The Clippers made one of many important decisions that face them this summer when they exercised their option for Vinny Del Negro to return as coach next season. The Clippers had until June 1 (Friday) to make the decision but made the announcement a couple of days under the wire -- no reason to wait until the last minute if the decision is made.
As of March it would have been almost unthinkable that Del Negro would return as the head coach next season -- in fact, it wasn't looking particularly good that he would make it through this season. After a five week swoon that saw the previously division-leading team lose 12 of 19 games, culminating with three losses in three nights, Del Negro was purported to be on thin ice. Given that the final year of his three year deal was a team option, and that the team's situation had changed significantly from when Del Negro was first hired with the acquisition of Chris Paul, the only question seemed to be if Del Negro would survive the season -- it was more or less assumed that the team would go a different direction when the season ended.
But a strong close to the season, with the team winning 14 of 17 at one point before Paul was hurt in the last two games, and a hard fought first round series win over the Memphis Grizzlies, were apparently enough to convince owner Donald Sterling (supposedly the final decision-maker in this case) that Del Negro deserves one more season in L.A.
It's hard to say why exactly, but Del Negro has pretty clearly secured the title of "The Internet's Most Maligned NBA Coach." It's amazing how readily he is dismissed as a terrible head coach, by people who mostly wouldn't know good coaching from a tone poem. I've never been particularly enamored of Del Negro as a coach, but one thing is undeniable: his teams have always played hard for him and finished strong. In his first season as a head coach, his Chicago Bulls team finished on a 12-4 run to squeak into the playoffs and proceeded to play an epic series with the Boston Celtics, losing in seven games. The next season the Bulls used a 10-4 run to grab the final playoff berth in the East. Then this season in L.A. the Clippers once again closed strong. It was reported during the March malaise that Del Negro had "lost the locker room" -- that seems unlikely. He may not be Gregg Popovich as a tactician, but the available evidence strongly suggests that his teams work hard until the final game of the season.
Which is not to be taken lightly.
Sterling may have made the final decision, but one hopes that at least one other person was closely consulted on this decision: Chris Paul. For his part, Paul has always spoken highly of Del Negro. We may never know for sure, but the assumption must be made that if Paul wanted Del Negro gone, if he wanted Monty Williams or Mike Malone or Nate McMillan to be the coach, then the Clippers would not have picked up Vinny's option. Whether Paul re-signs as a free agent next season is much more important to the team's fortunes than who coaches, and even Sterling knows that. If Paul was even lukewarm on the idea of playing another season for Del Negro, it wouldn't be happening.
If it is a mistake to retain Del Negro, it may be as much for the opportunity cost as anything else. One constant issue with firing a coach is the problem of finding a replacement that is a legitimate upgrade. Most seasons teams in need of a new coach wind up choosing from a collection of retreads who've failed as NBA coaches elsewhere, or rolling the dice on an assistant or former player with no head coaching experience. This summer however seems different: multiple coaches with significant tracks records of success are currently unemployed, including McMillan, Mike D'Antoni, Jerry Sloan and Stan Van Gundy. The presence of so many heavy hitters on the coaching job market may mean that the Clippers will eventually regret missing out on such lush pickings. On the other hand, both D'Antoni and Van Gundy have implied that they may take a season off before returning to the bench -- so it's possible that some solid choices will still be available when this question arises again next May (if not before).
Am I personally thrilled that Del Negro will be returning next season? No, I'm not. I happen to think McMillan and D'Antoni are among a relative handful of coaches who can actually make a difference, and either would be a major upgrade in my opinion. By the same token, it's not as the team was unsuccessful under VDN. They compiled the best single season winning percentage in franchise history, won a playoff series for only the third time in franchise history, and were playing their best basketball when it mattered most. Injuries as much as anything derailed their playoff run, and Del Negro can hardly be held responsible for that.
I'm assuming that Paul is OK with this decision, and if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me. Now that it's done, the Clippers can begin to focus on other issues.