When Mike Dunleavy stepped down as the Los Angeles Clippers’ coach last week, Baron Davis(notes) lost his last excuse. If Davis doesn’t regain his All-Star form – if the Clippers don’t start winning – no longer can people simply blame it on Dunleavy’s controlling style. With interim coach Kim Hughes promising to run more, Davis is free again. And with that comes pressure.
“I got to go out and get back to being my old self now,” Davis told Yahoo! Sports. “Coach Kim is going to allow me to be a little bit freer and play off instincts. So, I just got to get back to that mentality. From there, I think everything else will take care of itself.”
The Clippers have expected big things from Davis ever since they gave him a five-year, $65 million contract to return home to Los Angeles two summers ago. They had watched him lead the Golden State Warriors to the playoffs in 2007 and then average 21.8 points and 7.6 assists the following season. The Clippers had also expected Elton Brand(notes) would still be around to help lead them, but even after Brand left for the Philadelphia 76ers, they thought Davis could help return them to the playoffs.
But for all the defenders who have tried to impede Davis’ progress, the one he never seemed to be able to get past was the man standing in front of his own bench. Dunleavy has built a reputation as a controlling offensive coach who calls the majority of the plays. Davis had succeeded with the Warriors by playing a freewheeling style under coach Don Nelson where he was often given the freedom to run what he wanted.
“He was great when he was here,” Nelson said.
With injuries also slowing Davis, the Clippers won just 19 games last season. But for all of the team’s issues – and there were many – the most common diagnosis for the Clippers’ struggles centered on the poor relationship between Davis and Dunleavy.
To the credit of both, Dunleavy and Davis did their best to try to get on the same page by spending some time together off the court last summer. The addition of No. 1 pick Blake Griffin(notes) also was supposed to help spark the Clippers. Griffin, however, never played a game before the team decided to shelve him for the season because of a broken kneecap. With a number of other injuries also contributing to their troubles, the Clippers never settled into a rhythm. Dunleavy decided to step down after the team returned from an eight-game trip that saw them win just twice.
“I think me and coach have a great relationship now,” Davis said. “It came from us communicating in the summertime and really spending time with each other and getting to know one another on a one-on-one basis. [Last season], I just signed and we never really had a chance to spend some time together as coach and as player. We were both just thrust on the situation.”
Davis said he was “shocked” by Dunleavy’s move to the front office full-time, but supported the decision.
“Dunleavy’s approach was more structured and more precision in the half court and exploiting mismatches,” Davis said. “It was different for me because I’m used to pushing the ball, making the game fun, making the game kind of creative. It took me a while when to gauge when to run, when not to, when to set up. But it started working for us a little bit this year until he resigned.”
While his assists are a little higher, Davis is averaging about six points fewer than he did his last season at Golden State. Hughes, however, has vowed to give Davis the keys to the Clippers’ offense, freeing him to run more while also using “pieces” of Dunleavy’s system. With a simplified playbook, the Clippers hope to employ more of a motion-based offense to accentuate Davis’ preferred up-tempo style.
While Hughes admitted his chances of keeping the Clippers’ coaching position full-time aren’t strong, he knows he needs the Davis of old to win games – and possibly win his job.
“I have to get Baron engaged to have luck,” Hughes said. “That’s my only chance for the team to have success.”
Eric Gordon(notes) and Griffin figure to be the cornerstones of the Clippers’ future. Center Chris Kaman(notes) also has played well enough to be chosen as a replacement for the Western Conference All-Star team. But the spotlight still burns brightly on Davis. If Los Angeles has any shot of making a last-ditch run at a playoff berth – or showing any improvement at all this season – then Davis will need to carry a bigger load as he tries to return to his freewheeling ways.
Davis, for one, thinks “better days” are still ahead of him and the Clippers.
“It’s a team game and we have to do it collectively, but I do take responsibility for where we go in the future,” Davis said. “It’s important for us to play well and improve. I will accept responsibility for that.”