A month ago, it would have been hard to fathom Vinny Del Negro coaching the Western Conference All-Star team.
Despite having the greatest point guard on the planet in Chris Paul and one of the most dynamic big men in the game in Blake Griffin, Del Negro was often criticized for his basic offensive sets and lackluster team defense.
His tenure in Chicago spoke for itself.
While Del Negro was impressive in taking an overachieving Bulls team to the playoffs in both of his seasons as head coach, Chicago never really took off until Del Negro was replaced by defensive tactician Tom Thibodeau.
Last season’s trade for Chris Paul instantly changed expectations for the franchise as the coach was now responsible for steering a perennial contender.
Accordingly, Del Negro has floated on and off the hot seat in his time with the Clips. A fast start this season finally has Del Negro looking a bit more comfortable in Hollywood.
For the first time in the futile history of the franchise, the Los Angeles Clippers are viable contenders for an NBA championship.
Although most of the credit has to go to Paul, Griffin and the other guys on the court, Del Negro deserves some props.
The Clips started the season hot, coasting to an 8-2 record.
Those eight big wins included victories over the upstart Memphis Grizzlies, the Los Angeles Lakers, the defending champion Miami Heat and two wins over those pesky San Antonio Spurs, the team that swept them out of the Western Conference semifinals just six months earlier.
Although the team’s pace has fallen from their blazing start, the Clips are in the top ten in offensive and defensive ratings, which are measurements of a team’s points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, respectively.
But where the Clippers have really made strides is on the other side of the ball.
Last season they were diced up by opposing defenses. A patient offense could find easy hoops on them all day, as evidenced by the dominance that Gregg Popovich and the Spurs exhibited in the postseason.
Now, the Clippers are playing smarter team and individual defense.
Blake Griffin’s rotations are much tighter, and Eric Bledsoe wreaks havoc on the perimeter. For the first time in his career, DeAndre Jordan is a bona fide force in the lane.
In the Clippers' first matchup with the Utah Jazz this season, Jordan found himself playing heavy minutes late in the fourth quarter.
With the Clippers hanging on to a two-point lead at the raucous EnergySolutions Arena, Jordan came up with the game-saving block on an Al Jefferson push shot. It was the play of the game that gave the Clips back-to-back wins in Salt Lake City for the first time since 1980.
Last season, Jordan would have likely been on the bench in such a close game.
Del Negro has been touted as a player’s coach, one who can find success in developing younger guys.
The work that he did with Derrick Rose in the phenom’s first couple of seasons demonstrated his strengths.
Blake Griffin’s development reaffirms this, but Del Negro’s work with Jordan and Bledsoe has really been the bright spot for Clipper Nation this season.
Bledsoe is playing less frenetically, with a certain element of controlled chaos that makes him a handful on and off the ball.
A year ago, Jordan could not be trusted on anything other than lobs and easy dunks. Now the Clippers are feeding DJ early and often, and the big man is producing.
The Texas A&M product has shown some encouraging poise around the basket and demonstrated a nice variety of short jump hooks and up-and-under moves.
Del Negro should also be praised for his ability to manage his deep team’s minutes.
Heading into the season, there were questions surrounding Del Negro’s stature in the locker room and his ability to keep the team engaged and the players happy with fewer minutes.
The fantastic second team, popularly dubbed "A Tribe Called Bench," has been instrumental in the team’s success.
Del Negro has given his second team confidence in starting the second and fourth quarters, and the bench has largely overwhelmed its opponents.
Crawford is still tearing opposing defenses apart, while Bledsoe and Matt Barnes’ hustle have allowed the Clippers to feast in the passing lanes. Even Lamar Odom has been showing some signs of life lately.
Heavier minutes for the bench has reduced the heavy lifting for Paul and Griffin, who can now afford to be cheerleaders more often.
All is not perfect in Lob City, however.
Three of the Clippers' six losses have come against bottom-feeders, at home nonetheless.
The Clippers dropped back-to-back games at Staples Center to the Golden State Warriors and to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Coming off a road blowout to the Atlanta Hawks, the Clippers headed back to L.A. as listless as ever and were routed by the New Orleans Hornets, without Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis.
Coach Del Negro is at least partially at fault for failing to make the right adjustments throughout those games.
Still, there is a palpable optimism pulsing through Lob City a month into the young NBA season.
Although most of the credit should be handed to the guys scoring the buckets, Vinny Del Negro is quietly making his critics eat their words.
Statistics used in this article were accurate as of Sunday, December 2, 2012.
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