I've been trying to ignore the coaching situation for the Los Angeles Clippers since the team was eliminated from the playoffs a couple of weeks ago. Why? Well, it's a very long off-season from the beginning of May until training camp opens, and it can get crazy jumping on every rumored development in something that figures to be as slow-moving as a Clippers-coaching decision. But it's time to weigh in a bit.
Vinny Del Negro's contract as the Clippers head coach expires this month after three seasons with the team. He was originally hired in 2010, aka the year 1 BCP3 (before Chris Paul) and signed a two year deal with an option for a third season. Del Negro was 32-50 in his first season, 40-26 in year two and 56-26 this year, setting franchise records for winning percentage in each of the last two seasons. His overall winning percentage as a Clippers head coach of 128-112 (.533) is the second best of all time, behind Larry Brown's 64-53 (.547), but of course Brown compiled his record in less than a year and a half and then quit on his own. If the Clippers were to fire him, it would be the first time in franchise history that they had fired a coach with a winning record. Del Negro currently stands as the third winningest coach in franchise history, after Mike Dunleavy's 215 wins and Jack Ramsay's 158.
But despite his success, there is a persistent perception that Del Negro is overmatched as an NBA head coach. He was fired after two seasons straight playoff appearances in Chicago in his first coaching gig, and the conventional wisdom is that both his offensive and defensive schemes are too simplistic -- that he's not an X's and O's guy. Del Negro himself has never really disputed that, but he does seem to be a decent motivator in the locker room, which counts for something.
After a four straight playoff losses to the Memphis Grizzlies, bringing a premature end to the Clippers post-season in the wake of their best ever regular season, it was widely accepted that Del Negro was done as head coach. However, more than two weeks after the first round failure, no decision has been made -- and in fact, nothing concrete has been done to move towards a decision as far as anyone knows. While Brooklyn and and Milwaukee and other teams acted quickly to fire their head coaches and start interviewing candidates, the Clippers have done ... nothing.
Will the Clippers fire Vinny Del Negro?
We've worked hard in Clips Nation combat the perception that something will always go wrong with this team because "It's the Clippers." But this is one case where those three little words still have relevance. "It's the Clippers", so who knows what they're going to do?
This has never been a particularly decisive franchise. Mike Dunleavy won just 42 games in two full seasons and was two thirds of the way through a third losing year before he was fired 2010. They then waited until well after the draft, after every other team had filled their coaching vacancies, to name Del Negro the head coach. In another franchise, this approach might be described as 'thorough' or 'methodical' -- with the Clippers, it's more often seem as 'incompetence' and 'inertia'.
Del Negro and general manager Gary Sacks spoke to the media on Monday, May 6, just two days after the playoff exit, and at that time the plan was for Del Negro to sit down and talk with owner Donald T. Sterling. The meeting was first rumored to be the week of May 6, then it was pushed to the week of May 13, and then to the weekend -- and as of now, there's still no news as to whether or not the meeting has happened.
Why the super slo mo on this process? No one can say for sure, but money probably has something to do with it. Sterling is loathe to spend much, and particularly dislikes giving long term contracts to coaches -- he's been sued by each of the last two coaches who had long term deals for not honoring the contracts after they were fired. While the conventional wisdom says fire Del Negro and hire a proven winner like Stan Van Gundy, Sterling is going to have to be convinced to pay the kind of money that it will take to lure Van Gundy to L.A. Firing Del Negro takes him one step closer to potentially committing long term money to a high-priced replacement, so like a teenager with homework to do, he's procrastinating.
All of which is means it's no longer a given that Del Negro will definitely be fired. For one thing, the playoff embarrassment is less fresh and less painful. If he wasn't fired Sunday morning after a bizarre Game 6 which was, in Bill Simmons fairly accurate words, "his bad coaching magnum opus" then each day he survives the bad memories fade a bit more. For another, Del Negro got the job with the Clippers in the first place by selling himself as a coach to Sterling. For all his shortcomings on the sideline, Del Negro knows how to handle Sterling. Finally, if VDN is willing to work for relatively inexpensive, short term deals he'll have an advantage over some of his potential replacements.
Should the Clippers fire Vinny Del Negro?
I've pointed out before that Del Negro has done some good things, that he's not as bad as his reputation, that the Clippers had the third best point differential in the league this season so he must have been doing something right. I've also pointed out that most coaches are fairly interchangeable, that every team runs more or less the same schemes, that players win and lose games, not coaches, that Del Negro is no worse than most of the other coaches in the NBA.
Having said all of that, this is a no-brainer. Of course they should fire him. For a couple of simple reasons. One, because the perception is that he should be fired. The Clippers still have to battle the perception of the franchise, and if Del Negro stays it will be interpreted as incompetence or parsimony or both. Should it matter what the media and the public think? Maybe not, but it does. The other obvious reason to fire Del Negro is because they can. If Del Negro is not much worse than other coaches, he's certainly not any better. It's hard to take the next step, from the second tier to the top tier, and that's what the Clippers have to do now. They don't have the flexibility or the picks to significantly upgrade the roster -- so they'll have to find improvement elsewhere. Coaching is one place to look.
In fact, if Sacks and club president Andy Roeser are smart, they'll explain to Sterling that finding the right coach now is probably the most cost effective way of improving. Once Chris Paul re-signs, the Clippers will be bumping right up against the luxury tax, and buying wins with better players will cost double or even treble between the various luxury taxes that could be levied on the team. But there is no luxury tax on coaches, so finding the right one, even at a steep price, is a bargain compared to going into the luxury tax to buy more and better players.
So where are we now?
Who knows what's going on at this point. Sterling was seen at the Spurs/Grizzlies playoff game in San Antonio this weekend. Sterling doesn't go to Clippers games too frequently these days, and almost never on the road. For him to show up to watch two other teams in San Antonio is unheard of. Was he scouting potential head coaching candidates? Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins, like Del Negro, will be a coaching free agent this summer. Grizzlies assistant David Joerger is the man credited with turning Memphis into a defensive juggernaut, and like Tom Thibodeau before may be ready to become a head coach now. Then there's Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, who has been on the short list of assistants who are ready to move up to the first chair for years. Could Sterling have been in town to 'scout' potential head coaches, as ESPN's Marc Stein suggested?
There's just one problem with that idea: Sterling doesn't have the basketball savvy to 'scout' potential coaches. Sitting courtside at a playoff game would be meaningless in his decision-making process. It might make sense for him to meet face to face with a potential future coach -- but the Clippers don't have permission to speak to any of these people, so that didn't happen. There's a first time for everything I guess, and maybe Sterling was indeed there to get a feel for a potential future coach -- but the idea is a little laughable on its surface.
Regardless, the Clippers need to get out of their traditional foot dragging mode and make some decisions. Van Gundy has already interviewed with the Hawks and is being courted by other teams as well. Several teams are getting a leg up on the Clippers simply by being active in the candidate search already. It's advantageous that the Clippers job is considered one of the cherry positions this off season -- Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can make any coach look good, so unless you'd rather have a deep-pocketed Russian Billionaire as your owner, there's no better opportunity. But the Clippers are used to waiting until the available coaches have been picked over a bit and then doing some bargain-hunting; but they need to change their approach and go after the top candidates before they've taken other jobs.