As if the Los Angeles Clippers needed more reason to question whether their coach is good enough, Vinny Del Negro and Ryan Hollins did something during the team’s victory to clinch the first division title in Clippers history that was wholly illogical.
With a 103-90 lead and 2:50 to play a week ago, Hollins deliberately fouled Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard right after the Lakers inbounded the ball—preventing time from running off the clock and giving the trailing Lakers an immediate opportunity to cut into the Clippers’ lead with time standing still.
Contrast it with the sound logic—even if the result didn’t pan out—from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on Sunday night, when he hacked Howard again with 10.7 seconds left in the third quarter to get the Spurs an extra possession.
The fact that Howard made both free throws was only appropriate, but it was really beside the point already made: It was the worst strategic decision in the NBA this season.
And it was a reminder even amid one of the Clippers’ feel-good moments of the season that Del Negro’s leadership as coach is shaky.
Playoff basketball is all about analysis and adjustments, and great coaches have to shift from being personality managers to being true teachers.
Del Negro might be somewhat passable on the first point because he isn’t beholden to specific philosophies, but his ability to help the Clippers produce open spaces that get shots better than jumpers will be tested in the postseason—even if Chris Paul is on the court much more in the playoffs, with the real responsibility to create those better shots.
All around the NBA, in what can be a dead period in the schedule right now, we still see the importance of coaching, even with teams that don’t nearly have the Clippers’ talent to compete with the best.
Also-rans such as Minnesota (Rick Adelman) and New Orleans (Monty Williams) are putting up good fights in meaningless situations because they have good coaching. Other also-rans such as Phoenix (Lindsey Hunter) and Detroit (Lawrence Frank) are mailing in games because they don’t. As the races for the lower playoff slots get sorted out, we see Houston (Kevin McHale) having gotten comfortable, while Utah (Tyrone Corbin) can’t figure out how best to deploy his weapons.
For those very good teams with very little to gain right now, we see a coach, such as Denver’s George Karl, who is right in step with his team and its identity—and who is still seeing ongoing growth that can be applied later in the month and beyond—and wonder whether Del Negro can push any new buttons for the Clippers now and then.
The Clippers began the season with seven new players. Most of the teams with major turnover are not serious playoff threats.
Give Del Negro some credit for letting guys play their way into roles early on while the Clippers rolled, but there’s confusion now.
The Clippers still don’t know if Grant Hill will be any help or when Matt Barnes might be hot or cold. What makes Hollins more trustworthy than Lamar Odom on certain days? Who should be more assertive when it matters most, Jamal Crawford or Chauncey Billups? Will Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan get real chances to play through their missteps?
Although there’s abundant wonder about why Bledsoe and all his dynamic energy are so rarely released, there is a glut of talent and experience on the perimeter for the Clippers—and Bledsoe is also coming off an almost wasted season because of his knee injury.
The lack of a great leap forward from Jordan, who really appeared on the cusp entering this season, is the most mystifying aspect of the Clippers’ development. It’s easy to see them with the league’s elite if Jordan could own the defensive paint next to Blake Griffin.
“His energy is contagious; I always tell him that,” Crawford said of Jordan last month. “On this team especially, we feed off of that. When he’s locked in and active, we tend to follow suit.”
That’s saying a lot for a guy who barely plays half the game. Del Negro clearly hasn’t figured out how to tap into Jordan’s awesome potential: Jordan’s minutes (24.3 per game), blocks (1.3) and rebounds (7.2) are all down from last season, and that is the sort of lack of growth that usually hurts when you look for a team to grow from last season.
The Clippers already beat Memphis in the first round last season, so it’s certainly conceivable to do that again. The teams look destined to meet in a Nos. 4-5 Western Conference opener, but the Grizzlies sure feel a lot more comfortable with their bench leader than the Clippers do.
Despite the Clippers having earned the right to put their first Pacific Division banner up at Staples Center (but please don’t do it, because division titles are inconsequential and it’ll really look stupid next to all of the Lakers’ NBA championship banners), the same doubts exist with Del Negro. It’s unclear if the Clippers even want to extend Del Negro’s contract.
The Grizzlies have sent out train whistles to promote Lionel Hollins for NBA Coach of the Year.
Del Negro’s still lying there across his train’s tracks.
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.