is DEFENDING Donald Sterling
... claiming the disgraced former L.A. Clippers owner got screwed when his team was ripped away from him.
Chappelle opened up about the topic in an interview with GQ
... saying, "Ultimately, I don’t think he should have lost his team."
"I don’t like the idea that someone could record a secret conversation and that a person could lose their assets from that, even though I think what he said was awful."
Of course, Sterling was banned from the NBA for life -- and Commissioner Adam Silver said he did everything in his power to force a sale of the team in the wake of Sterling's racist comments.
Sterling fought the sale ... but eventually, a judge allowed Donald's wife Shelly
to unload the team to Steve Ballmer
for $2 BILLION
Chappelle's opinion lines up with Bill Maher
-- who also defended Sterling's right to free speech back in May ... and took serious heat over it.
The big question ... why would someone as influential as Chappelle wait so long to go public with such a strong point of view? Kinda too little, too late.
Tune in next summer when he chimes in on Ray Rice.