In a decision that came as a surprise to no one except perhaps Donald T. Sterling and his lawyer, an arbitrator Friday awarded $13 million to former Clippers coach and general manager Mike Dunleavy, Sr. Dunleavy had filed for arbitration when the team stopped paying him after he was fired as general manager in March of 2010. The $13M award included $6.75M remaining on his contract and money owed in deferred compensation.
To paraphrase Lionel Hutz, I'm no law-talkin' guy, but there was never any doubt in my mind that Dunleavy was going to get every penny that he was owed. The organization's claim during arbitration that MDsr breached the contract by stepping down as coach never made much sense - why keep him on as GM for another month if you consider that a breach? And why pay him during that month? Then when they fired him as GM, they just stopped writing checks, and given the nature of your standard coaching contract in the NBA, you can't really do that.
The last time the Clippers tried to get out of paying a coach, at least they had the decency to make a pretense of having a legal position. In that case, they claimed that former coach Bill Fitch was not actively seeking employment with another team (if he had gotten another coaching job it would have relieved the Clippers of the responsibility of paying him). Never mind that Fitch was 64 at the time the Clippers fired him, and that it's basically impossible to demonstrate in any reasonable manner that some one is or is not actively pursuing an NBA coaching job. That law suit was settled out of court.
It should be noted that MDsr is no dummy. For a time between his playing days and the start of his coaching career he worked on Wall Street. He knew Donald Sterling's reputation before he took the job with the Clippers, and he knew what had happened with Fitch. So if most NBA coaching contracts can reasonably be described as 'iron clad' I would say it's safe to assume that Dunleavy's was forged from something akin to adamantium. Let's put it this way - I spoke to many people familiar with the situation, and there was never a question as to whether or not he would get paid.
Which of course begs the question of why the Clippers would stop paying him, triggering 14 months of arbitration and all of the associated bad publicity. Astoundingly, the organization got into this high visibility spat over contractually owed monies at precisely the time that they were pursuing LeBron James in free agency. Here's what I had to say at the time:
It's no secret that the Clippers as an organization have long been dysfunctional and frankly tone-deaf, but the timing of this particular revelation is astonishing, even by their standards. Entering a summer in which they need to hire a head coach and have as much as $18M to offer to marquee free agents, it's mind-numbing that they'd create a story that reminds everyone in the NBA of what a petty and irrelevant franchise they once were, and quite possibly still are.
Of course, they did manage to hire another coach in Vinny Del Negro (such as he is). But they certainly weren't able to sign a marquee free agent. Now, you could argue that they never really had a shot at LeBron, Dunleavy arbitration or not, and you'd be correct. But it certainly didn't help, and it doesn't help in pursuing free agents this summer either.
So why stop paying a coach when you more or less know that you're going to lose in arbitration, which will cost you both the money and the negative press? I have no idea. I think it just comes down to Donald Sterling being kind of a strange dude. Don't forget that the firing of Dunleavy was announced during halftime of a road game, and Dunleavy himself had no idea it was coming. The Clippers as an organization have made major strides towards normalcy and stability in recent years and are light years ahead of where they were in the San Diego days when Sterling asked coach Paul Silas to tape players' ankles so he could save the cost of a trainer. But somehow when it came to Sterling and Dunleavy, the old Clippers dysfunction seemed to return. In 2008 they got into an immature and very public disagreement carried out in the newspaper. In 2010 the Clippers fired him out of the blue during halftime of a game. Then they stopped paying him. This was not a healthy relationship.
Will anything change in Clipper-land in the wake of this arbitration decision? Probably not. The good news is that at least this episode will be behind the team now. So we can just wait for the next time that Donald Sterling is in the news for all the wrong reasons.