Few NBA coaches receive as much blanket criticism as Vinny Del Negro. During his four years as an NBA head coach, two in Chicago with the Bulls and now two with the Los Angeles Clippers, Del Negro has always been the favorite punchline of every yahoo with a blog or a twitter account. Given the subtleties of coaching basketball that tend to escape the vast majority of his critics who wouldn't know a "hedge" from a "switch" on pick and roll coverage, it's actually difficult to comprehend why he is met with such particular scorn. There's plenty to criticize in Del Negro's coaching -- but the same can be said for most any NBA coach not named Gregg (with three Gs).
When the Clippers lost 12 of 19 games mid-season, culminating with three losses in three nights in March, the rumor mill churned with news of Del Negro's imminent firing. But instead of making a coaching change, the Clippers gave Del Negro a vote of confidence, and the team responded with a 14-5 run to end the season. In the end, it was the best regular season in franchise history by winning percentage, capped off by only the third playoff series victory in franchise history.
Nonetheless, with Del Negro in the second year of a three year contract and the team holding an option for the third, questions persisted about the coach's status. When Del Negro was hired in 2010, the Clippers were a very young team hoping to begin the climb toward respectability behind young players like Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon. The expectations were relatively modest for the head coach -- show improvement, develop the youngsters, keep the motivation high.
When the Clippers acquired Chris Paul last December, those expectations changed overnight. Now the team is expected to compete deep into the playoffs, even challenge for a title in the not too distant future. Del Negro may have been a reasonable choice for a team with modest expectations -- but was he the right man for the new job, a job that involved matching wits with the likes of Popovich in May?
On Tuesday the Clippers ended the speculation on the subject when they announced that they had exercised their option for the final year on Del Negro's contract. The coach will be back for a third season in L.A.
On the surface, once you get past the "Del Negro sucks" rhetoric, it's a completely reasonable decision. Even after the Clippers acquired Paul, most pundits pegged the team for a relatively early playoff exit. A record breaking regular season and a first round win in the playoffs against a very good Memphis team that included a Game 7 win on the road are accomplishments of which the coach can be proud. There are those who might argue that the Clippers succeeded as much in spite of their coach as because of him, but there's no pleasing some people.
One thing that is inarguable: Del Negro's teams have made it a habit of playing their best basketball late in the season. His first year in Chicago, his Bulls seemed out of the playoffs in mid March before winning 12 of their final 16 games, and then they battled Boston to a seventh game in an epic first round playoff series. The following year the Bulls once again looked dead in the water before closing the season on a 10-4 run to earn a playoff spot. Combined with this season's 14-5 close, a clear pattern emerges -- Del Negro's teams tend to play their best when it matters most. For an organization that frankly has seen it's share of teams and players going through the motions late in the season, this is no minor consideration. Del Negro, by his own admission, may not be the most astute Xs and Os guy, but his players play hard and compete to the end, and that's worth something.
Still, there's a nagging feeling that this might be an opportunity lost. The constant question with replacing a head coach is "replace with whom?" But in the summer of 2012 there is no shortage of experienced NBA coaches with impressive resumes in between jobs. Jerry Sloan, Nate McMillan, Mike D'Antoni and Stan Van Gundy are just a few of the familiar names currently in the market for their next coaching gig. Surely a high profile coaching hire would increase the Clippers' chances for success next season.
And what of Paul and Griffin? With both of their stars scheduled to become free agents next summer (Paul of the unrestricted variety), sending a message that the team is fully committed to winning is vital to convincing them that L.A. is the place to be (and not purple and gold L.A.). Picking up Del Negro's option smacks a bit of business as usual in Clipperville -- the path of least resistance choice, the choice that doesn't involve interviewing coaching candidates, the inexpensive choice. But now is not the time for business as usual.
In fact, Paul and the importance of his upcoming free agency in 2013, are likely a major factor in the decision to extend Del Negro, though it may seem counter intuitive. First of all, you can rest assured that Paul is fine with playing for VDN next season -- if he wasn't, he would have let his feelings be known and the Clippers would be interviewing coaches right now. Paul and Griffin have always been complimentary of Del Negro in their public comments and it's fairly certain that they've endorsed his return with the Clippers front office.
The simple fact of the matter is that this is not the crucial summer concerning Paul's future with the Clippers -- it's next summer. There's little incentive for Paul to sign an extension for a maximum three years now at age 27 that will leave him looking for his next contract in his 30s. He'll be better off playing out this season and becoming a free agent next summer, at which point he'll be eligible for a five year deal at the age of 28. For his part, Griffin will likely sign a maximum extension this summer rather than waiting and becoming a restricted free agent.
If the Clippers were to make the big name hire now, and if Paul became disillusioned with the new coach during the season, the situation next summer would be beyond awkward. The team would be in the position of needing to appease Paul, while owing many millions of dollars to a coach one year into a multi-year contract (bearing in mind that none of the big names are going to come cheap). In that sense, one more year of Del Negro is the safest choice -- it places the new coach search in the crucial summer of 2013, when the team can if necessary allow Paul to name his next coach as one of the benefits of signing a new contract. If the team takes the next step into the Conference Finals or beyond under Del Negro, then everybody's happy. If there are any issues with Del Negro or if the consensus becomes that he's just not the right coach to get the team over the top, they won't hesitate to cut their losses and move on without him.
And with both Van Gundy and D'Antoni giving strong indications that they might take a season off before returning to the sidelines, the odds are relatively good that some attractive candidates will still be on the market if the Clippers do decide to go a different direction in 2013.
In the end, the decision to have Del Negro return for a third season as coach of the Clippers isn't the bold choice. It's not the most inspiring thing the Clippers could have done. But it's certainly justifiable based on the positive results for the team last season, and there's an undeniable logic to it.