The Los Angeles Clippers found a way to lose twice in the postseason.
First came their second-round sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs earlier this month. Now they’ve decided to bring back head coach Vinny Del Negro for one more season.
There are a multitude of reasons the Clippers might have chosen to pick up Del Negro’s option for the 2012-13 season, a move they announced Tuesday night. Few seem good enough.
Owner Donald Sterling’s whims and needs are certain to play a prominent role in decision-making for a team that — under his leadership — has been besotted by failure, and Sterling is a fan of the head coach. Sterling’s own less-than-stellar reputation among some in the NBA may also have made it more difficult to recruit the right big name to replace Del Negro.
There’s also the uncomfortable fact that general manager Neil Olshey got to announce Del Negro’s return Tuesday night while fending off questions about his own reported attempts to get a job somewhere else.
It’s also true that Del Negro is probably a much cheaper option than, say, Stan Van Gundy. And his 40-26 record this past season was an all-time franchise best in terms of winning percentage (60.6 percent).
Del Negro is an incredibly nice guy, and a fine coach. People like him. People want him to succeed. Even his players seem to genuinely like him and play hard for him.
"Even though we lost Games 3 and 4 here at home against San Antonio, those payers still competed right down to the final whistle no matter what they are up against," said Olshey. "That’s a statement to Vinny."
Sure. But this is a statement about Vinny, too: Del Negro represents a good hire for the Clippers of old, but a terrible one for what the Clippers could become. The fact that Sterling seems to be pulling the strings on this instead of the general manager drives that point home.
Van Gundy would have been the perfect fit. He’s a coach who can coax greatness and growth from stars and role players. Whereas Dwight Howard grew into a talent with an ego the size of Disneyland, Paul and Griffin seem like stars who are more about winning titles than building brands and butting heads with their head coaches. Other options like Nate McMillan (interesting), Jerry Sloan (great idea, but tough sell) and Phil Jackson (best idea, but nearly-impossible sell) would have made a lot more sense than another year of Del Negro basketball.
Del Negro’s team often ran an offense this season that amounted to "good luck guys," a frustrating lack of offensive discipline that did too little to capitalize on Paul’s remarkable talents or help Griffin grow and learn the way he can.
The fact Paul will test the free agent waters next year means this upcoming season — and whatever coach leads it — will be critical to not just 2012-13, but the future of the Clippers for years to come.
During the conference call to talk about Del Negro’s return Tuesday night, there seemed to be signs bubbling below the surface that this is far from a concrete and permanent move to place the Clippers atop the NBA hierarchy
For starters, Del Negro said over and over — often unprompted — some variation of, "We know we have a lot of work to do still."
So did his boss.
There’s also the very significant detail that the Clippers renewed Del Negro’s option without offering him — or even discussing — a contract extension. Del Negro hasn’t so much been given new life as made a likely Dead Man Walking.
"That was not on the radar right now," Del Negro said after I asked him if he’d had any discussion about an extension beyond his one-year option. "We have a lot of things to talk about in terms of the roster and other things that have to get done. My opportunity has been tremendous there in terms of coaching for the Clippers. It’s where I want to be. We’ll get to that stuff, but there’s a lot more pressing stuff for me. I’m just happy for the opportunity to be back."
Look, locking down the right coach, if that’s what Del Negro really is, qualifies as one of those things that need to get done. Yesterday. If the Clippers had utter confidence in Del Negro, he’d have a longer deal. If they don’t — particularly given Paul’s upcoming free agency and this team’s potential — it’s time to hire someone else.
But this is still the Clippers, a team that too often (if we’re being generous) doesn’t always do business the way it should.
Which brings us back to the fact that during the call to talk about Del Negro’s return, the general manager was forced to avoid reports he’s talking to another team about a job. That’s because Olshey, who did a great job putting together this team’s roster, doesn’t have a contract of his own.
So, if the general manager has to tersely repeat "no comment" about his own situation while supposedly celebrating his decision to bring back his head coach, who, exactly, is pulling the strings on Del Negro’s return?
Olshey, between job interviews? Ah, doubtful.
Sterling? Sounds about right.
Let’s be real.
The Clippers have great potential equal only to the serious question marks dangling over many of his component parts. DeAndre Jordan is a talented knucklehead in need of guidance … from a great coach. Chris Paul is a strong-willed leader in need of a better game plan and a head coach for whom he can be an extension on the floor. Griffin is a budding star who still has a lot of room to grow, but needs the right person to help him do it.
And the general manager who supposedly brought Del Negro back is reportedly trying to get the hell outta there.
"There was never any question Vinny would come back," Olshey said.
Of course there wasn’t. This is the Clippers, where the general manager without a contract is reportedly looking for another job before announcing the head coach’s return.
Given that this sounds a lot like Clippers business-as-usual, it’s hard to see this as anything other than another typical Sterling move: A mistake.