Though the Los Angeles Clippers have won four straight, looks can be deceiving: this is not an NBA Finals-caliber team—not yet.
This isn't to say the Clippers aren't capable of performing well in waning months of the 2012 season, far from it. The Clippers have overcome the loss of Chauncey Billups to injury, have successfully integrated Chris Paul into a leadership role and continue to see impressive performances out of Blake Griffin, Randy Foye, Reggie Evans and a slew of other associates.
Ask any fan from Clipper Darrell—sorry, just "Darrell"—to Billy Crystal and they'll let you know: The 2011-12 Clippers are a much better team than, well, just about any Clips team since some of its current players first picked up a basketball in grade school.
Nonetheless, every success story is bound to carry some flaws and the Clippers are no exception. In the midst of a three-game losing streak on March 21, self-proclaimed "sportsguy" Bill Simmons tweeted that coach Vinny Del Negro was "on super-thin, could-go-any day ice."
Simmons' speculative tweet was followed by hordes of support for the coach's canning while owner Donald Sterling and several Clippers players voiced their approval of Del Negro's job performance.
In the wake of that three-loss road trip, the Clippers returned to Staples Center and put up four consecutive victories: a 101-85 blowout of Memphis, a 97-85 defeat of New Orleans, a 103-86 advantage over Phoenix and Friday night's 98-97 grind-out victory against Portland.
Still, while Del Negro maintains the public support of his players and management team, four wins alone will not permanently cover the speculative wound.
Across the hall in the Lakers' locker room, former coach Phil Jackson did not have to contend with rumors of a Jackson overthrow. On the contrary, one Jackson associate predicted a definite struggle for the purple-and-gold upon the legendary coach's departure: "The Lakers will be a disaster when Phil leaves the franchise."
Lakers fans did not call for the firing of Phil Jackson when the going got tough.
Though Del Negro and Jackson are hardly the same caliber of coach, such a difference in public confidence is telling.
Justified or not, Los Angeles does not trust Del Negro the same way it did Jackson, which invariably means a much rougher road to travel for Del Negro and his Clippers.
Win or lose, that skepticism will remain attached to the organization, which is bad news for a team trying to contend for much more than a simple playoff berth. Every loss will now be seen as a step closer toward a shake-up, while each win will prolong the invented inevitable.
No, the Los Angeles Clippers are not out of the woods of uncertainty and precarious vacillation and that may just be more powerful than anything player- or win-loss-related.
Just look at another professional spots team celebrating a 50th anniversary in 2012—I'm of course referring to the New York Mets.
Any team that appears in the same sentence with Bernie Madoff, a $162 million settlement and shaky ownership and financial woes has much more significant problems than the comparatively simple question of whether third baseman David Wright will return to prominence this season.
In basketball as in baseball, sabermetrics and statistics routinely come up short in their analysis of the human element, the psyche and the negative effects produced by a brooding fan-base seeking a first-ever championship (Clippers) or first World Series title since 1986 (Mets).
For the Clippers, the wins may keep on coming, but until those silly thoughts of "fire the coach" cease to permeate Downtown L.A., this basketball team will continue to struggle.
If fans really want the Clippers to see postseason success, it would behoove them to stop second-guessing Del Negro and let the coach—and by extension the entire organization—do his job.
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