Clippers need more accountability

LOS ANGELES -- There is, as usual this time of year, a measure of regret. Not from what could've been done but wasn't, but simply from what happened but didn't have to.

Kim Hughes knew exactly what he was getting into when the Clippers named him interim head coach the first week of February when Mike Dunleavy stepped away.

He was taking over a chronically underachieving and oft-injured team with too many pending free agents and only an outside shot at the playoffs. Still he figured, or at least hoped, the guys would play hard, that they might try and digest his approach, and there might be some jolt in hearing a new voice every day in practice.

That hope, as events unfolded over the final three months of the season, never became a reality. Instead the team was broken apart at the trading deadline so the franchise could clear enough space under the salary cap to pursue an elite free agent in the offseason.

But to say that was the cause of the Clippers' 8-25 skid to the finish is too simplistic.

Speaking as a man who had the best seat on the bench for the second half of the season and as a man who knows the chances of returning to that same seat on the bench next season are probably remote, Hughes spoke at length and with refreshing candor Wednesday evening about the issues that plagued the Clippers this season and what they must address going forward.

"I do think I got the opportunity I wanted and deserved. Is it a fair chance? We'll see how it plays out," Hughes said. "You can't really objectively analyze it unless you're given a training camp, unless it's your players."

Hughes said the team's biggest problem was the number of pending free agents it had on the roster (nine) who had no incentive to play defense or buy into his agenda when it was unlikely both he and they would be back next season.

"I think it's the 'interim' as much as the free agency that stops the process of entering their eardrums and going to the synapses and their brain," he said. "I think somehow it short circuits when they're free agents because their agent is telling them, 'You've got to score points' and the coach is telling them, 'You've got to guard and defend' and they're thinking who should they listen to.

"I understand that. It's not a good system, but it's our system in the NBA."

Still, he said he wasn't angry or resentful toward the players.

"I understand that, with free agency, when you have nine guys that are looking out for No. 1 first, that's human nature," he said. "Their objective is to get a contract for next year first. That's unfortunate it's that way but that's reality."

Before we go on here, I need to at least try and capture the manner in which Hughes delivered these biting lines. There was no smugness or arrogance in his voice. He seemed relaxed, sitting back on the chair inside his office, neither pleading for understanding or sympathy nor even hoping it would be given.

He said he'd enjoyed his time in the head coaches' chair and was thankful to be given the opportunity. He said he felt confident he'd given his best effort, and promised to continue reporting for duty until his contract expires at the end of June.

He planned to watch video from the season and of potential free agents the Clippers could target. He is going to be in the office every day to fiddle around with the new Synergy scouting software the team is using to help analyze tendencies and players.

It's a role he actually has been in before, during his last season in Denver when he spent most of the season scouting and riding the elliptical machine at the team's facility because new general manager Kiki Vandeweghe did not want him as an assistant coach after Hughes had pushed for the Nuggets to hire Larry Harris instead.

"I'd come in at 6:30 in the morning and leave around 4 p.m. every day and it was boring. Really boring. I'm not sure I got much accomplished. There's only so much you can do," he said.

"But I think that if you're paid you should show up. All the other coaches got fired. Maybe that's what they wanted me to do. But I think the right thing to do is show up to work.

"I think I shocked the [heck] out of them. I think they probably thought, 'What is wrong with this guy? Doesn't this guy have a home?' But I really believed it was the right thing to do."

As he spoke, there was no way to ignore the irony of Hughes' work ethic and professionalism with that of some of the players he'd been trying to coach the last three months of this season.

Hughes didn't want to dwell on that but didn't duck the question.

"You should play to win because you're a competitor," Hughes said. "But you can't teach players to be a competitor. You either are or you're not. And talking about our guys, if our guys aren't competitors, it's time to move them."

In other words, there has been an evaluation not only of physical ability going on the last three months, but hearts and minds.

Last week, former Clipper Marcus Camby offered an interesting insight into why the franchise always seems so snakebitten by misfortune and injuries. His new team, the Trail Blazers, has been similarly decimated by injuries this season but still made the playoffs as the seventh-seeded team in the Western Conference.

"That's a tough question to answer," Camby said. "Those guys in L.A. I know they worked extremely hard.

"But up here the Trail Blazers are the toast of the town, there's really no other [pro] sports teams to focus on, so the crowd and the environment here at the arena gives those guys a big big advantage.

"Here in L.A., there's USC, UCLA, Manny [Ramirez], Kobe [Bryant], Pau [Gasol], the Kings. There's so much going on in the city. Up here in Portland it's just all about basketball. We're the first, second and third options up there. I think that plays a little bit into it."

In other words, there is a lack of accountability that hovers above the Clippers, not a curse. An acceptance of dysfunction and early April season-endings that will be difficult to undo.

Hughes has been here long enough to understand that. He hoped his direct, no-nonsense approach would help to change some of that. He certainly tried.

But another Clippers season ended Wednesday night with a measure of regret. Not from what could've been done but wasn't, but from what happened but didn't have to.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.