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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Clips off old stumbling block; Mike Dunleavy off the chopping block

Clippers are finally getting healthy and starting to resemble the promising team Dunleavy built as GM — and (surprise!) he’s still coaching them too.

January 10, 2010|Mark Heisler

You still here?

Dangled two years ago by owner Donald T. Sterling ("Do you think anybody loves their coach? They're just a necessity") . . . a punching bag for ESPN's Bill Simmons ("In the post-Isiah era, is Mike Dunleavy the single most destructive coach/executive in the NBA right now?") . . . on life support after this season's 3-9 start.

Look who's still here, coaching something resembling a team after years of coaching something resembling a discontented MASH unit.

All it took was enough people to get well, and, in some cases, to get over it, and a contract that kept Sterling from pulling the plug in the meantime.

This team got here last fall after a series of slick moves -- by Dunleavy and his protege, personnel director Neil Olshey -- bringing in Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Marcus Camby and Zach Randolph.

This was semi-amazing after being obliged to turn over the core of the best Clippers team ever, the one that came within two wins of the 2006 Western finals with Elton Brand, Sam Cassell and Shaun Livingston.

Of course, when they went belly-up in a dispiriting-even-for-them 19-63 season, it didn't go down as a coup.

As Simmons wrote last spring:

"He [Dunleavy] blew any chance they had for a superstar in the summer of 2010 by dumping Cuttino Mobley's corpse and Tim Thomas' corpse to New York for Zach Randolph. . . . Camby and [Chris] Kaman now have matching discount signs around their necks and Dunleavy pretends he isn't shopping them to other teams. . . .

"I gotta say, I loved it. As a season-ticket holder who only attends Clipper games to see opposing teams and prays for as much unintentional comedy as possible, this season has been a godsend."

Beyond argument, after declining win totals of 47-40-23-19 amid all their finger-pointing and backbiting, no one needed a good start more than Dunleavy.

Not that that happened either. Instead, Blake Griffin, the prodigy (we think) they lucked into, got hurt, Gordon missed six of the first 12 games and they started 3-9.

By then, the press was talking about a "Clipper Curse," which was a new one for me. All those years, I assumed it was Donald.

At that point, something funny happened . . . nothing.

Going into a Nov. 20 game against Denver that looked like a sure loss, with Minnesota coming in next in a game that would go down to the wire, an even-more-dismayed-than-usual Sterling looked as if he was waiting once more for facts to overwhelm him so he'd know what to do.

Instead of going 0-2, the Clippers went 2-0.

The key was Davis, bummed to the max in fall 2008 after being abandoned by Brand, who'd recruited him, finding everything he heard about the Clippers coming true, wishing he could be beamed out of here.

Funny, Davis can't remember back that far.

"It's hard for me even to remember that much because that wasn't even a glimpse of myself," he says.

"I just vowed to come into this season and not be that person and get back to being the hard-working individual and the leader that I am. . . .

"Once we got around that point where they were talking about Coach getting fired . . . I think everybody just kind of banded together, like we're not going to lose the season at this point."

That would have meant their losing two seasons in a row at that point, which was really scary.

Not to cop out on the sportswriting convention in which a player goes from pain to complex as his scoring average rises, but Davis really is complex: smart, engaging, talented, big-hearted and strong-willed with definite ideas of how he should be coached.

He had never thrived under a system coach like Dunleavy. Nor was it on his list of things he wanted to do, but after last season, BD had as much to prove as MD.

As for the rest of them. . . .

Kaman should get an All-Star nod from the West coaches. Dunleavy is still pretending he's not shopping Kaman or Camby and has either turned into Sir Laurence Olivier or really isn't shopping them.

Even with a history as grisly as the Clippers', perception starts with their record. If it's respectable, with Davis, Griffin, Gordon, Kaman and Camby . . . in a glamour market, even if they've always been behind the ropes, they could be players next summer after Dunleavy "blew any chance they had for a superstar."

Within reach of a maximum slot, they could be in the running for Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Joe Johnson or . . . I'm serious . . . LeBron James.

James doesn't worry about curses, bumbling owners or being in the same town with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.

To 'Bron, no curse could extend to him, all his owners do what he says and that would be Kobe and the Lakers' problem.

It's almost like looking at the Lakers who started the 2007-08 season with a furious Bryant demanding a trade and finished it in the NBA Finals.

You can't get there from where they were. For the Clippers, the butt of the NBA's longest-running joke, it's almost (gulp) paradise.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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