Will Vinny Del Negro Be Coaching for His LA Clippers Future During Playoffs?
Usually, when an NBA franchise enjoys unprecedented success, the head coach in question is rewarded (perhaps even handsomely so) for overseeing the transformation.
But the Los Angeles Clippers are hardly your ordinary organization, and Vinny Del Negro is anything but your ordinary coach.
At present, Del Negro isn't under contract with the Clippers beyond this season. The team picked up his option for 2012-13, but it declined to offer him an extension at the time.
This, despite the fact that VDN led the Clips to their highest-ever regular-season winning percentage and just their second playoff series victory (as the Los Angeles Clippers) in 2011-12.
Not that the lack of job security has necessarily bothered Del Negro. He has LA on the verge of its first 50-win season and first slice of home-court advantage in the postseason in franchise history. He also owns the highest winning percentage of any coach the Clips have ever employed—.550, a hair ahead of Larry Brown's mark of .547.
I enjoy the pressure. That's what it's about. I love the competition. Could things be a little bit better in certain areas? Of course. But all those things get answered at the end of the year.
When asked if that answer might depend on how the Clippers fare in the playoffs, VDN answered:
No, my future is great. I've got a great future, no matter what. I've been pretty fortunate, so I don't really worry about that stuff so much. Like I said, all those things take care of themselves when we finish.
Del Negro's long-term future may be as "great" as he imagines it to be, but unless his near future includes a legitimate push toward the Western Conference Finals, it won't likely include a cushy job in LA. There are a number of factors at play here, only some of which are directly related to Del Negro's coaching acumen—or presumed lack thereof.
First and foremost is the retention of Chris Paul. Like his head coach, the All-Star point guard will be a free agent this summer. But unlike VDN, Paul will have no shortage of eager suitors on the open market.
Paul's spoken at times about wanting to change the Clippers' losing culture and bolster his legacy by leading the longtime laughingstock-of-a-franchise to its first title. But he's a winner at heart and, as such, will likely sign with whichever team he thinks gives him the greatest opportunity to do so going forward.
If the Clippers, with their depth and talent, don't prove to CP3 that he can win by staying put, then there's every possibility that Paul will take less money to play elsewhere.
That is, unless the team makes more changes to suit Paul's preferences.
The Clips have already done plenty to reshape the roster as Chris sees fit. This past summer, they went so far as to loop him in on most of their personnel moves to ensure that his teammates would be to his liking and that he'd be personally invested in the squad's success to an even greater extent.
They may well allow him to wield such influence once again this coming offseason, perhaps to the point of giving him some say in who gets to coach the team going forward. Paul and Del Negro haven't always been on the best of terms, to say the least. After the Clips suffered an embarrassing home loss to the New Orleans Hornets back in December, Chris took a not-so-thinly-veiled shot at VDN (via Dan Woike of The Orange County Register):
CP3 said #Clippers lost to "a less-talented team that was well coached."— Dan Woike (@DanWoikeSports) November 27, 2012
Paul wasn't the only one to do so, either. Blake Griffin seemed to fit in a jab about VDN's penchant for inconsistency from the bench (via Dan Woike): "We tried to change some of the things we've been successful doing."
Of course, much has changed in the four months since those words were uttered. The Clippers ripped off 17 straight wins in December and have since positioned themselves for a top-four seed in the ultra-competitive West, despite suffering through a rash of injuries along the way.
Still, there's a precedent for discord between Paul and Del Negro, and if CP3 doesn't want to play for him, chances are, the Clips won't try particularly hard to keep Vinny around.
Especially if VDN demands a significant raise. The Clips' on-court improvement would suggest that he deserves one.
But longtime owner Donald Sterling is a notorious spendthrift, to put it mildly. In fact, Del Negro was first hired by the Clippers to replace Mike Dunleavy and Kim Hughes in July of 2010 because of his reasonable price tag. LA didn't have to offer him as much money as it otherwise would have had to because the Chicago Bulls, who'd fired Del Negro two months earlier, still owed him approximately $2.3 million.
It's entirely possible, then, that if VDN requests a bump in pay, he could be eschewed in favor of a cheaper option, perhaps even an unknown of CP3's choosing.
Now, it'd be one thing if Del Negro were a proven winner with a long history of postseason success, but he's not. Last year's playoff series victory was VDN's first in three tries. He failed to lead Derrick Rose and the Bulls out of the first round during his first two years in Chicago and was sacked as a result.
And as impressive as the Clips' Game 7 win in Memphis was, the fact that the team followed it up with four straight losses to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals didn't exactly cast Del Negro in a favorable light.
In a way, neither did Paul's arrival in LA.
The Clippers' turnaround from a team with a .390 winning percentage in 2010-11 (i.e. Del Negro's first year on the job) to one with a .606 winning percentage the following year was credited largely to the acquisition of the league's best point guard.
From that point on, much of the Clips' progress would be credited to Paul's transcendent play and all-around leadership, while the lion's share of the failures would be heaped upon the team's pre-existing conditions—namely, Blake Griffin's brick-prone jumper and VDN's suspect coaching.
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That narrative hasn't exactly shifted since. If anything, the arrivals of Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Grant Hill only exacerbated the situation. Should the Clippers, with all of their veteran talent, fall short of their lofty expectations, the finger of blame will be pointed squarely at Del Negro for failing to manage their minutes, craft a consistent rotation and/or maximize the considerable potential of the team he has on hand.
Especially since he, like Chris Paul, was intimately involved in the changes made to the roster after Neil Olshey left town to be the general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers.
The onus, then, is on Vinny to silence the chorus of doubters by orchestrating an historic postseason run for the Clippers. They've come close to reaching the NBA's Final Four before, pushing the Phoenix Suns to seven games in the Western Conference semis in 2006.
Close, but no cigar. If they win not one, but two playoff series this spring, Vinny may yet be able to celebrate a new coaching contract in LA with a stogie or two of his own.
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