Time is now for Vinny Del Negro
This season, support will be plentiful, but patience will be in short order
When general manager Neil Olshey introduced Vinny Del Negro as the Los Angeles Clippers' head coach on July 7, 2010, Olshey credited Del Negro for leading two completely different Bulls teams to playoff appearances in Chicago, one offensive in orientation, the other a defensive club.
"Were going to pick one of those and be in the playoffs," Olshey said at the podium.
Expectations for Del Negro and the Clippers in 2010-11 were modest. The team was coming off its most tumultuous season in recent history, a 29-53 campaign that saw the firing of Mike Dunleavy as coach and general manager, and the heartbreaking loss of Blake Griffin for the season.
At the draft, a couple weeks before the Clippers brought on Del Negro, the Clippers had chosen a couple of interesting prospects in Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe, to add to their already young core of Griffin, Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan.
The worst of the storm had passed for the Clippers, and the future looked bright. They'd follow the roadmap drawn up by the Oklahoma City Thunder: accumulate young assets with a discerning eye and preserve future payroll flexibility.
While the enterprise was gradually being built, the Clippers didn't need Red Auerbach in the first chair. They just needed a enthusiastic ambassador, someone who could maintain the young roster's spirit when it encountered growing pains.
"Vinny was a great player and he's a class guy," Olshey said. "He's going to help us build the culture we're trying to build here, build the kind of team that our fan base can be proud to call their own."
Del Negro was an apt choice, even if Clippers management thought more highly of other candidates. He was likable, was secure enough to bring in more experienced assistant coaches, and the owner and his wife adored him. As if that wasn't sufficient, the Bulls would be chipping in to cover some of Del Negro's salary during his first season in Los Angeles.
With Del Negro, the Clippers had a low-risk, low-cost caretaker who would put a friendly face on the franchise at a hopeful moment, though one during which they'd still lose lots of basketball games. When the Clippers made their move during the summer of 2012, they could reevaluate Del Negro and, if they found better candidates to lead the Clippers forward, they could decline the third-year option on his contract.
Only the summer of 2012 came early. Over the past couple of weeks, the Clippers moved aggressively through the free-agent and trade markets. Management took, in Olshey's words, "a quantum leap," and the time to win is now. The Clippers mobilized to make a run, assembling a group that looks like it should contend. And now they'll entrust Del Negro with that collection of talent. That might not have been part of the grand design but, for the Clippers, it's now a reality.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will anchor a team that has upgraded all over the floor, and the countdown to their free agency begins, in earnest, on Christmas Day. Both Paul and Griffin will take a range of factors into account when they decide whether they want to remain in Los Angeles indefinitely, but none so crucial as the success of the team and its ability to contend every year going forward.
Analysts, whether they're quant people or old-school scouts, love to debate how impactful coaches are to winning and losing. But even if you fall into the minimalist school that sees them as peripheral to team performance, NBA players feel otherwise. To them, coaches not only set the mood at their workplaces, but they legislate their touches. If you're a big man, your coach will decide whether you're going to pick-and-dive all night, or whether you'll see the ball via an entry pass off the right elbow. If you're a point guard, your coach lays out a blueprint for you to unfurl on the court. He's your boss, plain and simple, and how an employee feels about his boss is a pretty reliable predictor of how he feels about his employer.
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What kind of boss is Del Negro? His ability to motivate produced decent results last season. After starting 5-21 last season, the Clippers were just a few games shy of a .500 team after Dec. 15, following a pattern of strong second halves he established in Chicago. "Keep fighting" is a favorite battle cry of Del Negro, and the Clippers obliged.
This season, Del Negro's job description and the list of deliverables expands enormously. He'll still set the tone for the team and will continue to serve as the tactical general -- though Paul will certainly leave his strategic imprint on every game. But he'll also need to coach his players at crucial moments, identify ways to improve their performance at a moment when they can't figure it out for themselves.
For example, Griffin will want the ball on every possession, as every basket predator should. Del Negro will need to do more this season than just making sure Griffin gets it, even though touches alone are usually enough to keep a big man happy. Griffin will certainly get his share of duck-ins and quick drives to the hoop in early offense, but most half-court defenses will be prepared for the Clippers. They'll sit back in the paint to take away lobs and penetration and play Griffin for the spin.
During his three seasons in the league, Del Negro's offenses can be characterized as rudimentary. He doesn't stray far from high ball-screens and he doesn't throw a lot of secondary actions into his half-court flow. He's not a system coach, nor one who worries too much about specialization. He's a willful, exuberant believer in "let's play basketball" as a governing doctrine -- and his teams play hard.
Could Del Negro's simple belief system be what the Clippers need? Del Negro will likely give Paul the freedom to put stuff into the offense if the play-calling savant wishes to. Repetition might make for predictability, but 30 1-4 ball-screens a night might also refine Paul and Griffin's pick-and-roll game.
If anything, the game seems to be moving away from system-based basketball and thick playbooks. Rick Carlisle won a title by simplifying the Mavericks' offense from a long list of particulars to fewer guiding principles. Teams are focused more on getting the ball up before well-tuned NBA defenses get set. High ball-screens for Paul, stuff for Griffin at the elbow, sets for Butler to burst off a curl for a hand-off and a drive. Could that be 90 percent of what the Clippers need?
Still, glamour teams play big games and there will likely be a critical moment when Del Negro will need to draw something up to counter a more seasoned coach down the sideline. Every night in the NBA, there are opportunities to win games, if only a team can devise a way to get the ball to a certain spot on the floor. The best coaches crack those codes, while lesser ones leave fortune to chance.
Del Negro has never sat alongside a Pat Riley or a Chuck Daly, and he's never had a group of veterans with a vast collective knowledge about the game. There's a distinct difference between motivating professional athletes and leading them. But maybe this is Del Negro's time, the moment when he takes his quantum leap as a fourth-year coach. Maybe trust is a more vital ingredient than imagination to a winning formula with the Clippers -- though there's no guarantee Del Negro can earn the first, nor are we sure he lacks the second.
Del Negro has been furnished with the personnel to succeed immediately, so there will be limited supply of patience, though plenty of support. The Clippers are vested in Del Negro and are betting on his maturation. Unlike any season in recent history, they can't afford to be wrong.
Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com.
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