At a late night dinner in Manhattan on Monday, Mike Dunleavy had left a starry-eyed Beno Udrih intrigued with the possibility of playing point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers. Udrih had listened to the coach’s pitch and suggested to friends that he had gone to bed torn between staying with the Sacramento Kings and leaving for L.A.
Dunleavy had played the cool hand of a sincere recruiter, because his mind must have been somewhere else at the witching hour. Word out of Golden State that Baron Davis had opted-out of $17.8 million had spread with shock among league executives, who immediately alleged that the Clippers had hatched a plan to secure Davis. Nevertheless, the 12:01 a.m. ET pursuit of Udrih played out as the perfect alibi.
Just understand: Once Tuesday morning had come, and the Clippers had gone into all-Baron mode, Udrih and his reps were fortunate to get a call returned. Elgin Baylor is on the top of the Clippers' letterhead, but Dunleavy learned his lessons best with his boss’ old Lakers teammate, Jerry West.
No one believes Elton Brand happened to opt-out of his $16.4 million contract on Monday on the random hope that it would help the Clippers recruit a talented teammate. The NBA isn’t Never-Never Land where stars leave $17.8 million on the table, as Davis did, on the blind belief that one of the notoriously thrifty owners, Donald Sterling, might be willing to bring him home to Los Angeles with a $65 million contract.
“You don’t just opt out of that kind of money,” an NBA GM said within hours of Davis’ late night escape on Monday.
Everyone suspected a pre-arranged deal, and no one could prove it. There are no accidents in the high-stakes game of free agency, and while tampering and secret deals are almost impossible to prosecute, give the Clips this: Once the NBA’s most foolish franchise, they stopped at nothing to make themselves a relevant Staples Center tenant again. For all the years the Clippers spent refusing to pay good players, perhaps they’re owed an indiscretion or two.
Whatever happened, Dunleavy deserves monumental credit for holding together a franchise, an owner, that is forever the NBA’s most volatile. Through the years, through the wild ups and downs of employment under Sterling, no one has done a better job of selling and re-selling Sterling on the commitment to compete in the wild, wild West.
Dunleavy talked him into spending for Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and Sam Cassell, and Sterling paid his coach $22 million over five years for stability on the sideline. When injuries ravaged the Clips last season, Sterling started back on his wild public rants, blaming Dunleavy, vetoing a trade for Memphis’ Mike Miller and rejecting a past chance to sign Udrih. The coach spoke his peace in public, but never held a grudge. Never turned this into a private war. He kept working to convince Sterling and the Clips president, Andy Roeser, of a plan to bring the franchise back to relevance.
The Warriors have made a maximum five-year, $90 million offer to Brand. Still, getting a commitment from Davis should sell Brand on staying with the Clippers – when one playoff appearance in eight years should’ve sent him running out of town. The Clippers have a culture that would destroy morale elsewhere, where everything is done on the cheap, where responsibilities that should be spread to two, even three people, are burdened on one. Scouts are made to drive where other teams fly, Courtyards are the preferred choice over Marriotts. Only the bare necessity personnel are allowed to travel to summer leagues.
Dunleavy and Neil Olshey, the team’s director of player personnel, have maintained this culture without letting morale drop the way it did under previous regimes. As long as these measures gave everyone the belief that managing the business side would play a part in selling Sterling on paying for players, the basketball operations and coaching staffs could live with it. Sterling is cheap for a major market owner who turns a profit, but these conditions exist throughout a lot of smaller-market teams. What always drove Clippers people nuts was that they knew their owner was making money hand over fist.
Adding Davis for $65 million doesn’t make the Clippers a championship contender, but it makes them a hot ticket again. Davis is a relentlessly popular player in Southern California, the kind of point guard that no one in the Western Conference elite plays without. Even so, history suggests that it never ends well with him. The New Orleans Hornets remember him poisoning young players. When Hornets officials told Davis his “personal trainer” (AAU lackey) wasn’t allowed on the practice floor, he protested by dragging the guy outside the team’s facility, laying down a yoga mat and stretching on the sidewalk.
And for everything Davis did for the Warriors – bringing them back to the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, embarrassing the No. 1 seed Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs – just remember that Golden State did little to keep him. Coach Don Nelson benched him to end the season and GM Chris Mullin wouldn’t engage him in legitimate contract extension talks. Once Davis opted out on Monday night, Golden State didn’t come close to the contract the Clippers offered.
When it comes to Davis, those who’ve worked with him will tell you that you just never know which version you’ll get that day. Is it, Baron the star talent? Baron, the movie maker, VIP glad-handler? Baron, the kind, generous leader? Baron, the aloof, distant teammate? They’ve always found him easily pulled, easily influenced and that’ll be a profound challenge with him back in Los Angeles.
Whatever issues life with Davis presents, they’re surely better than the ones that would’ve come with life without him. Suddenly, the Staples Center matters every night now. There’s no paper trail on Baron Davis to the Clips, but give Mike Dunleavy this: His fingerprints are all over it.
However this happened, just understand: The days of dumb luck are long gone with the Clips.