The Los Angeles Clippers didn’t just shed themselves of a head coach Tuesday who no longer fits the suddenly astronomical expectations of an organization once mired in failure. They reinforced their dominance over the Los Angeles Lakers in the most significant of ways: By better positioning themselves to win the future.
The news that the Clippers will not keep head coach Vinny Del Negro after his contract expires at the end of June, first reported by Yahoo! Sports, was the final stage in a carefully orchestrated, well-designed plan stretching back to last summer aimed at retaining Chris Paul — and pairing him with the right head coach — with the minimum amount of drama.
The Clippers, an organization that has long been the embarrassment of the league, outthought the Lakers on this dicey but inevitable fact: Any Top-10 talent faced with signing a five-year max deal with his own team or a four-year version somewhere else has every ounce of power over whether or not his head coach returns.
The task isn’t to avoid that fact. It’s to mask it.
That’s exactly what the Clippers did, and exactly what the Lakers failed to do in spectacular, mind-bending fashion.
Sources say that by picking up Del Negro’s one-year option last summer, the Clippers planned in advance to offer Paul a drama-free incentive none could match: Paul would have another year to evaluate Del Negro, followed by the chance to either allow Del Negro to return or quietly say he wanted a different coach. In that case, he could mask his decision by letting the organization make the choice to part ways and use the timing of Del Negro’s expiring deal as cover for any criticism directed at its star player. That the team flamed out in the first round only made the transition, and the decision, easier.
All season — from the Clippers’ 17-game winning streak through the struggles that at times followed — sources familiar with the organization’s thinking said the plan remained the same. Wait until the end of the season, take Paul’s temperature on Del Negro, and offer the star point guard the chance to be intimately involved in choosing the team’s next head coach. What happened Tuesday was that plan perfectly executed.
The Lakers did the opposite. In firing Mike Brown a handful of games into the season, they made it impossible to offer Dwight Howard a similar situation. That the Lakers brought in Mike D’Antoni, a poor fit for Howard in particular and this past season’s Lakers roster in particular, only compounded the issue.
So perhaps it was fitting that Tuesday brought two very different kinds of NBA news stories out of Los Angeles. On the one hand was Del Negro’s ouster, and reports of Paul’s role. On the other was a report that after his exit interview with D’Antoni and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, Dwight had a longer, private conversation with Kupchak during which he outlined his frustration with the head coach.
So the Lakers, who are more likely to watch Howard walk away than the Clippers are to see Paul bolt, must somehow convince the big man to play with D’Antoni — or to sign his extension, help select a new head coach and take the ridicule and heat that will come with killing off another boss’ job. Either option could be a tough sell for a player hell-bent on coming off as happy-go-lucky and a good guy. Either scenario has disaster written all over it.
The Clippers, meanwhile, are sitting pretty. The team will look to find candidates who will be a further inducement to getting Paul to sign on for the long term this summer with a high likelihood that none of the ugliness will stick to their star. Sources said the primary targets of the coaching search will be Memphis head coach Lionel Hollins, who is not under contract; former New Orleans head coach Byron Scott, who had a great relationship with Paul during their time there together; and Phil Jackson, whom a source said is “sniffing around” the opportunity.
Another source said the process is early and that while those three names are certainly on the list, there’s some internal excitement about the idea of targeting a young, up-and-coming assistant.
Whatever the case, the voice that will matter most in the hiring process will be Paul’s.
It all boils down to this: Both Los Angeles teams believed this season they had a player on the roster capable of ensuring years of success. The Clippers played chess, moving their pieces brilliantly across the board, setting up a scenario to keep their guy with a well-executed strategy of letting him quietly help pick his coach. Del Negro is gone, and Paul is free to help shape the future.
Meanwhile, the Lakers were playing checkers, and now they have a board that features an aging Kobe Bryant, a head coach with a huge deal and little locker-room support, and their hoped-for player of the future who must play for a coach he can’t stand or take the blame for forcing him out.
As stunning as it is to accept, it turns out that right now the Los Angeles Clippers are a much better-run organization than the Los Angeles Lakers. That fact could make all the difference in what happens to each in the years to come.