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Friday, February 5, 2010
It's on the players now

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

Mike Dunleavy was done. Fried. Burnt out. Bummin.'

Some of what he was saying was getting through to his players; some of it was bouncing off their eardrums like that annoying echo you sometimes get in your cell phone where all you hear is yourself talking.

After his Clippers lost to the New Jersey Nets -- a team he worried about and warned his players about in the strongest terms possible -- on Jan. 27, he was as down as he had been in a long time.

Chris Kaman and Baron Davis
Chris Kaman and Baron Davis need to help Kim Hughes lead the Clippers now.
"That one really disappointed me," Dunleavy said. "It had a big part in me making the decision [to step down].

"I tried to put it to our players, 'Look, I'm really worried about you guys in this game. You've got to get your focus. There's times when you're not focused, and you've got to get your head around this.'

"It still didn't work. That bothered me. That really bothered me."

Two nights later, the team lost again, this time in Minnesota, and Dunleavy knew then that his shelf life with the Clippers players was expiring quickly.

"As a coach, you need to be recharged and regenerated, and the way that happens is, your players win big games for you," he said. "This trip was a real drain on me. I worried about my enthusiasm going forward, and if that was an issue, then it's time to make a change."

Despite a nice win in Chicago, his decision had been made.

It was time to give someone else a chance, to see whether the sound of another voice could penetrate what's been a difficult group of players to reach.

Jovial 6-foot-11 assistant coach Kim Hughes was handed the keys, but as much as I like Hughes, and regardless what anyone thinks of his coaching skills, the final two and a half months have nothing to do with him.

What's left of this season for the Clippers is about answering two questions:

1. Was Dunleavy's heavy-handed style the problem all along?

2. Or is it the players?

Clippers president Andy Roeser admitted as much at Friday's practice.

"I think this give us a chance to see two things: Whether they just needed to hear another voice? Or whether our evaluation of players has been off?" Roeser said bluntly.

In other words, "It's on you now, guys."

Clippers point guard Baron Davis was careful not to criticize Dunleavy's style, and actually had some kind words to say for his now-former coach, but he suggested that the chemistry and camaraderie would improve under Hughes.

"Game to game, I think the element of fun was far and few in between," Davis said. "For the talent we've got, we have to play at a very, very high level and it has to be fun in order to keep everybody engaged.

"We're a team fighting and still trying to find our identity. We just want to win as many games as we possibly can. It's up to us now. It's up to everyone in that locker room to come and play.

"We're going to have our ups and downs, but we still have to improve. I think that's what management is going to be looking at, is who is improving and who is sacrificing to push themselves to make us a better team."

Left unsaid is that Dunleavy is now exclusively part of that "management," watching from on high to see how the team continues to develop.

Maybe Hughes' voice will reach them more clearly than Dunleavy's.

Maybe his more laid-back style will connect with them.

Whatever the case, Dunleavy won't be around to kick around anymore.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com