The Los Angeles Clippers have made a coaching change with just 32 games left in the season, naming Kim Hughes as their interim coach on Thursday night after Mike Dunleavy relinquished his bench duties.
Dunleavy will retain the title of Clippers general manager in what the team has described as a decision that was "reached mutually" earlier Thursday during a meeting attended by club president Andy Roeser, Dunleavy and assistant general manager Neil Olshey.
Although Dunleavy has been under pressure at various points during the past few months despite the season-long absence of No. 1 overall pick Blake Griffin (ESPN.com reported in November that Clippers owner Donald Sterling contemplated making a change after an 0-4 start), one source close to the situation insisted that it was Dunleavy's "decision to step down."
Said Dunleavy in a team statement: "I've had several conversations with our owner [Sterling] concerning what we think is best for the team overall. We have discussed the possibility of my concentrating only on basketball operations. That option has always been available to me.
"I've come to the conclusion that this is the ideal time for me to direct my efforts toward the many personnel opportunities that lie before us, such as the trade market, the draft and the free-agent process. We fully expect to be active and productive on all those fronts."
It has been widely assumed in NBA coaching circles that Dunleavy, given Sterling's famed aversion to paying coaches who no longer work for the Clippers, was insulated from being fired because his contract has one more season to go after this season at $5 million.
But even an unexpected victory Tuesday over Chicago could not prevent the Clippers from a 2-6 record on the season's longest road trip, dropping them to 12th in the Western Conference and seven games out of a playoff spot. The trip included a loss in New Jersey, the fourth win all season for the Nets as they careen toward the league's all-time worst single-season record of 9-73 established by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1972-73 campaign.
Three sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that the recent double-digit road losses to New Jersey and Minnesota and the fade from playoff contention again had Sterling and Roeser contemplating a coaching change before Dunleavy voluntarily removed himself from the bench.
"We fully agree with Mike that this is the right time to make this change," Roeser said in a statement. "It just seems clear that the team needs a fresh voice and we hope that our players will respond in a positive way.
"As we approach the trade deadline, the NBA draft and the upcoming free-agent period, our team is very well positioned from a salary-cap standpoint. Mike's experienced input will be vitally important as we continue to develop our young talented nucleus and shape our team's future."
Dunleavy's next chore is deciding whether to trade or keep the in-demand Marcus Camby before the league's Feb. 18 deadline. Dunleavy's record on personnel matters has been strong in L.A., and the Clippers are positioned to have a significant amount of salary-cap space this summer bacause of the trade that sent Zach Randolph to Memphis. The cap flexibility they've maintained to this point has also enabled the Clippers to acquire two quality players -- Camby and swingman Rasual Butler -- from teams plagued by luxury-tax issues (Denver and New Orleans, respectively).
"Mike was a good coach. He's been around the game for like 30 years. It was unfortunate how things turned out. I think he just got caught up in a lot of difficult circumstances," Camby said upon hearing the news.
As the winningest and highest-paid coach in Clippers history, Dunleavy has survived nearly seven seasons working for the volatile Sterling. His record in L.A. is 215-325, but Dunleavy also took the franchise that has suffered so long in the Lakers' shadow to within one win of the Western Conference finals in 2006.
The Clippers had two options when choosing an interim successor before settling on Hughes. The other was John Lucas, who's in his first season as an assistant coach with the Clippers after previous coaching stints in San Antonio, Philadelphia and Cleveland.
Hughes is in his seventh season as a Clippers assistant after 12 seasons as a coach and scout with Denver and Milwaukee.
This is the third coaching change in the NBA this season. New Orleans (Jeff Bower replacing Byron Scott) and New Jersey (Kiki Vandeweghe replacing Lawrence Frank) are the other teams to make changes this season.
"This is something we've been contemplating for some time," Dunleavy's longtime agent Warren LeGarie said. "There's a shelf life to coaching sometimes. So you constantly have to keep measuring whether [the team's inconsistency] is because of injuries, because of you, or something else.
"And at some point you have to make a judgement call about what's best for the team, and that's what Mike did."
Dunleavy has a career record of 613-716 as a head coach with the Lakers, Milwaukee, Portland and the Clippers. He reached the NBA Finals in his first season of coaching in 1990-91 and came within one game of the 2000 Finals with the Trail Blazers before a fourth-quarter collapse in Game 7 propelled Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to their first of three championships together with the Lakers.
After the trip to the playoffs with the Clippers in 2006, with Dunleavy and point guard Sam Cassell forming a successful bond, L.A. has been consistently hampered by injuries. The Clippers were also dealt a blow in free agency in 2008 when guard Baron Davis reached an agreement to leave the Golden State Warriors to play in his hometown, believing that he'd be playing alongside longtime Clippers forward Elton Brand. But Brand elected to sign with Philadelphia. Davis and Dunleavy then struggled to coexist until the arrival of Lucas, who has served as an effective go-between this season.
ESPNLosAngeles.com reporter and columnist Ramona Shelburne contributed to this report.