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Clippers' Sterling puts it on Dunleavy to win

January 22, 2008|T.J. SIMERS

OK, SO I find myself writing nice things about Georgia Frontiere and Donald Sterling in the same week, relieved to know I can say the Chargers are still losers.

Sterling's team continues to flop too, but while you would think by now he'd be used to defeat, the guy sitting across the table after watching Utah run the Clippers off their own court Monday afternoon sure appeared to be perturbed.

"I'm not happy," Sterling said. "The fans aren't happy, and can't be happy when they don't see a motivated performance.

"I want to make L.A. fans proud of this team, but if [Elgin Baylor and Mike Dunleavy] can't make it happen, then I have no choice but to make changes."

Talk about tossing a curveball. Two seasons ago, Sterling sat at the same dinner table in Phoenix with Mike Dunleavy, the Clippers scheduled to play a seventh game in Round 2 of the NBA playoffs the next night against the Suns.

Sterling said at the time, "I love Mike Dunleavy," a season later giving him four more years for $22 million, and making him one of the five highest-paid coaches in the NBA.

Now 37 games into that contract, and after searching Dunleavy out for a heart-to-heart after the Utah loss, Sterling said he expects more from his coach.

"That's why I'm paying [Dunleavy] the money I am," he said. "I want to see him win. I don't want to tell him how to do it. I'm just interested in the conclusion. My whole philosophy is hire the best people and let them do their jobs.

"There is no alternative, you have to rely on them, and if it doesn't work out, either you're patient or make changes, right?"

Dunleavy, asked about the owner's frustration, said, "I'm very frustrated too. But I'm also frustrated with the organization. I saw this coming, but had two deals out there that they didn't want to do. It contributed to where we are now."

Sterling owes Dunleavy another $17 million, which would be an expensive divorce.

"I don't think you're ever in love with your coach," he said in dismissing that one night in Phoenix. "Do you think anybody loves their coach? They're just a necessity."

Before I could bring up Jeanie Buss, he said, "I've always liked [Dunleavy]. I respect the coach, but the bottom line in this business is winning, and I don't care if the coach is your relative, if you're not winning, you're not happy. If you hate the coach and he wins, you love him."

IN A wide-ranging interview touching on the future Clippers status of Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and Sam Cassell, he made it clear he has no interest finishing this season with a lottery pick, and expects the Clippers to still be successful despite a 12-25 start.

"I think we can absolutely win this year," he said. "If we could bring in one quality player in a trade, it could change the whole chemistry of the team."

The Clippers' future appears bright if Brand and Shaun Livingston recover fully from injuries, some suggesting it might be best now to get rid of a veteran such as Cassell at the trading deadline, and get younger.

"I want to win and I'm more interested in winning than the lottery," Sterling said. "Our fans are entitled to see our players busting their butts to win. If Sam Cassell or anybody else can help us, whether it's for a month, a year or five years, I want them to help us."

Brand and Maggette will have the chance to opt out of their contracts and become free agents at the end of the season, but Sterling said he's not concerned.

"One, based on my conversation with Elton, he's not going to opt out," said Sterling. "And two, whatever he asks for, I think he deserves. He is our franchise player, we need him. You saw a short time ago we were pretty close to being a special team, and now without him you see how difficult it is."

Brand is due to earn more than $16 million next season, while Maggette, who is scheduled to earn $7 million, has already turned down a $8.5-million-a-year deal from the Clippers.

"I like Maggette, Elgin likes Maggette," Sterling said. "I'd like to keep Maggette, but if the coach could get a better player, how could you tell a coach, whose whole life and future are at stake, you can't have a better player?

"Is anybody going to offer a better player for Maggette?" he asked. "Frankly, I doubt it. I would expect Brand and Maggette to be with us their entire careers."

WHEN HE mentioned rookie Al Thornton, he said he can be special if "he gets some coaching." He said Maggette would be a better player with "aggressive coaching," and obviously Dunleavy won't have to read between the lines to get the message.

Sterling said Dunleavy would be a better coach if Brand and Livington were healthy, but he doesn't want to hear about the black cloud hanging over the team right now.

"In this business everybody has injuries," Sterling said, "and you can't use that as an excuse. What you have to do is bring in new players, work on existing players. Maybe we won't have same record, but you can't offer it as an excuse."

STERLING OFFERED a joke at his own expense, telling the story about a party at his house years ago and comedian Milton Berle saying, "Anyone waiting for the Clippers to win a championship, leaves the porch light on for [Jimmy] Hoffa."

The blame, he said, for the Clippers' failures is his own.

"It's all my fault," he said. "How did I allow all those years of losing? There's a statement, 'Some people know how to win.' I don't know how to win. I know how to win at everything else, but not at sports.

"But I'm prepared to do whatever is necessary to win."

This year, the Clippers are $10 million over the salary cap and with bonuses kicking in -- approaching the NBA luxury tax.

Asked if he breaks out in a cold sweat spending that much money, Sterling said, "I'd probably break out in a cold sweat if we won a couple of games in a row."

--

T.J. Simers can be reached at t.j.simers@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Simers, go to latimes.com/simers.

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