Credit where credit is due. I’ve been as hard on Vinny Del Negro as anyone over the last year, but there’s no denying Del Negro is a better NBA coach right now than he was 10 months ago when he appeared to be on the outs.
If you told me at the start of the season that the Clippers would win 29 of their first 38 games and rip off a 17-game win streak in the process, I wouldn’t believe you. And I would cite Coach Del Negro as the biggest reason why.
An easy explanation of his improvement would be that the Clippers’ roster is absolutely stacked. There’s so much talent that all he has to do is sit back and let the players play. It is true that the Clips are loaded at virtually every position, but let’s not forget that Del Negro had a hand in piecing this roster together—more than a coach normally would.
After former GM Neil Olshey moved on to Portland, the Clippers decided to spread the personnel decisions among three people. One of them was Del Negro.
It’s generally a bad idea to let your head coach—a person who typically makes short-term day-to-day decisions—also act as your GM, because general managers need to always make decisions with the big picture in mind. It’s a slippery slope, but Del Negro (with the help of Andy Roeser and Gary Sacks) managed to keep his footing and help construct what looks like a juggernaut.
Another smart thing that Del Negro did was to surround himself with players who are pegged as coaches-in-the-making. I’m speaking specifically of Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill and Chris Paul.
In a recent survey of NBA general managers, the No. 1 response to the question of which current player would make the best coach someday, was Billups. Hill and Paul both finished in the top six of polling results.
Billups and Hill have missed the vast majority of the team’s games this season, meaning Del Negro has had the luxury of essentially adding two more assistant coaches to his bench. Plus, he could always rely on Paul to be the proverbial “coach on the floor." That has definitely made his job easier, but he still deserves a lot of credit.
What has impressed me most about Del Negro’s coaching this season is the way he has managed all the egos and personalities on the roster. As I mentioned before, the Clippers are loaded. They have more talented players deserving of steady rotation minutes than any other team in the league. Del Negro has done an incredible job of massaging all the egos and getting his guys to buy into their roles.
Remember when Caron Butler was a go-to guy and nightly 20-point scorer? Now he’s strictly a catch-and-shoot specialist who is playing six fewer minutes per game than he ever has in his career. And he accepts that.
Willie Green knows that when Chauncey Billups returns from injury, he will go from being a starter night in and night out to racking up DNP-CD’s on the bench. And he accepts that.
The Clippers only have one player in the top 65 in minutes per game. That’s Chris Paul, and he’s barely inside the top 50 at just over 33 minutes a night; which, by the way, is by far the fewest minutes he’s played in any season of his career.
Taking advantage of the opportunity to rest his stars is another good decision Del Negro has consistently made this year. He rides his bench when they’re hot, but makes sure to get his horses back in the game when they’re needed. That’s much better than last year, when all too often he would wait too long to get Paul and Blake Griffin back in the game when the Clippers were reeling.
His substitution patterns are spot on, and timeouts are taken at appropriate junctures. The half-court offense is still lacking a bit, but cleaner sets are being executed.
The Clippers have also taken a mammoth leap forward on defense—rising from 18th in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 all the way to third this season — despite not having any defensive aces on the roster (I know that Paul and Eric Bledsoe are top of the line thieves, but gaudy steals totals don’t equate to being an elite defender. Just look at Monta Ellis.)
The improvement on defense suggests that Del Negro’s schemes are working and he gets his guys to play with the effort necessary to grind out stops. He also understands the advantage he has in terms of athleticism and encourages an aggressive approach that has yielded the highest rate of forced turnovers in the league.
Over time and with more reps, people get better at their jobs. That’s exactly what has happened with Del Negro, who is now in his fifth season as an NBA head coach. It’s not surprising that he’s better at it now than he was a year or two ago.
The clincher for VDN is the ringing endorsements his players have given him. Said Jamal Crawford in an LA Times piece, "He knows how to talk to guys. He knows how to get messages across and guys really respect him. I think that's a direct connect to why we've had some early season success."
Matt Barnes has also credited his stellar play to Del Negro, and Ronny Turiaf has sung his praises as well. Ten months after reports had him losing the locker room, he now appears to be in full command of it. And that speaks more about the job he’s done than any judgment we in the media can pass on him.