After a disappointing first round ouster, the Los Angeles Clippers face the important questions of the offseason a little earlier than they might have hoped. Is Vinny Del Negro the best coaching option going forward? Will Chris Paul return to the Clippers? How related are the two decisions?
Paul possesses an awful lot of leverage this offseason since he's an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately, the Clippers' coaching decision rests with owner Donald Sterling.
So sorry, Clippers fans, but that means no Phil Jackson, who has publicly riffed on some of Sterling's more questionable transgressions. Jeff Van Gundy? He's almost certainly a combination of too expensive and too comfortable.
All is not lost in the Clippers coaching search, however. A litany of qualified veteran coaches and enticing assistants will be waiting for phone calls, and the Clippers should have their pick of the group.
The incumbent has a few things working in his favor. Despite the disappointing playoff performance, Del Negro did lead the Clippers to their best regular-season record in franchise history, and there were reported discussions of a contract extension during the regular season.
Del Negro has also cultivated relationships where they count, charming executives and ownership since day one. For all his warts as a strategist on the court, Del Negro has played the game away from the court brilliantly, surviving multiple close calls when his firing seemed imminent.
That said, it's fair to ask if Del Negro still has the support of the locker room. Blake Griffin has disagreed with Del Negro publicly, and this may be Paul's best shot at picking a coach he truly wants.
Making Del Negro the scapegoat seems logical, but logic doesn't always apply to Donald Sterling's staff decisions. Don't count him out yet.
Pros: Provides players with offensive freedom, good franchise representative, improved regular-season track record.
Cons: Lacks a strong defensive system, didn't utilize young players, poor game-management abilities.
If the Clippers want to appease Chris Paul, hiring Byron Scott might be the best way to do it. Scott and Paul grew incredibly close during Paul's first four years with the Hornets, and many have maintained the belief that hiring Scott is a great way to lure the star point guard.
Scott's firing from the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers may be viewed as a warning sign to some, but Sterling may be seeing dollar signs instead.
Because Scott was fired with a year remaining on his contract, the Clippers could get him for a discounted rate. If that sounds familiar, it's because it is. The Clippers found a similar deal with Vinny Del Negro three years ago.
Scott's recent track record doesn't suggest he deserves the job, but he likely could fulfill the requirements of those who hold the most decision-making power within the Clippers organization.
Pros: Great relationship with Chris Paul, NBA Finals experience, history of mentoring great point guards.
Cons: Questionable dedication level, heavy variance in defensive efficiency numbers, lack of recent success.
As one of the best minds in all of basketball, Stan Van Gundy pretty much has his choice of available coaching jobs.
Van Gundy's ability to develop talent and create strong defensive systems that maximize the strengths of his players would be a welcome sight in Los Angeles. Van Gundy is a huge upgrade from Del Negro in regards to basketball acumen, but he does carry a reputation as being grating and demanding, and perhaps more importantly, uncensored when it comes to organizational criticism.
Van Gundy held few punches in his messy separation from Dwight Howard and Orlando, exposing some of the dysfunction along the way. With all the skeletons in the Clippers' closet and the lack of stability in the front office, the hiring of Van Gundy may be as dangerous off the court as it would be on it.
Pros: NBA Finals experience, coached top-10 defenses seven years in a row, embraces analytics, could maximize Blake Griffin's offensive potential.
Cons: Not a "player's coach," track record of feuding with star players, high-risk hire.
Golden State Warriors assistant coach Mike Malone is a hot name on the coaching market, and for good reason. Building a solid defense with such inexperienced players was no easy task, but Malone has a habit of making teams better defensively wherever he goes.
Every team is hoping to stumble upon the next Tom Thibodeau when they hire an assistant coach, and Malone may be the closest available replica. The Clippers have shown they can have a top-5 offense with very little ingenuity and a whole lot of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but extended defensive success has largely eluded the team over the past three years, particularly in the postseason.
Malone could be the answer to some of the woes, and his relationship with Paul could satisfy another quota. Paul is said to be fond of Malone, who was an assistant during Paul's last season in New Orleans.
Pros: Strong defensive coach, high potential, should have Paul's endorsement.
Cons: No head coaching experience.
How about a familiar face? Alvin Gentry coached the Clippers from 2000-2003, but the franchise fired him halfway through his third season. Gentry made good on his eventual second chance with Phoenix, bringing the Suns to the Western Conference Finals.
Gentry may seem like an odd candidate after he ultimately struggled to get Phoenix over the hump, but he's familiar with the higher ups in the Clippers' organization and is apparently on the list of coaches CP3 likes.
Gentry deserves another chance with a real roster not saddled with the likes of Michael Beasley, but the Clippers technically should be the best landing spot out there, so long as their roster remains intact. On the flip side, is Gentry the best available coach? That's hard to imagine.
Pros: Familiarity with the ownership and management, a defined offensive philosophy.
Cons: Retread hire, losing record overall, not a defensive specialist.
Something doesn't add up here. Gregg Popovich is widely considered the best coach in the game, so how could his top assistant for the last five years not be a head coach already? What's the deal?
Two theories: Budenholzer is universally recognized to be Gregg Popovich's successor in San Antonio so no one approaches, or Budenholzer has whatever Brian Shaw has and can't land a head job despite the stature of his mentor.
Whatever the case may be, it's hard to imagine Budenholzer isn't a head coach somewhere soon. He knows too much.
Pros: Incredible mentor, has worked with Hall of Fame players and staff, has some head coaching experience (Pop's missed games).
Cons: Hasn't been poached, possibly unwilling to work in anything but ideal situations.
Is it a little crazy? Sure, but there are few players Chris Paul holds in higher regard than Chauncey Billups. There's a reason the Clippers made re-signing Billups the top priority last offseason, despite the fact he was 35 and recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Pair Billups with a seasoned assistant like P.J. Carlesimo, and maybe it could work. We know Billups demands respect, and former point guards like Mark Jackson have made successful transitions straight from the court to the sideline.
The one problem? Billups doesn't sound ready to end his career, despite his poor play and health issues. Here's what he told Arash Markazi of ESPNLA.com:
"I'm focused on playing a couple more years," Billups said. "Two more years is my goal and after that my desire is more to be in the front office, not coaching. You never say never but my desire has never been to coach."
Billups may not be fully prepared to close the book on his storied career, but securing a highly sought after position could do wonders for his next career in basketball.
Pros: Tons of basketball knowledge, a mentor for CP3, championship experience.
Cons: Not ready to stop playing, would likely want front office control.