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Coach on Thin Ice? Should the Clippers Replace Vinny Del Negro?


Basketball is a complex game. Yet, I'm constantly amazed at how simple it seems to be to some people. Some people seem to know (or at least think they know) immediately exactly what is right or wrong with a team. Especially when it comes to coaches, fans frequently seem completely convinced that their coach is the worst possible coach in the world and that the team would be infinitely better with anyone else sitting in the first chair.

Look, I've never been a big fan of Vinny Del Negro. I didn't like this hire at the time, and I'm sorry to say it looks like I was right, especially when you consider what has happened in Chicago since Vinny's departure. Not to mention what's been happening to the Clippers the last few weeks. But here's the thing -- I'm a pretty thoughtful guy and a pretty smart guy and I watch a lot of basketball, and I'd be hard-pressed to tell you the exact reasons that VDN is a bad coach. We can certainly observe some poor results from the team over the past month or so. The coach can take some of that blame; but how much? I mean, the coach can't make the shots, right? The Clippers were 4 for 23 in the fourth quarter against the Hornets. I'll allow that some of that falls on Vinny -- the offense isn't creative enough to generate good looks against an energized defense, the players aren't bought in enough to execute better, that sort of thing -- but some of that is people just plain missing shots as well, right?

The funny thing is, VDN was never presented as, and doesn't claim to be, an 'Xs and Os' guy. Which is great, because we can all just accept it as a given that he's weak in that area -- we don't have to debate it. If the guy's supposed strengths are as a motivator and developer of young talent, then having a team visibly unmotivated and a 23 year old superstar stagnating before our eyes would seem to be indicative of a problem.

What are the specific issues? It may not even matter any more. It's not a sophisticated offense by any means -- there's a lot of pick and roll and some Blake Griffin isos, and not a lot else. But when the team was doing well early in the season, that simplicity was seen as a good thing. I've said many times that just because you know a Chris Paul pick and roll is coming, doesn't mean you can stop it. Besides, aren't Clippers fans the same ones who hated Mike Dunleavy Sr. because his playbook was too thick? Now VDN is a huge problem because his is too thin. There's just no satisfying us I guess.

Like I said, it may no longer matter what the reality is. Because in the NBA, as in many other things, perception is reality. And Vinny Del Negro is certainly perceived as a bad coach. I've been doing Q&As with rival bloggers for months now, and EVERY TIME I get asked some variation on the following: "Do you think the Clippers can be successful despite how bad a coach VDN is?"

Of course, the perception of SBNation NBA bloggers is one problem -- the perception of the players on the team is quite another. The "Fire VDN" drumbeat has been going for awhile in the FanPosts and comments on Clips Nation -- but until yesterday, there had been no hint in the national media that he was in any sort of trouble. That all changed with at the speed of twitter.

Bill Simmons, who may or may not be plugged into the Clipper organization enough to actually know something, tweeted after Wednesday night's loss to Oklahoma City "Heard today that Vinny Del Negro is on super-thin, could-go-any-day ice. A blowout loss in OKC tonight won't exactly help."

That tweet bounced around the media echo chamber some on Thursday -- Kurt Helin at NBC and Matt Moore at CBS both wrote their obligatory and appropriately vague "Is VDN in trouble?" posts citing circumstantial evidence like the team's poor recent play and of course Simmons' tweet to fuel the discussion.

Then late in the day Thursday, Chris Broussard dropped the bombshell: Del Negro has lost the locker room! That's the secret code. That's what the front office says when they need to make a move. Because once a coach losing the locker room, there's no getting it back. Oh, and lest we forget, it was a Broussard "D'Antoni has lost the locker room" piece that precipitated a coaching change in New York. Broussard's piece seems awfully fluffy upon closer inspection. It goes through all the same issues of predictable offense, poor play and inconsistent rotations. But really, are VDN's rotations any less consistent than those of any other coach in the league? Besides, if the team is playing poorly, wouldn't we expect the coach to tweak his rotation? Wouldn't that make sense?

Broussard's piece features all of two quotes:

Vinny has lost the team. They don't want to play hard for him - a source.


That [VDN's refusal to criticize Chris Paul or Blake Griffin] is a big problem. The best coaches jump on whoever deserves it, no matter who it is - a player (presumably a Clipper, though it doesn't actually specify).

That's not a lot as smoking guns go. But it may not matter. He's "lost the team." He's "lost the locker room." That's the point of no return.

After the Clippers lost their third game in three night's against the last place Hornets on Thursday night, the writers covering the team were more or less obliged to chime in on the "VDN on the hot seat" theme. As per usual, the most thoughtful piece came from Kevin Arnovitz, and J.A. Adande addressed the subject as well. The echo chamber is getting louder and louder.

So what will the Clippers do? What should they do? Del Negro is in the last year of a two year contract with a team option for next season. He'll clearly not be back next year. But what about this season?

Generally speaking, teams in the thick of a playoff race do not change coaches with five weeks remaining in the season. The Knicks, who made their move just over a week ago and have since won five straight under new coach Mike Woodson, are honestly the best example of a (so far) successful late season change I can think of. The Nuggets hired George Karl very near the midpoint of the season back in 2005, and he proceeded to take a 17-25 team and finish the season winning 32 out of 40 games, a remarkable turnaround. But in each of those firings, the team was well below .500 at the time so there was little to lose, and the fact of the matter is that teams rarely play better under a new coach.

A big part of the problem is simply the lack of practice time. If the point of making a change is because the existing coach's system is inadequate or flawed, well how is the new coach going to be able to affect significant change when there's a game every other night? A new coach can supply a new voice and possibly instill a new attitude, but it's difficult to make major changes.

The other big problem in most cases is the availability of upgrades at the coaching position. Simply moving the top assistant over a chair is unlikely to pay big dividends. The "interim" coach as a placeholder until you can conduct a coaching search in the off-season is not really who you want in charge in the playoffs.

That's where the current situation may be different. I tend to be of the opinion that most coaches have little impact on the game. Replace one with another, and it's not going to make a huge difference. There are however a handful of coaches who seem to have consistently overachieved with their teams over the years, a small number of coaches who, in may opinion, are actually difference-makers. Gregg Popovich and Rick Adelman are in that category for me. As are Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan. As it happens, Jackson and Sloan are theoretically available right now -- but each is officially retired and may want to stay that way.

There happen to be two other coaches who I consider in the upper echelon who have very recently come onto the job market: Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan. D'Antoni's Phoenix teams played beautiful attacking basketball -- some of that was Steve Nash of course, but a lot of it was D'Antoni's schemes as well. Besides, who better to do a Nash imitation that Chris Paul. Meanwhile, McMillan, in both Seattle and Portland, consistently had his teams in playoff contention, even when they didn't have the greatest talent, even when they were wracked by injury.

Both D'Antoni and McMillan were fired last week. Would either of them be interested in the Clippers' job? I don't know, but if so, it mitigates the problem of finding an available upgrade.

There could conceivably be a problem with D'Antoni: Simmons, who kind of started this whole thing, says that Paul would not want D'Antoni because of what happened in New York. He tweeted:

FYI: D'Antoni/Clippers will never happen. No way CP3 ever allows that. He's friends with 'Melo/Chandler and knows what went down in NY.

So there's that. It seems more than a little vague and conspiratorial, but there could be some truth to it. Still, there could be an advantage in going with D'Antoni as regards the transition -- current Clippers Assistant Coach Mark Iavaroni was D'Antoni's top assistant in Phoenix.

Will the Clippers make a move? If they're going to do it, now is the time. As crazy as it is to make a coaching change just five weeks before the playoffs start, it's even crazier to do so four weeks before the playoffs start. If there's any truth to the "Vinny has lost the locker room" chatter (and the body language of the team seems to support the notion) then there's plenty of justification, and the situation is unlikely to get better. Interestingly, VDN has been here before -- his final season in Chicago the hot seat talk started in December and dogged him the rest of the way. Not only did he keep his job, but he also got the Bulls to run off 10 wins in their final 14 games to make the playoffs. And then he got fired after the season.

Money will be an issue in hiring a new coach, as it tends to be with Donald Sterling. But hopefully he's smart enough to realize that although keeping Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will not be cheap, it's still a bargain in the long run. And part of keeping Chris Paul and Blake Griffin is spending the money to build a winner around them. Coach's salaries don't count against the cap, so this doesn't even come with a tax attached. Getting the right coach is also a bargain in the long run.

If the right coach is available now and is interested now, then now is the time to make a move.