Hard work not always enough

It was the kind of problem that wouldn't have been one 30 years ago.

But it was always there, in the Los Angeles Clippers' record, in the way they played, in their maddening inconsistency.

Something just wasn't right.

The team had too much talent to flounder the way it sometimes did. The team played too well against good teams (such as the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers) to play so poorly against bad teams (such as the New Jersey Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves) just a few nights later.

Injuries were a factor, sure. Chemistry, bad luck, etc.

But it was more than that. The kind of problem you can never really put your finger on, except to say that something just isn't quite right.

Like when everyone in a room stares at a piece of art and can't decide whether it's hanging level on the wall. The more you look, the more you twist and turn your head at different angles, the more confused you become.

Which is exactly why Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy had to step away Thursday and let someone else (interim coach Kim Hughes) have a fresh look at it.

He has tried to figure it out. Tried harder than anyone. But this was never a question of effort.

If anything, Dunleavy might have tried too hard over the years, gripping the ball so tightly it would sometimes deflate and bounce flat off the hardwood.

As Clippers power forward Marcus Camby put it, "I can tell you firsthand that nobody works harder than Mike and his staff. I see them in there every day watching tape, working."

That's how Dunleavy has always approached problems. Work hard, put your head down, work some more, keep your head down, work some more.

I remember last season, back when I was covering the Clippers regularly, Dunleavy recounted his warm-up routines before games back when he was a player in the NBA from 1976 to 1990.

First he ran to work up a sweat. Then he went through shooting drills from all over the court. Then he stretched. And ran. Then he shot some more.

"I was drenched before the game even started," he said.

The thing is, not all players are cut from that sweaty cloth. Not all NBA players have that work ethic or passion or mindset. Which is not to question any of the Clippers' work ethic or passion or mindset. Camby, for one, is one of the most professional, hardworking players in the league. He'd fit into any era.

But not all players respond to a coach who attacks problems with that kind of relentless vigor.

Sometimes a lighter touch goes over better. Sometimes a team just needs to cut loose. Like when your computer is acting up, sometimes it's best to stop pressing so many buttons and just hit the restart button and see whether it can work itself out.

"Mike and I had a great relationship," Camby said. "He'd always text me and check in on me. He always had an open-door policy.

"But in all sports, in all situations, when the team's not performing well, people look to blame the coach. I think that sometimes as players you have to take responsibility. … And I can say that there may have been night's when we didn't follow through with the game plan, or execute the way we needed to."

Coming from a veteran like Camby, who has seen his share of bad situations in the NBA, that's quite a statement.

But it doesn't change the fact that Dunleavy just wasn't getting as much out of this team as he, and everyone else around the organization, wanted to.

The discussion of whether the team might benefit from a new voice has been going on since the Clippers' embarrassing 31-point loss to the Phoenix Suns on Christmas Day. It was tabled after the team won five home games in a row over the holidays, including wins over the Celtics and Lakers.

But it resurfaced again on the team's recently completed 2-6 road trip, in which the Clippers lost to the Nets and Timberwolves on consecutive nights.

"Mike was willing to sacrifice himself to see if it could maybe give the team a jolt going into the All-Star break," said Dunleavy's agent, Warren LeGarie.

"Because we all felt like the talent was there. It just wasn't showing up consistently. So Mike looked into his own heart and decided it was best to make this decision now.

"That maybe it's time for a fresh approach or a new voice because there can be a certain shelf life to coaching.

"Kim will be enough of a change that the players can feel it."