have the credentials to pull it off. This guy sitting right here is the next Gregg Popovich, just nobody knows it yet. And guess what? You’re Tim Duncan. So come with us; we’ll find you a running mate. You’re going to love Al Horford as your pop guy. This is the No. 9 television market in the country and moving up. Your folks live a 45-minute flight away. They can come to a 7:30 p.m. tipoff, and we’ll have them in bed back in North Carolina by midnight.”
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey will make his own appeal to Paul, focusing on the assets and flexibility the Rockets have to surround Paul with the right talent, including possibly Dwight Howard.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban can plop down a championship ring and craft a message as well as any owner or exec in the game. With regard to quality-of-life perks, the Mavericks are the Singapore Airlines of NBA organizations, an entity in which everything runs smoothly and every detail is accounted for -- and Paul is the kind of person who appreciates competence and order.
So far as the disparity in money, both Houston and Dallas can pull up a PowerPoint on how the lack of a state income tax in Texas, coupled with California’s new 13.3 percent income tax on the highest earners, make the Lone Star State a better value play.
To an alienated Paul, are these presentations more or less alluring than reminders from the Clippers that he likes Los Angeles, has been given influence in personnel decisions, has gone 6-11 over two postseasons and gets to work out at a cool training facility?
The Clippers have a month to smooth things over, and there’s a good chance they’ll be able to placate Paul after this brush fire dies down. Yet the fact that they’ll have to expend the energy to do so is a net loss for the Clippers, and it bolsters the skeptics’ case that however capable Clippers management is these days, ownership will find a way to muck things up.
Harry How/NBAE/Getty ImagesVinny Del Negro: Picked up for Season 3, 82 episodes.
The Clippers never envisioned that Vinny Del Negro would lead the team out of its historic doldrums into the conference semifinals. When Del Negro was hired in the summer of 2010, he seemed like a moderating force, an affable figure who could disinfect an organization that had grown somewhat toxic following the firing of Mike Dunleavy.
The Clippers knew they weren't going to contend for a while, and Del Negro had an offset in the first year of his deal, which meant Del Negro's former employers, the Chicago Bulls, would pick up much of his salary. Donald Sterling and his wife adored Del Negro, a charmer who has a gift for making those in his proximity feel like they're the most important person in the room. With an affordable two-year commitment to Del Negro, Clippers management would have ample opportunity to make an upgrade if and when its young team jumped several rungs on the Western Conference ladder.
That moment arrived prematurely once the Clippers acquired Chris Paul in December. A team that had gone 32-50 in its previous season was now poised to contend for the Pacific Division crown and possibly more. When it was all over, the Clippers finished 40-26, their best winning percentage in franchise history, and qualified for the conference semifinals for only the second time since heading west in 1978.
Would that be enough for the Clippers to pick up a one-year option on Del Negro for the 2012-13 season? There were many considerations (in no particular order):
- The aforementioned success of the team. Del Negro isn't an elite NBA coach and may be lacking as a tactician, but most predicted the Clippers as a final four team in the West, and they exceeded their No. 5 seed in the playoffs.
- The wishes of Chris Paul and his representatives at Creative Artists Agency. Paul will become a free agent on July 1, 2013, and will almost certainly weigh who roams the sidelines at Staples Center as a consideration in his decision whether to re-up with the Clippers.
- The wishes of Blake Griffin.
- The field of alternate candidates, should the organization choose not to exercise Del Negro's option.
- The affordability of the option.
- The wishes of Donald T. Sterling, owner and chairman of the board, Los Angeles Clippers.
Let's take that last question first, since it's the factor that transcends all others. Del Negro has had a friend in the Clippers' owner since their dinner at the Sterling compound in early July 2010. He has maintained solid relations, even as the Clippers' more discerning management types have had their occasional doubts about Del Negro's feel for the game. As it often goes with Sterling, the affordability of another season of Del Negro was a point in the coach's favor, especially when considering the hefty price tag that would accompany some of the big-name candidates who are at large.
The Paul and Griffin questions are more curious. With a few exceptions, Clippers players found Del Negro to be genial and a solid motivator, even though they privately acknowledged many of the shortcomings often cited by analysts -- a rudimentary offense and the lack of late adjustments. There were the usual quibbles about playing time, but wholesale rebellion was averted.
Contrary to what many might believe, picking up Del Negro's option wasn't done in defiance of either Paul or Griffin -- and Clippers management made sure of this. Paul knows that, if a coaching change is necessary, the Clippers still have the flexibility to make one. And both Paul and Griffin are protective of their images. Neither would ever want to run the risk of being labeled a coach-killer, even if they wanted Del Negro put on the first plane out of LAX.
What about that impressive field of available coaches? From the Clippers' perspective, the list of candidates has plenty of flaws. Remember, the next coach the Clippers hire will be one for the long haul, an expensive, multiyear deal that everyone from owner to management to, presumably, Paul to Griffin will have to live with for a long time. Stan Van Gundy, assuming he had a modicum of interest in the job, would be costly and isn't really a Sterling kind of guy. The styles of Mike D'Antoni and Paul are vastly different. Is a micromanager like Nate McMillan the guy to take the Clippers all the way? Would Mike Malone, an assistant in Golden State whom Paul adored in New Orleans but someone with a 0-0 career record as head coach, be worth the risk? Scott Brooks is unsigned for next season, but the smart money has him staying in Oklahoma City.
In the end, the Clippers decided to kick the can down the road for a year. The door to management's office is always open to Paul and Griffin if they care to voice their preferences and concerns, something both superstars understand, and a privilege both will likely exercise in the coming season. If the Clippers determine that Del Negro is the wrong guy for the job, they're wed to him only until next June, when the menu of available coaching talent will probably offer more choices. And if things turn really ugly midseason, they can always turn to Robert Pack, a Clippers assistant who has earned the trust of the roster.
Think of it like this: If the Clippers were to bring on a new coach with a multiyear deal and Paul said next February, "I can't play for this guy," what would happen? In the same scenario, if Paul were to decide he'd had enough of Del Negro, it'd be an easy fix.
Could the Clippers do better than Del Negro in 2012-13? Probably. Could they do worse? Ditto. Ultimately, the quality price ratio with Del Negro was sufficient enough for the Clippers to buy some more time -- for themselves and for Paul.
AP Photo/Danny Moloshok
How much can we take away from the Clippers' stellar performance on Monday night?
It was all so odd.
Not just that the Clippers trampled the Lakers in a preseason game, or that the media scrum outside the Clippers' locker room after the game dwarfed the crowd waiting to get inside the Lakers' inner sanctum.
Not even Donald T. Sterling, inside the Chick Hearn Media Room after the game, lecturing his guests about the virtues of making basketball a physical -- not a cerebral -- contest.
The strangest moment of the night was more basic than that. It was the sensation of looking out on the floor at Staples Center and seeing the two most trustworthy guards in basketball manning the backcourt for the Clippers.
That's because the defining characteristic of Clippers fandom has always been fear. Fear that basketball possessions would be squandered carelessly by players without the talent or inclination to get the job done. Fear that the organization would choose caution over risk and fumble an opportunity to change course. Fear that supernatural forces would conspire against the Clippers ... just because that's what supernatural forces do.
That fear wasn't present Monday night, and its absence was the most profound epiphany during an entertaining preseason game from which very little about basketball could be gleaned.
We know the Clippers are a dangerous unknown -- only a tad less unknown than they were 24 hours ago. Their regular season opens on Christmas Day in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors, after which they'll play the Bulls, Lakers and Heat at Staples Center over a 15-day period. How do we know if the Clippers are for real? Here are some guideposts to follow:
Have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin developed mental telepathy?
All this talk of seismic cultural shifts in Los Angeles boils down to one essential ingredient: the level of havoc these two All-Stars can wreak in the pick-and-roll.
Everything else is just scene-setting.
We saw what Paul was able to do with an exacting partner like David West in a pick-and-pop game. Now Paul will have the most explosive power forward in a generation at his disposal. How quickly can they get into their dance steps? When opponents play Griffin for his signature spin, or when the entire defense sags and drops into the paint, how can the dynamic duo make them pay? Paul and Griffin's proficiency will not only determine how lethally they can punish the league, but how many open spot-up jumpers can be generated for Chauncey Billups and how easily Caron Butler will be able to dart off down screens for quick looks.
It will take a little time, but once Paul and Griffin become fluent in their common language and the need for cues and verbal direction melts away, the true potential of this team will be much clearer.
How is Chauncey Billups acclimating to playing off the ball?
Billups is a combo guard by origin, but it's been a long time since he was asked to defer ballhandling duties to a teammate and make a living off the ball. Last season before being moved to New York, Billups' numbers as a catch-and-shoot threat were superb (1.36 points per possession). In 2009-10, Billups finished 15th in points per possession as a spot-up shooter for players with more than 100 attempts, and in 2008-09, he was fourth in the league.
Billups is prideful. Telling him that, at 35, the best way for him to extend a prolific and celebrated career is to go stand over there on the wing away from the action is easier said than done. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro reiterated on Monday night that he doesn't see 1s and 2s and 3s on a whiteboard so much as he sees "basketball players." If Billups can buy into the practical implications of this and make himself comfortable as a floor-spacer and secondary playmaker, he can help the Clippers score a ton of points.
Is Vinny Del Negro the man for the job?
The big winner of Monday night?
Del Negro. Not because he outcoached anyone, but because what transpired on the floor suggests that Del Negro's shortcoming will be mitigated by circumstance.
The league is moving away from systems and intricately choreographed play calls from the sidelines. Today's NBA is about getting the ball up and finding clean looks at the basket before defenses can get set. And if you have a couple of floor generals such as Paul and Billups on the roster, there will be plenty of margin for error because they're more than capable of manufacturing opportunities for themselves and others when the shot clock begins to tick down. The thickness of Del Negro's playbook measures only a 10th of the thickness of what Mike Dunleavy toted to work every day. With this team at this moment, that might do the trick.
But sometime in late spring, a critical moment will arise. The Thunder will use Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison to clamp down on Griffin. The Mavs will identify a fatal inefficiency in the Clippers' defense. When it's time for Del Negro to counter, will he have a solution?
Are the Clippers treading water with their reserve units?
DeAndre Jordan gets hit with two early fouls. Griffin walks off the court toward the tunnel for examination in the trainer's room. These things aren't worst-case scenarios -- they're inevitabilities in the NBA. Young, high-flying centers become overexuberant, and bouncy power forwards turn ankles.
A healthy Clippers squad is stacked at the guard spots. But right now, they have a frontcourt reserve corps of Brian Cook (a stretch-4), Ryan Gomes (a smart 6-foot-7 tweener) and rookie Trey Thompkins, who John Hollinger projects to be the next Brian Cook. None of the three can be fairly characterized as a banger, and the Clippers are likely to sign a brawny big man over the next 72 hours. That understudy could prove to be fateful for the Clippers. Small sample-size theater has never been more hazardous than in a shortened season, but whether you watch the progress of the Clippers' five-man bench units on Basketballvalue.com, or just eyeball the team's rhythm and flow when Griffin takes a seat, we'll learn something about the Clippers' prospects in late May and early June by how well those second units perform.
Will Donald T. Sterling stay out of the way?
Longtime Sterling consigliere Andy Roeser and general manager Neil Olshey have put the Clippers in a position to reverse decades of futility. Selling Sterling on the vision was likely every bit as challenging as swinging the deals themselves.
Whatever liabilities remain for the Clippers on the roster or in the locker room, they pale in comparison to the damage that could be unleashed if Sterling were to decide to meddle in the progress. He insulted Gomes and Randy Foye in August 2010, soon after the two veterans were acquired. He embarrassed himself, Baron Davis and the franchise by loudly heckling the team's former point guard courtside.
With Paul and Griffin weighing their long-term options over the next 18 months, the Clippers can't afford to have Sterling do anything to disrupt the aspirations of everyone involved in this project -- not Roeser or Olshey, not the superstars, not the supporting players, nor the fans in Los Angeles. Sterling has earned several lifetimes of fortune. He can add to it by simply letting basketball people conduct basketball business and basking in the glow of the winter sun at the Malibu compound.
Declarations from Baylor, the Clippers’ former general manager, and Mike Dunleavy, the coach who took over Baylor’s general manager duties before Dunleavy lost both jobs, were included in Baylor’s response to the Clippers’ motions for summary judgment. The Clippers' legal action, filed in November, had essentially asked the court to dismiss Baylor’s suit in which he claims he was fired on the basis of age and race.
Donald Sterling could have some fresh courtside reading of legal documents to do.
Clipper legal counsel Robert Platt stated through the team that he would withhold comment until reviewing the documents himself.
Dunleavy said that Sterling "always told me to give him a great player and he’d pay for him, but there were several players I wanted to sign and we didn’t because Sterling refused to spend the money. The Clippers' biggest concern was making a profit."
Baylor took it a step further, adding a racial component.
"Because of the Clippers unwillingness to fairly compensate African-American players we lost a lot of good talent, including Danny Manning, Charles Smith, Michael Cage, Ron Harper, Dominique Wilkins, [Corey] Maggette and others," Baylor said.
Baylor, who describes himself as "an African-American male over the age of 40" in the declaration (the NBA Register lists his date of birth as Sept. 16, 1934), said that Sterling and Clippers president Andy Roeser made references to his age for the last 10 years of his employment and questioned his ability to still do his job.
Dunleavy referenced similar comments about Baylor’s age from the Clippers’ upper management, but Dunleavy stated, "The entire time that I worked for the Clippers, I never saw any change in Elgin’s ability to perform his duties, or that his age had any adverse impact on the performance of his duties and responsibilities as general manager."
Dunleavy said that during a team trip to Russia in 2006, Clippers officials were dining at a restaurant called Rasputin when Platt, the Clippers' attorney, told him that the Clippers thought Baylor was too old and they were going to fire him. While the Clippers told Dunleavy that Baylor only wanted to work for two more years, Dunleavy said he never heard that from Baylor, and Baylor said in his statement that he never told anyone that he wanted to retire.
Meanwhile, Dunleavy participated in the diminishing of Baylor’s power, as Dunleavy took over trade talks and draft selections, while Roeser negotiated contracts. Baylor said it reached the point that he learned of team transactions through media reports.
Dunleavy said he wanted to make Baylor aware of his increased role, but he never did so directly. Dunleavy said he tried to bring it up in a meeting with Sterling, Roeser and Baylor, but was cut off by Sterling.
Dunleavy said that "I always tried to keep Elgin in the loop and let him know what I was doing", but Baylor said he was caught off guard when Neil Olshey (whom Baylor described as "a protégé of Mike Dunleavy") was named the new director of player personnel instead of Baylor’s choice, Gary Sachs.
"There were other instances where Dunleavy negotiated deals that I learned about through the media," Baylor said.
Olshey took over the general manager job from Dunleavy last season, after Dunleavy had already been relieved of his coaching duties.
Baylor, who worked for the Clippers as an executive from 1986 to 2008, said he received only one raise in his final 16 years. He was most upset that after the team reached the second round of the playoffs in 2006 he did not receive a pay raise, while Dunleavy received a contract extension and Roeser was promoted.
Then there was this non-sequitur paragraph:
"While ignoring my suggestions and isolating me from decisions customarily reserved for general managers, the Clippers attempted to place the blame for the team’s failures on me," Baylor said in the declaration. "During this same period, players Sam Cassell, Elton Brand and Corey Maggette complained to me that DONALD STERLING would bring women into the locker room after games, while the players were showering, and make comments such as, 'Look at those beautiful black bodies.' I brought this to Sterling’s attention, but he continued to bring women into the locker room."
A couple of months ago this was going to be the summer of all summers for the Clippers, a fresh start, a chance to hire a new coach, $17 million in cap space to go after LeBron or other big names like him and make a huge splash.
And so they signed Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes.
Or, as Sterling put it, "If I really called the shots we wouldn't have signed Gomes and what's the other guy's name?
"You know, they told me if we built a new practice facility we'd attract all the top players in the game," Sterling adds. "I guess I should have doubled the size of this place."
He's no different than most Clippers fans.
"I swear to you, I never heard of these guys," Sterling says, "but what if the coach says he wants them?"
Try to imagine you're at a business gathering, maybe a trade show. Your boss holds court in one corner of the room. He's surrounded by people who are insiders in your industry -- some of whom know you personally, while others are only vaguely familiar with your work.
The next morning you find out through a third party who doesn't even work for your company that your boss told those insiders he has no idea why the company hired you (only he called you "Whatshisname.").
Or maybe your boss told the circle you have lousy taste in personnel and couldn't lure the real comers in the field, even though that was your job. Your boss complained about how his investments in capital improvement were supposed to attract better talent, only you couldn't close.
The irony of Sterling's griping about his organization's inability to lure top talent is almost too obvious to acknowledge. You might agree with Sterling that the signings of Gomes and Foye represent a failure for the franchise this summer. You might hold Clippers general manager Neil Olshey accountable for that, or head coach Vinny Del Negro for his input in those choices. I think Olshey exercised discipline and deployed a sound long-term strategy given the circumstances -- Sterling being one of the primary circumstances. Intelligent people can disagree about how the Clippers fared this summer in the marketplace. But whichever side of the argument you fall on, there isn't a reasonable excuse in the world for what Sterling did to Gomes, Foye, Olshey and Del Negro.
The Clippers' curse isn't a supernatural phenomenon. It has a name, a face and an unfortunate history of personal failure.
Over the past few years, I've gotten to know a lot of people who work for the Clippers. They exist across the organization in sales, marketing, communications, digital media and basketball operations. These are professional people who are proud of their work -- and they should be because every day they do a solid job for a brand few people think very much of. Yet they do the work, some of them with a sincere hope that one day they'll be able to say that they had something to do with the moment the Clippers became an entity that mattered in Los Angeles and in the NBA.
Although I haven't met Foye, last week I visited with Gomes for the first time one-on-one. I found a thoughtful professional. A very measured executive for one of the league's most well-respected franchises told me that Gomes is one of the best people involved in professional basketball. Olshey is eager to do his job well. He's always courteous, has pretty decent taste in basketball players and is a more creative dealmaker than he's been allowed to be. Del Negro has been with the team for only five weeks, but has brought the kind of charisma and exuberance that vaulted him to the top of Sterling's list of coaching candidates.
Whether Gomes, Foye, Olshey and Del Negro are basketball geniuses or likable doesn't really matter. As employees of the Los Angeles Clippers, they all warrant Sterling's basic respect, which ultimately requires so little of such a blessed, wealthy man. All Sterling has to do when asked about his employees in polite company is offer an endorsement -- or, at the very least, not publicly humiliate them. That's his only ambassadorial duty as team owner on a day when the Clippers introduce the media to some minor stylistic tweaks on their uniforms.
Imagine it's your world again. We return just as you've found out your boss was trashing you to people outside your company. Now ask yourself:
Is this a place you want to work?
The Las Vegas Summer League is a lot like the Sundance Film Festival of the NBA. Whereas the pageantry of most NBA games has gotten out of control, Summer League games are small indie productions. The event certainly has its share of fanfare, but it also allows participants to brush shoulders with some notables they wouldn't ordinarily have access to during the grind of the NBA season. Just as festival-goers at Sundance might find themselves sitting next to an A-List movie star in a cozy bar, it's not unusual for Summer League attendees to sit down in the stands at Cox Pavilion, only to look over and see a high-profile general manager in cargo shorts and flip-flops.
Since team executives, agents, player development personnel, and veterans who've come to watch their younger teammates are all convened in one place for 10 days, Summer League is one big, casual schmoozefest, and a great place to take inventory of the state of the NBA.
What were all those big names talking about in Las Vegas this year? Here were eight hot topics:
A Lot of Competent Players, but Only One Sure-Fire All-Star
Since early spring, the 2009 talent pool has been regarded as a one-man draft. By and large, NBA folks left Las Vegas with that consensus intact. Blake Griffin was the story of Summer League. Though he wasn't able to replicate his explosive 27-point debut, Griffin's 19.2 points and 10.8 rebounds per game stood out. There were other players who matched his statistical output, but few generated the enthusiasm Griffin did among those who got a look at the full roster of rookies. "It's not only his work ethic and competitiveness," said one scout. "It's the balance, athleticism, body, and control. The stuff he can't do yet? It'll happen in no time." When asked how many certain All-Stars would materialize from the class of 2009, interviewees set the over-under barely above one, with Tyreke Evans earning a few votes. Despite the low expectations for stardom, many observers were pleasantly surprised by the depth of solid, if unexceptional, players. The prevailing opinion in Vegas was that the 2009 group is a far cry from the notoriously fruitless class of 2000. Though there was little unanimity, James Harden, Austin Daye, Wayne Ellington, Jonny Flynn, DeJuan Blair, and Earl Clark were all mentioned as possible contributors, or "third options" as one assistant general manager put it. But conversations about potential greatness consistently and almost exclusively returned to Griffin.
| Anthony Randolph: All grown up?
(Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Summer League play always warrants a disclaimer, because the level of competition falls way short of what guys will confront in an NBA game, but the Warriors' 20-year-old forward seemed almost too advanced for Summer League play. Normally jaded execs and crusty sportswriters alike had their jaws agape watching Randolph command the game when he was out on the floor. Randolph came into the league as a candy dish of disparate talents, but he's graduated from curiosity to crackerjack. He has a band of admirers who gush over his range of talents, and that group got a lot bigger in Las Vegas, as his skill set was on full display. Randolph saw the court, ran the floor, passed the ball, blocked shots, got to the line, and drained mid-range jumpers as well as anyone in Summer League. In his four games, he averaged a Summer League-high 26.8 points per game on 60.9 percent shooting from the floor. He also got to the line 39 times and blocked 12 shots. But it was about more than the stats for Randolph. There's a moment when a player's talents unify into a single, coherent package. Judging from Randolph's performance, that moment has arrived.
The Global Economic Crisis
There's an area behind the near basket at Cox Pavilion where European coaches, general managers, and scouts sit and talk shop during the games. The NBA presents Summer League as a showcase of their future stars, but the real business in Las Vegas is being conducted by these guys, along with the agents and bridge-builders who are trying to get jobs overseas for the less recognizable names on Summer League rosters. Although there wasn't a visible black cloud hanging over this corner of the gym, the anxiety was palpable. They had a lot to be stressed about. Basketball clubs the world over are suffering, but none more than those in Europe. After years of escalating salaries and profits, the market has collapsed. "I've told all my European guys to expect, on average, salaries to go down between 30 and 40 percent," one European agent said. "It's definitely a buyer's market." This dynamic puts pressure on everyone -- the players who are facing a pay cut (even if they're coming off banner seasons), the agents who are terrified to communicate this to their clients out of fear of getting fired, and the teams who still haven't filled out their rosters because they're short on cash. The result is an impasse with neither players nor clubs budging, and a few teams on the verge of economic collapse.
Salary Cap Troubles & the NBA Financial Situation
The international game is in meltdown mode, while the NBA game is suffering from its own set of monetary issues. In Sections 104 and 115, where most of the NBA execs and team personnel sit, the dominant conversation of the week was about the financial pinch NBA franchises are feeling. In his press conference here in Vegas, NBA Commissioner David Stern said that fewer than half of NBA franchises made money last season. Ticket sales, sponsorships, and television contracts are all down. With the salary cap and luxury tax level dropping -- and scheduled to do so for the foreseeable future -- teams are having to calibrate their spreadsheets. This affects everyone: owners, general managers who are under pressure to build legitimate NBA rosters, free agents sitting on the sidelines, their agents, and also the journeymen and undrafted rookies trying to earn a spot on an NBA roster. To save money, a team that would normally carry 15 guys might trim that number down to 13 -- meaning fewer jobs. And players who would've inked rich, multi-year deals are finding that, with some exceptions, they have fewer suitors, with thinner wallets.
The Point Guard Class
Several point guards who came to Las Vegas made strong impressions. Jonny Flynn, despite all the turmoil surrounding Ricky Rubio, stood out. Though many in Vegas questioned the wisdom of playing Tyreke Evans at point guard long-term, few doubted that his strength, size, and capacity to get to the rim would make him a scoring machine. Observers had reserved praise for Brandon Jennings and Stephen Curry, the former for his unrefined shot, the latter for looking more like a gunner than a floor general. Some of the mid-first-rounders earned a lot of praise. Dallas' Roddy Beaubois led Vegas point guards in oohs and aahs, zipping through the lane in traffic and filling it up from beyond the arc. Of all the point guards in Las Vegas last week, Darren Collison was among the most polished before going down with an ankle injury. After starting Summer League 1-for-15 from the field, Ty Lawson bounced back to turn in three dominant performances, averaging 23.7 points over that span. Lawson is the kind of point guard who needs to be surrounded by scorers to excel. He'll have that in Denver.
LO, AI, Booz, and the Blazer
As much as NBA fans love speculation about trades and free agency, nobody appreciates the rumor mill quite like the NBA chattering class. Talk of the disintegration of Lamar Odom's negotiations with the Lakers provided plenty of fodder for late-night dinners. The same was true of the l'affaire Allen Iverson, where Carlos Boozer may land, and what the Blazers will do with the money they threw at Paul Millsap. The Odom situation was far and away the most intriguing to the insiders. Odom and the Lakers are in the second act of a romantic comedy: They need each other. The Lakers would slip measurably without Odom, and Odom needs the Lakers to solidify his place among the Lakers greats -- or at least the Lakers very, very goods. The Iverson and Boozer matters exemplify the financial issues mentioned above. So far as Portland, few teams run as much informational interference, and even some of the wiliest insiders were stumped about what the Trail Blazers might do.
The Death of the Back-to-the-Basket Game
"Name one guy here who can hit a jump hook over their left shoulder," an NBA assistant general manager asked. "I can't think of one." Whether it's the trickle-down effect of the European game, the rule changes implemented by the league a few years ago, or college teams appropriating Mike D'Antoni-style basketball, the vast majority of the young bigs who were in Las Vegas are face-up players who work either along the perimeter or out of the pinch post: Anthony Randolph, Earl Clark, James Johnson, Taj Gibson, Dante Cunningham, DaJuan Summers, Austin Daye, and even Blake Griffin. Is this a momentary trend, or will the pendulum eventually swing back? "If I were a big man about to enter college, I would develop that back-to-the-basket game," the executive said. The implication: At some point, those skills will be at a premium, and that kid will be impossible to defend. Forward-looking teams are all about buying low and, right now, traditional post players are undervalued because they don't conform to the current climate of the NBA game.
Dysfunctional Organizational Structures Breed Dysfunctional Franchises
What is going on with Minnesota? That was a popular topic of conversation among senior NBA people in Las Vegas. The team still has no coach. Though it had one of the Summer League's most prolific players in Flynn, there's no telling if the system he played in over the 10 days will be the one installed by a new coach -- whoever that might be. This makes the Summer League evaluation process a lot less useful. Who's in charge? CEO Rob Moor? General manager David Kahn? Will the new coach be fully empowered to do his job? Critics also looked at Memphis. How did the Grizzlies end up with Hasheem Thabeet? Because owner Michael Heisley reportedly made the call. The Clippers, too, generated buzz this week with the Iverson speculation. While owner Donald Sterling wants to make a splash with Iverson, Clippers management would like to target Ramon Sessions. These historically beleaguered franchises all have one thing in common: There's no clear hierarchy that allows basketball people to make basketball decisions. The best franchises have well-defined roles that emanate from the top. Owners allow their senior executives to do their job. Those executives give their head coaches full reign, and so forth. Look no further than the San Antonio Spurs.
In ESPN The Magazine, Peter Keating does an amazing job reporting the story of Clipper owner Donald Sterling.
There is a pubic relations issue at play with Sterling. People suing him for this or that have demonized him from time to time. But they're suing him! They're supposed to demonize him. Even though there have been reports of terrible things, it has always felt kind of tough to pass judgment.
But in Keating's article, there are just so many such stories. And his accusers tend to get confidential settlements.
Put them all together, and it takes Sterling well out of the "lovable eccentric" category. You really must read the whole article. Don't believe me? Here are some excerpts, as proof:
- "When Sterling first bought the Ardmore, he remarked on its odor to Davenport. 'That's because of all the blacks in this building, they smell, they're not clean,' he said, according to Davenport's testimony. 'And it's because of all of the Mexicans that just sit around and smoke and drink all day.' He added: 'So we have to get them out of here.' ...[Kandynce] Jones had repeatedly walked to the apartment manager's office to plead for assistance, according to sworn testimony given by her daughter Ebony Jones in the Housing Rights Center case. Kandynce Jones' refrigerator dripped, her dishwasher was broken, and her apartment was always cold. Now it had flooded. Davenport reported what she saw to Sterling, and according to her testimony, he asked: 'Is she one of those black people that stink?' When Davenport told Sterling that Jones wanted to be reimbursed for the water damage and compensated for her ruined property, he replied: 'I am not going to do that. Just evict the bitch.'"
- "Those San Diego years are the stuff of NBA legend. Sterling welcomed himself to town by plastering his face on billboards across the city. And when the Clips won their 1981 home opener, he ran across the court, shirt unbuttoned and glass of wine held aloft, to high-five his players and hug coach Paul Silas. 'I love you!' he told them. But later that year he refused to pay a $1,000 prize to a local lawyer who won a free throw contest until the guy sued for fraud. Sterling even asked Silas to cut costs by taping players himself. Before the next season, he installed an ex-model named Patricia Simmons as assistant GM, putting her at Silas' desk while the coach was on an NBA promotional trip to China. Silas returned to find his belongings piled in the hallway."
One of the most amazing things about the article is the accompanying photo, of a Sterling poster soliciting hostesses. I have seen such ads before and wondered: Who has the gall to advertise for that? Donald Sterling, that's who.
"For years he has run semianonymous ads (crude design jobs he reportedly locks up himself) seeking 'hostesses' for Clippers events and his private parties. ... According to testimony Jaksy gave under oath, Sterling touched her in ways that made her uncomfortable and asked her to visit friends of his for sex. Sterling also repeatedly ordered her to find massage therapists to service him sexually, telling her, 'I want someone who will, you know, let me put it in or who [will] suck on it.'"
And I'll second what I said the other night. To those who think the NBA lottery is rigged: No way in hell it's rigged to put this guy in the spotlight.
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
More details have emerged on Clippers owner Donald Sterling's tirade in the Clippers locker room following the Clips' Monday night home loss against San Antonio:
Sterling, according to the sources, blasted players by name, including the team's second-leading scorer Al Thornton. In one exchange, Sterling called Thornton the most selfish basketball player he has ever seen. When Thornton asked coach Mike Dunleavy (who was standing nearby) how he was playing, before he could answer Sterling told Dunleavy to "shut up" according to one of the sources.
Clips Nation has an absolute must-read on the episode. The post begins with a smart juxtaposition of Mark Cuban's rant vs. Sterling's "out of control" tantrum and -- more important -- the contrasting presence the two owners cast over their respective franchises:
Cuban is a constant, active presence around the Mavericks. He has a relationship with the players, he is incredibly visible to the fans, he is transaparent - if anything, too transparent. He blogs for FSM's sake. As such, it's not unusual that he spoke about the team after a loss, only that he passionately conveyed his disappointment.
Sterling is also a presence. A dark specter, a sepulchral cloud that hangs over the franchise. He is rarely interviewed, and is perceived to take little or no interest in the team beyond the money it costs him...
60 games in, he has yet to be quoted discussing the Clippers this season. He answered a couple of questions regarding the Elgin Baylor lawsuit in February, and that's the sum total of what we've heard from Donald Sterling this season. Until now. (Don't get me started on what we heard from him last year.)
It's also worth noting the difference in the way these messages were conveyed. Mark Cuban sat down with the Dallas basketball reporters and gave them direct quotes. Donald Sterling showed up in the locker room (the first time that has happened in six seasons, according to MDsr) and went on a "profanity-laced tirade" according to one account. I suppose you could make an argument that behind closed doors was the better way to proceed as opposed to calling out the team in the press. But that ignores the reality and the history of the situations. Cuban is well known to his players and interacts with them frequently. For all we know, he said all of this to the players in the Ford Center after the game and the players had enough respect for him to keep it to themselves. But he was willing to go on record as well, and he has earned that right as an involved owner.
To the Clippers, Sterling is just the guy who signs the checks. Given the turnover on this roster, it's entirely possible that the first time some of these players heard Donald Sterling's voice was as he was dropping F-bombs on them. Think Alex Acker or Fred Jones have had lunch with the boss? If I've established a rapport with you, and then I justifiably criticize you, it may motivate you to improve. If I've completely ignored you for six months and then I show up and yell and scream, it will have the opposite effect. As a team source said, "After that the guys don't even want to play for him." What a surprise.
In Cuban's case, sitting down and talking to reporters was a calculated tactic to try to get his team's attention. He wants their effort to improve, and he's sincere when he says that they won't be back if it doesn't. He's willing to back that up.
In Sterling's case, he got pissed off and became hysterical. I suppose it's an improvement over complete apathy. But is he even willing to do something about it other than berate the players he has until now been ignoring?
As recently as 2006, the Clippers looked poised to emerge from their rank as pro sports' worst franchise. Sterling began to spend money; he hired a legitimate NBA coach; premier players such as Elton Brand seemed to embrace the Clippers as a desirable place to call home. Facile critics could no longer dismiss the franchise as a punch line.
Sterling's recent antics, be it his conduct in the public sphere, the ugly parting with Elgin Baylor, and now his antics in the locker room, are a sober reminder that no matter how much the organization might try to reinvent itself, ownership continues to be "[a] dark specter, a sepulchral cloud that hangs over the franchise."
Clips Nation's conclusion channels every Clipper fans' eternal frustration and disgust:
We sometimes get upset at the overly simplistic "It's the Clippers" approach to the coverage of our (unnaturally, undeservedly) beloved team. When Sterling is quiet long enough that we can almost forget about what a bad, bad human being he is, we think "Hey, why can't the Clippers succeed some day?" And then he opens his mouth and we know the answer. As long as Donald Sterling is the owner, I fear that "It's the Clippers" will be a valid explanation for everything.