Del Negro victim of expectations
Coach's charm and energy were key, but Clippers ultimately needed much more
LOS ANGELES -- Vinny Del Negro's fate was sealed when he walked off the court at Memphis' FedEx Forum earlier this month. On Tuesday, he was finally told he would no longer be the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers.
His tenure ended with four straight losses to the Memphis Grizzlies after the Clippers took a 2-0 lead in their first-round series. L.A. looked progressively worse in each game. Blake Griffin's high ankle sprain didn't help matters, but the Clippers were cooked long before he suffered the injury during a full-court scrimmage in practice.
The end of Del Negro's run with the Clippers probably will come as a surprise to no one except for maybe Del Negro, who is one of the more confident and optimistic men in the NBA. Then again, you have to be a little of both to write a cover letter that your mom proofread to the Chicago Bulls applying for their head-coaching position despite having no coaching experience.
Del Negro's charm and energy got him in the door with the Bulls and the Clippers, but it wasn't enough to get either team over the hump.
He was put in a thankless position before this season started. Instead of giving Del Negro a contract extension, the Clippers exercised their option for him to return for the third and final year of his contract. With Chris Paul becoming a free agent, the feeling was that anything short of a trip to the Western Conference finals would cost Del Negro his job.
As talented as the Clippers were, Del Negro was smart enough to know his team wasn't quite good enough to win a championship as constructed, and he was smart enough to know that had become the expectation after the Clippers jumped out to a league-best 32-9 record in the first half of the season.
I asked Del Negro about his job status before the Clippers played the Dallas Mavericks two months ago. We were nearing the end of the season, and I wanted to see where his mind was.
"The expectations, sometimes, people get a little delusional in terms of how you're going to get there and what you're going to do," Del Negro said then. "People get sick of the word 'process' but that's what it is."
When Del Negro was done talking, I went to his office and asked him whether he really believed that.
"So you think you'll be back if you guys lost in the first round?" I asked.
"Of course I do. We're building something here," Del Negro said.
In his perfect world, Del Negro would have had the Clippers' talented roster with the same expectations the team had before it was, well, talented.
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Del Negro loved reminding everyone how terrible the Clippers were for the previous 35 seasons before Paul arrived. Whenever he would talk about the inflated expectations for the team, he would dig up the Clippers' futile past as if it had any bearing whatsoever on the present.
He continued to talk about the "process" of becoming a championship team, but that process went in reverse when the Clippers lost to the Grizzlies in the first round after beating them in the first round last season.
The Clippers were positioned to advance to their first Western Conference finals after the Oklahoma City Thunder lost Russell Westbrook for the postseason and the San Antonio Spurs swept the Los Angeles Lakers. Instead, the Clippers failed to capitalize on their golden opportunity.
They won the Pacific Division title, won 56 games and went on a 17-game winning streak this season, all franchise firsts. But in a city that judges its teams on postseason success, none of it really matters when you lose in the first round.
Del Negro is a good coach but let's not blindly tie the Clippers' past two seasons to his wizardry on the dry-erase board. He was 32-50 in his first season with the Clippers before the trade for Paul. He was a .500 coach in his two seasons with the Chicago Bulls before they hired Tom Thibodeau to replace him. The next season, the Bulls went 62-20 and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. Derrick Rose, who was named the rookie of the year under Del Negro, blossomed into the league's MVP under Thibodeau.
Who's to say the same can't be true for Griffin under a new coach, or for Paul, who has consistently finished in the top five in voting?
Everything the Clippers have done since trading for Paul has been aimed at keeping him with the franchise for the rest of his career. They will offer him a five-year, $108 million contract this summer, and all indications are that Paul will sign it.
It's no coincidence that former New Orleans Hornets coach Byron Scott and former Hornets assistant Michael Malone are on the Clippers' coaching list, and that Paul's former Hornets teammate and current Indiana Pacers forward David West is one of the team's top offseason targets in free agency.
This is Paul's team now, and Del Negro simply didn't fit. He did everything in his power to appease the franchise player. When Del Negro was asked last season to describe his system, he simply smiled and said, "Chris Paul."
As much as the Clippers have catered to Paul in the past and likely will continue to cater to him, it's important that they don't simply try to recreate the New Orleans Hornets of a couple of years ago to appease him. The Lakers tried to have a little Phoenix Suns reunion this season, and we saw how that played out. It was about as successful as the original version was come playoff time.
Del Negro lost his job Tuesday despite being the greatest coach, at least statistically, the Clippers have ever had. That would have been unimaginable two years ago, but then again, so would the Clippers being considered as championship contenders.
And it was only a matter of time before those expectations and Del Negro's fate crossed paths.