It's always out there at some level, but the last few days have brought a new crop of "Vinny Del Negro on the hot seat" stories. Marc Stein of ESPN.com had him on the warm throne in his Weekend Dime, then Sekou Smith put him on the toasty chair in his Hangtime blog at NBA.com. Zach Lowe writing in Grantland about unimaginative offense in the NBA didn't mention Del Negro by name, but took several swipes at the Clippers lack of invention in their offensive sets, a clear indictment of the coach.
Let's look at what some of these fine NBA writers had to say. Things like this...
Vinny Del Negro insisted before a recent loss in Dallas that he has "a great future no matter what." The signals are nonetheless getting stronger and stronger that said future won't be at Staples Center, with Del Negro working on the flimsy final year of his original Clippers contract and L.A. looking nothing like the team -- whether that's due to health woes, locker-room fissures or coaching issues -- that won 17 straight games in December.
Could a deep playoff run save him? Even that might not be enough entering the most critical summer in the Clippers' history, with Chris Paul becoming a free agent July 1 and Clips management having always planned to let Paul have a big say (assuming he wants one) before any coach gets another long-term deal from them.
Del Negro has just as many detractors as he does supporters these days. Three different league executives have suggested that he's done a much better job than he gets credit for, when you consider how raw the Clippers' frontcourt remains with youngsters Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan still coming into their own.
Del Negro's critics quickly point out that an All-Star and one of the top 10 centers in the league is a pretty good place to start your frontcourt rotation. Plus, they say, Griffin and Jordan's rawness has as much with Del Negro (and his staff's) inability to polish them up as it does anything else.
The Clippers have dealt with health issues and rumored locker room drama all season, but they also kicked off the NBA's season of win streaks with a 17-gamer early in the season that cranked expectations (on the team and Del Negro) to unattainable proportions. The only thing that might solidify Del Negro's status is a run to the Western Conference finals ... and that might work.
Predictable offenses with otherworldly talent can still get a team far; the Clippers can win a lot of games with 45 Chris Paul-Blake Griffin pick-and-rolls and 45 Griffin post-ups....
Coaches with stale offenses - think Utah, Brooklyn, the Clippers - are hurting their teams, even if those teams have enough talent to produce some solid overall scoring numbers.
So is any of this criticism fair? Probably not.
I'm not going to try to justify that Vinny Del Negro is a great X's and O's guy. He's not, and he'd admit as much. But it seems to me that there's a basic disconnect occurring when people are complaining about the fourth most efficient offense in the NBA. The Clippers score 110.6 points per 100 possessions according to basketball-reference, the fourth best efficiency in the NBA. The teams ahead of them are the Thunder, the Heat and the Knicks. One wonders where Lowe might expect the Clippers offensive efficiency to be, were Del Negro not "hurting" the team so much. Offensive "geniuses" like Gregg Popovich of the Spurs and George Karl of the Nuggets, coaching talented teams that are offensive juggernauts, don't achieve the same offensive efficiency as Del Negro's Clippers.
Now, I've said many times and it remains true, that having Chris Paul on your team hides a lot of coaching flaws. Critics of Del Negro can reasonably argue that he's done little more than get out of Paul's way and let him lead the offense -- but at least he's done that, right? There's little or no empirical evidence that Del Negro is holding the team back. Even on the defensive end, with a group of players not previously known for their defensive chops, the Clippers are eighth in the league in defensive efficiency -- a vast improvement over last year's team. In the process of improving from 18th rated defense in the league to the eighth rated defense, without a major personnel upgrade in terms of outstanding individual defenders, Del Negro finds himself on the sweltering chaise? I mean, I get it, he doesn't exactly inspire a ton of confidence, but let's not pretend this is about anything other than gut feelings, because it's pretty damn tough to make a case that the Clippers are underperforming.
My favorite line from this batch of critiques has got to be this one from Sekou Smith: "The Clippers have dealt with health issues and rumored locker room drama all season." They have? Injuries sure, and that should be a reason to cut VDN some slack. "Rumored locker room drama"? "All season"? I think it's relatively safe to say that I follow the Clippers more closely than most people, and by my count there has been one story -- one -- with rumors of locker room drama. That story appeared last week from the desk of noted provocateur T.J. Simers and was summarily dismissed by anyone with even a passing familiarity with his work. How does one overblown story from week 23 of a 24 week season qualify as "rumored locker room drama all season"? Answer: it doesn't. In fact, the "rumor" is that the Clippers locker room is extraordinarily close.
Which leads me to this story from Hardwood Paroxysm. Dylan Murphy explains on Vinny Del Negro sucks, because, well, he just does. He sucks, and everyone knows it, and everyone has always known it. The simple fact is, very few people really get coaching, and the conventional wisdom has always been that Del Negro is a bad coach. Short of winning a championship, there's little that Del Negro can do to combat that perception, since he will by definition have come up short if the Clippers don't win it all. Heck, if having an offense ranked behind only OKC and Miami and New York can still justify criticism that he's "hurting" the offense, then the deck would seem to be stacked against VDN.
I've long come back to one thing about Del Negro: his teams play hard for him, especially at the end of the season. Motivating and relating to players is at least as important as X's and O's, which at the end of the day don't vary that much from team to team. Consider this: Popovich is justifiably viewed as the best coach in the league at present, running the most sophisticated schemes. Yet Boris Diaw can sign a contract with the Spurs on March 23rd, 2012 and play 16 effective minutes that night. Basketball is basketball, and all 30 teams are running variations on the same things. Diaw didn't have to study for weeks and learn a fundamentally different way to play -- he's a basketball player and Pop put him on the floor after one shootaround.
Del Negro is in his fifth season as a head coach, and his teams have closed strong in his first four, even when they had many reasons not to. This season's Clippers lost three straight at a bad time, at the start of the final ten games. But if Del Negro can get them to close strong over the final seven, he will have shown once again that he can get a locker room to listen to him even as the NBA calendar drags on into it's fifth month.
Does all this mean that I think Del Negro should coach the Clippers next season? Obviously, the final five regular season games and the playoffs will yet have an impact on the decision. Being swept in the first round would indicate one answer, winning a championship would require another. Odds are that the reality will lie in a place much more nuanced -- say for instance a second round exit at the hands of the Thunder in seven games. What then?
Much will depend on Chris Paul, as indeed it should. Players win basketball games, and if Paul has an opinion about next season's coach, particularly one that impacts his free agency, then by all means it should be taken into consideration. The Clippers could probably do better than Vinny Del Negro. But here's the thing that I'm not sure people are fully grasping -- they could also do worse.