- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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Vinny Del Negro: Picked up for Season 3, 82 episodes.
The Clippers never envisioned that Vinny Del Negro would lead the team out of its historic doldrums into the conference semifinals. When Del Negro was hired in the summer of 2010, he seemed like a moderating force, an affable figure who could disinfect an organization that had grown somewhat toxic following the firing of Mike Dunleavy.
The Clippers knew they weren't going to contend for a while, and Del Negro had an offset in the first year of his deal, which meant Del Negro's former employers, the Chicago Bulls, would pick up much of his salary. Donald Sterling and his wife adored Del Negro, a charmer who has a gift for making those in his proximity feel like they're the most important person in the room. With an affordable two-year commitment to Del Negro, Clippers management would have ample opportunity to make an upgrade if and when its young team jumped several rungs on the Western Conference ladder.
That moment arrived prematurely once the Clippers acquired Chris Paul in December. A team that had gone 32-50 in its previous season was now poised to contend for the Pacific Division crown and possibly more. When it was all over, the Clippers finished 40-26, their best winning percentage in franchise history, and qualified for the conference semifinals for only the second time since heading west in 1978.
Would that be enough for the Clippers to pick up a one-year option on Del Negro for the 2012-13 season? There were many considerations (in no particular order):
The aforementioned success of the team. Del Negro isn't an elite NBA coach and may be lacking as a tactician, but most predicted the Clippers as a final four team in the West, and they exceeded their No. 5 seed in the playoffs.
The wishes of Chris Paul and his representatives at Creative Artists Agency. Paul will become a free agent on July 1, 2013, and will almost certainly weigh who roams the sidelines at Staples Center as a consideration in his decision whether to re-up with the Clippers.
The wishes of Blake Griffin.
The field of alternate candidates, should the organization choose not to exercise Del Negro's option.
The affordability of the option.
The wishes of Donald T. Sterling, owner and chairman of the board, Los Angeles Clippers.
Let's take that last question first, since it's the factor that transcends all others. Del Negro has had a friend in the Clippers' owner since their dinner at the Sterling compound in early July 2010. He has maintained solid relations, even as the Clippers' more discerning management types have had their occasional doubts about Del Negro's feel for the game. As it often goes with Sterling, the affordability of another season of Del Negro was a point in the coach's favor, especially when considering the hefty price tag that would accompany some of the big-name candidates who are at large.
The Paul and Griffin questions are more curious. With a few exceptions, Clippers players found Del Negro to be genial and a solid motivator, even though they privately acknowledged many of the shortcomings often cited by analysts -- a rudimentary offense and the lack of late adjustments. There were the usual quibbles about playing time, but wholesale rebellion was averted.
Contrary to what many might believe, picking up Del Negro's option wasn't done in defiance of either Paul or Griffin -- and Clippers management made sure of this. Paul knows that, if a coaching change is necessary, the Clippers still have the flexibility to make one. And both Paul and Griffin are protective of their images. Neither would ever want to run the risk of being labeled a coach-killer, even if they wanted Del Negro put on the first plane out of LAX.
What about that impressive field of available coaches? From the Clippers' perspective, the list of candidates has plenty of flaws. Remember, the next coach the Clippers hire will be one for the long haul, an expensive, multiyear deal that everyone from owner to management to, presumably, Paul to Griffin will have to live with for a long time. Stan Van Gundy, assuming he had a modicum of interest in the job, would be costly and isn't really a Sterling kind of guy. The styles of Mike D'Antoni and Paul are vastly different. Is a micromanager like Nate McMillan the guy to take the Clippers all the way? Would Mike Malone, an assistant in Golden State whom Paul adored in New Orleans but someone with a 0-0 career record as head coach, be worth the risk? Scott Brooks is unsigned for next season, but the smart money has him staying in Oklahoma City.
In the end, the Clippers decided to kick the can down the road for a year. The door to management's office is always open to Paul and Griffin if they care to voice their preferences and concerns, something both superstars understand, and a privilege both will likely exercise in the coming season. If the Clippers determine that Del Negro is the wrong guy for the job, they're wed to him only until next June, when the menu of available coaching talent will probably offer more choices. And if things turn really ugly midseason, they can always turn to Robert Pack, a Clippers assistant who has earned the trust of the roster.
Think of it like this: If the Clippers were to bring on a new coach with a multiyear deal and Paul said next February, "I can't play for this guy," what would happen? In the same scenario, if Paul were to decide he'd had enough of Del Negro, it'd be an easy fix.
Could the Clippers do better than Del Negro in 2012-13? Probably. Could they do worse? Ditto. Ultimately, the quality price ratio with Del Negro was sufficient enough for the Clippers to buy some more time -- for themselves and for Paul.