Vinny Del Negro’s future with the Clippers appeared doomed the moment the team exited the NBA playoffs this month.
A first-round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies erased everything that preceded it during the regular season: a franchise-record 56 wins, a 17-game win streak, the team’s first-ever Pacific Division title.
“I want to thank the Clipper organization for allowing me the opportunity to lead this team. I am proud of what we accomplished during my tenure, and how the expectations have changed and what lies ahead for this franchise,” Del Negro said in a release issued by the team on Wednesday.
“The past three years with the Clippers have been an incredible learning experience for me, and I value the knowledge and wisdom I’ve gained. It has been a pleasure working with everyone in the organization — from Mr. and Mrs. Sterling, to Andy [Roeser], Gary [Sacks] and Eric [Miller] and, most of all, the players and assistant coaches, whom deserve tremendous credit for our collective success.
“I wish the Clipper organization nothing but continued success.”
On Tuesday, the team issued a three-paragraph statement saying Del Negro will not be offered a new contract when his current three-year deal expires June 30. A search for a replacement will begin immediately.
In making the announcement, Clippers vice-president of basketball operations Gary Sacks said, “This was a difficult decision, but we feel this is the best decision for our franchise moving forward.”
Sacks indicated that Chris Paul and forward Blake Griffin would be consulted before the team decided on Del Negro’s future, and it’s likely their feedback was important in the final decision. Although owner Donald Sterling was said to be fond of Del Negro, there was probably no chance of bringing back Paul for five more years and $107.3 million — the max deal he can get when he becomes a free agent on July 1 — unless a move was made.
Neither Paul nor Griffin was critical of Del Negro, but there was frustration with some defensive calls and playing time at certain points in the season. Del Negro was often inconsistent with his bench, and in the Game 6 loss to Memphis, he left valuable reserve Jamal Crawford on the sidelines when the team needed an offensive boost.
A new coach will need Paul’s stamp of approval, whether it’s Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins, whose contract expires at the end of this season, or Golden State Warriors assistant Mike Malone, who was an assistant with New Orleans when Paul played there. But their names are only two of several currently circulating.
Del Negro, 46, had a 128-102 record in three seasons with the Clippers and is one of only two coaches in franchise history with a winning record (Larry Brown was 64-53 from 1991-93). He also took the team to consecutive playoff appearances, advancing to the second round last season.
But failing to reach the conference finals, which is what those within the organization expected, was a crushing setback. A long run in the playoffs — maybe even to the NBA Finals — was hoped to be the singular achievement that would secure Paul’s return, but now that’s not guaranteed.
In fact, Paul will leave his options open when free agency begins July 1. So hiring a coach to his liking could be a deciding factor in whether he re-ups or moves on with another team for fewer years and less money.
But getting his signature on a new deal clearly meant parting ways with Del Negro, and that, more than anything else, is why Del Negro is no longer at the helm.