Clipper ship still adrift with Captain Sterling

The old man running the Los Angeles Clippers declared some kind of liberation from losing with a nasty, humiliating and perfectly in-character firing at halftime of a halfhearted loss. Had Donald Sterling been watching TV, tossed a tantrum and obliterated Mike Dunleavy as GM with an email blast? Sounds about right.

The biggest embarrassment ever under the NBA commissioner’s watch, as pitiful and pathetic of an owner sports has ever seen, Sterling acted like he had done something he’s rarely done in his life: a public service.

The Clippers have won just one playoff series during Donald Sterling's 29-year ownership.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

Firing Dunleavy changes nothing for the Clippers. They’ll never win something significant or something sustained. They’ll never be blessed with the staying power, the resolve, to be a contender. Dunleavy goes and they’re celebrating the abrupt firing as some kind of a clarion call from Sterling. This was no mission statement, but the ranting of the crazy uncle living in David Stern’s attic.

“The Clippers want to win now,” the statement said Tuesday night. “This transition, in conjunction with a full commitment to dedicate unlimited resources, is designed to accomplish that objective.”

Unlimited resources won’t include Sterling’s inevitable bid to give Dunleavy the full Al Davis treatment on the money left on his contract. Sterling will probably fight payment on it, and go Lane Kiffin on his ex-coach and GM.

The only things that Sterling has ever “fully committed” these so-called “unlimited resources” to are settling the lawsuits of his racist, slumlord heart.

Hey LeBron, come out to L.A.

You can pick your GM, your coach, your teammates.

Anything you want to be a Clipper – you can do anything but rent from me.

Sterling finally pushed Dunleavy out, and now Sterling has a chance to turn his franchise over to a strong, smart, cutting-edge executive, with some good young players in the program, with Blake Griffin(notes) redshirting and serious salary-cap space. Sterling has long let a particular coaching/front-office agent – through Dunleavy – use the Clips as a wasteland for his clients. Those days need to end, and that starts with a front office constructed on merit, not cronyism.

The free agent class of 2010 doesn’t just include LeBron and Dwyane Wade(notes), but one of the NBA’s best executives, Denver’s Mark Warkentien.

For everyone thrilled Dunleavy is gone, there’s still the fact that his groomed successor, solid player personnel guy Neil Olshey, takes over now. For all his phony talk about whatever it takes to win, Sterling is still staying on the cheap and easy with Olshey. He’s a front-office keeper, but his brief body of work doesn’t make him a leading man.

Olshey has been a competent player personnel man with trades and picks, but the job is so much bigger than player personnel. With the Lakers next door, the Clippers still need big vision, big ideas and a big presence. Olshey is solid as a No. 2, but still a novice with the complexities of the GM job people never see, that its self promoters without playoff success and championships never talk about at those NBA “Star Trek” conventions in New England.

How do you deal with a crazy owner? How do you hire and evaluate coaches? How do you handle entourages and players angry over contract negotiations and player agents making threats? Here’s a job that’s never been so demanding, especially with Sterling making his impulsive moves. Just days ago, Dunleavy was talking with agents, discussing free agency, the draft, potential trades, sources said. He appeared to have no inclination that he was about to be fired as GM.

Sterling can forget LeBron in 2010, but what about Carmelo Anthony(notes) in 2011? Warkentien has shown ‘Melo that he can construct a contender around him in Denver, and as much as anything, that’s what star players want with their max deals: reasons to believe they’ll play for titles.

Donald Sterling and the Clippers fired Mike Dunleavy as general manager a month after he stepped down as coach.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

Warkentien was the 2009 NBA Executive of the Year, and here’s a most absurd fact: He still hasn’t been offered a contract extension. Sources say his agent Steve Kauffman was told that talks would start over the summer and never did. Amazingly, Denver owner Stan Kroenke and his son Josh have yet to reach out.

“So far, Denver hasn’t done anything to try and keep him,” a league source said.

Warkentien spent most of his childhood in Southern California, graduated from Cal State Fullerton and sources insist that Denver’s puzzling reluctance to engage in extension talks has left him prepared to move on. It would be a crushing blow to a Nuggets franchise that Warkentien helped elevate from a perennial first-round loser into a Western Conference finalist and championship contender. There’s always been something of a power play in Denver’s front office, a fight for ownership’s ear, but most league executives and agents consider Warkentien one of the sport’s shrewdest talent evaluators and negotiators.

Now, Sterling has a chance to make a bid for one of basketball’s best minds, and that ultimately has to be a precursor to hiring a coach and luring a max-out star this summer. Sterling did meet with Jerry West a year ago, but a source close to West says there are two reasons he wouldn’t consider a comeback with the Clippers: His loyalty to the Lakers and the lawsuit his old teammate Elgin Baylor is chasing against Sterling.

As for West’s interest should Oracle CEO Larry Ellison purchase the Golden State Warriors? “Now that would be different,” the source said. They’ve been in contact, but there’s still no assurances Warriors owner Chris Cohan will sell.

Donald Sterling has always talked a big game, but he’s never gone after a star GM in his prime. Dunleavy leaves the franchise set up in some good ways, but Sterling doesn’t understand that winning in the NBA doesn’t come from empty words in absurdly worded press-release firings, doesn’t come with throwing red meat to a fan base that wanted the old GM embarrassed and fired on the spot.

Unless Donald Sterling fires Donald Sterling, nothing changes with the Clippers. He has a chance to save his franchise from himself again, but he won’t do it. He’ll never do it. The Clippers want to win now, he says. Unlimited resources available. Just listen to him. He’s said all this over and over through the years, and nothing ever changes because Sterling still hasn’t fired Sterling.

Stop talking about LeBron, stop talking about the promotion of a novice GM who’ll be powerless to make a difference. Donald Sterling sounds crazier than ever. Nothing else matters. It all starts with Sterling and it always will.

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Mar 10, 2010