The bizarre, surreal scene that played out Thursday morning in Orlando, with Stan Van Gundy saying, why yes, management told him Dwight Howard wants him fired, and then Howard sauntering by after the team’s shootaround to wrap his arm around Van Gundy — Hey, what’s up fellas? — resonated around the league.
It drew back the curtain, rather comically, on what often stays quietly out of sight — a star player telling management he wants the coach fired.
Shaquille O’Neal almost made a cottage industry out of it — Brian Hill in Orlando, Del Harris and Kurt Rambis in Los Angeles and, of course, a certain Mr. Van Gundy in Miami (though the big man took to national TV on Thursday night to dispute such actions in Miami).
It was hard to watch this bit of cinema verite play out and not think about the Clippers, who took out Sacramento 93-85 on Thursday.
Just consider the ingredients. This is an organization that for decades has embodied dysfunction and incompetence — the last coach and the last general manager sued owner Donald Sterling. And now, their twin lifelines to relevance, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, can become free agents in the summer of 2013.
So, if either waltzed into the office of general manager Neil Olshey — who dealt away a treasure trove of assets for Paul — and expressed a lack of confidence in Vinny Del Negro, who is in the final guaranteed year of his contract, what is Olshey going to do but nod his head?
"That’s an isolated event down there," cautioned Paul, who didn’t care to discuss the subject. "Every situation’s different."
Fair enough and true enough. For one, Paul and Griffin are much more circumspect than Howard. They’re also much more engaged with their teammates and their front office, to the point where if either of his stars is unhappy, Olshey will be among the first to know.
"Last summer, before the lockout, we talked about the direction of the team," Griffin said of his conversations with the general manager. "It’s not constantly. It’s just kind of bouncing ideas off each other. I know he talks to C.P. I know he talks to me and other guys. It’s more about keeping guys in the loop. It’s not long-term stuff, but in a way it is long term because it’s building a foundation. It’s not saying, ‘We’re going to do this and we’re going to sign this guy for this long.’ That wouldn’t be right."
Paul said recently that one reason he wanted out of New Orleans is he couldn’t get straight answers from ownership (the team is owned by the league) — even on minutiae like whether a masseuse would be available for players. He also was not pleased about being surprised when the team traded Tyson Chandler in 2009.
Before Paul included the Clippers on the list of teams he was willing to be traded to, he spoke on the phone to Del Negro, peppering him with questions about his philosophies and how he liked to use certain players. He did the same with Olshey.
"Everybody handles it differently," Griffin said. "But for me personally, in that situation I don’t want any drama, any quote going back and forth from this guy’s party, that guy’s party. For me, the best way to handle it is be quiet and just play basketball and then handle it at the appropriate time."
At the end of next season?
"Yeah," Griffin continued. "I’m not interested in talking about my future during a season while I’m committed to playing. That’s me personally. That’s not a shot at anybody else who’s doing it a different way. I just know I couldn’t play the way I need to play, the way I should play if that’s on my mind, if I have to constantly worry about that."
So, while Sterling recently gave Del Negro a vote of confidence as the Clippers began to pull out of a six-week tailspin — Thursday was their seventh win in eight games — the reality is that Del Negro’s status will be determined during the playoffs, when the judgment will be made whether he is a coach with whom the Clippers can win a championship.
(Better that than late-game out-of-bounds plays. The Clippers, nursing a one-point lead with 18 seconds left, nearly botched another one, just as they did in a loss to San Antonio and an escape against Philadelphia.)
Though Del Negro is well aware of how the Clippers’ future hangs in the hands of their two stars, he said it would be foolish to try to curry favor with them.
"If you try to be somebody you’re not, players are going to read right through that," Del Negro said. "You have to be yourself, you have to demand certain things and make it where everyone’s working together. Maybe there’s something they’re a little uncomfortable with or something I’m a little uncomfortable with, but you try to make it work."
The two seasons he spent in Chicago, Del Negro says he got along well with the players, including Derrick Rose. Management was another story. Executive vice president John Paxson tried to goad Del Negro into a fight, and he had a heated argument with general manager Gar Forman. They fired him after two seasons.
"Obviously, it’s a players’ league, but you also have to have some type of culture, some type of system built in that this is how we’re going to go about our daily business," Del Negro said. "The coach, everyone in the organization, has to have the support from the top coming down to make everything run smoothly, but it doesn’t always work like that. When things are going bad, that’s when you see how much support you really have because then everybody scatters and everyone is protecting themselves and you get into all that stuff. But the good organizations stay together through the good times, through the bad times — more importantly through the bad times so they weather those storms together. I think there’s less tension, less friction and the players see that and I think they feed off that."
Or at least that’s the Clippers’ plan. From afar on Thursday — and for a change — it clearly looked better than the alternative.