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Clippers endure a season of more discontent than usual

CLIPPERS

Clippers add rancor, Elgin Baylor's lawsuit and out-of-shape star Baron Davis into their usual mix of bad luck and injuries.

March 27, 2009|Lisa Dillman

Where did it all go wrong?

Of course, a qualifier is needed when it concerns the Clippers and their unique brand of bad luck, misfortune and self-inflicted damage rolled into one unsightly package.

Where did it all go wrong this time?

From prized rookie Eric Gordon's injury on opening day of the Clippers' training camp, to their new $65-million point guard, Baron Davis, reporting out of shape and, most recently, with rookie Mike Taylor starting the second half instead of Davis in Wednesday's game against the Knicks, it's almost been a season of reverse momentum.

That doesn't include a long litany of injuries, the suspension of Ricky Davis for violating the league's drug policy, and the stream of bizarre off-court machinations, framing the heavily criticized and embattled Clippers General Manager and Coach Mike Dunleavy and his quickly cooling relationship with Baron Davis.

Meanwhile, the Clippers, winners of 18 games, will miss the playoffs for the fifth time in Dunleavy's six seasons as coach.

So it's difficult to know where to start. Would it be with the clumsy preseason parting with a revered figure, longtime Clippers' executive and Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor? Or how about Baylor's racially charged lawsuit in February against Clippers owner Donald Sterling, alleging that Sterling embraced a "vision of a Southern plantation-type structure" for his NBA franchise?

Headline-grabbing moments. But Sterling found ways to create new ones, charging into the Clippers' locker room after the March 2 loss to the Spurs and airing out the team, in particular forward Al Thornton, because the symbol of the team's malaise, Baron Davis, was not in clear eyeshot.

One of the newer Clippers wasn't even sure about the identity of the interloper, obviously not recognizing Sterling, and wondered whether he should call security.

Thornton, who squirms in the spotlight under the best of circumstances, was so bothered by the attack that later that night he privately met with Sterling, and Dunleavy, for about 15 minutes, to defend himself away from his teammates.

Center Chris Kaman, who missed 48 consecutive games because of a foot injury, openly wondered how it was possible for anyone to remain a Clippers fan. And Thornton said he felt as though the season was almost doomed from the start.

"This whole thing is completely blown out of proportion," said Clippers President Andy Roeser. "Mike's our GM, and Mike's our coach. Our basketball staff is working well together and we're not looking to make any changes."

Given the Clippers' wildly destabilizing season, though, it was not surprising that the next sneakers to drop came on their current six-game road trip.

Within the last couple of weeks, the Clippers have been linked in various reports to Lakers' assistant GM Ronnie Lester, former Lakers GM and legend Jerry West, former Lakers coach Randy Pfund, and, former Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, the latter three names surfacing in the last few days.

Lester and West denied there were job offers, in separate interviews with The Times. Thomas is doing what he can to try to get back into the game, and with his daughter set to attend Loyola Marymount, he offered to work for the Clippers without getting paid because he is still receiving money from the Knicks, Dunleavy said.

The Clippers were sympathetic to Thomas' overtures.

"Isiah came to us," Dunleavy said in a telephone interview Thursday morning. "I wasn't going to be a jerk and say, 'I can't talk to you.' But there's no position in the organization for him."

Thomas ran into Sterling at a party and apparently pushed for work and asked whether he could sit next to the owner at an upcoming game, according to Dunleavy.

That didn't happen.

The biggest name to surface, West, seemed to run almost counterintuitive. West has a long, close friendship with Baylor. West easily could have made the short move to the Clippers during his days as a Lakers executive, seriously cashing in for bigger money with Sterling.

West wouldn't even consider doing that to his friend Baylor then and certainly not after Baylor's public ouster and subsequent lawsuit against Sterling and the Clippers.

But Sterling has a habit of asking seemingly every person he runs into for their opinions on his team, seeking validation or criticism of his players and employees.

Dunleavy said Sterling started asking him about West before the All-Star break, wondering what Dunleavy thought of West's job performance with the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Clippers didn't offer West a position but had Roeser talk to him, Dunleavy said, adding that Dunleavy favored adding West as a consultant.

There was no interest, as expected, from West.

Which may lead to more names getting floated, because there is a school of thought that the Clippers are poised to do something, despite the denials and despite the roughly $11 million left on the remaining two years of Dunleavy's contract after this season.

Has Sterling asked Dunleavy to make a choice between the positions of general manager or coach?

"Not at all," Dunleavy said. "Even on the Jerry West thing he posed it to me: 'Would you want Jerry West?' I'm not going to say anything negative. A lot of times I ran into him [West], I would do it [ask questions] anyway. The bottom line: Jerry knows basketball."

--

lisa.dillman@latimes.com

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