What the late, great Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) reputedly said about money (“A billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money”), friends and family of Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro might want to say about NBA postseason berths.
As in, “A playoff apperance here, a playoff apperance there and pretty soon you’re talking about real coaching.”
Del Negro doesn’t seem to be held in high regard by the basketball cognescenti as a cunning X’s & O’s tactician, a savvy, psychological buttons-pusher of elite athletes or a great leader of men in general. Many think of Del Negro simply as lucky in a right-place, right-time way.
He came by his first coaching job in Chicago in 2008 as the team’s third choice, after Mike D’Antoni jumped and Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf had reservations about his close relationship with Doug Collins.
He got a rookie Derrick Rose dropped in his lap that first year.
When Del Negro landed with the Clippers in 2010, the whispers in coaching circles was that he agreed to work cheap for owner Donald Sterling, on a bargain contract light on salary and guarantees but long on lockout holdbacks.
Blake Griffin, sidelined for all of 2009-10, was back strong for Del Negro’s first season in L.A. and Chris Paul showed up on their doorstep last December.
He figures to hear his job security bandied about again in 2012-13. The Clippers are poised to be one of the darlings of the league again in what – given the Lakers’ fortified arsenal – figures to be the hottest market in the NBA this season.
Will that happen in part because of Del Negro? Or in spite of him? Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times penned a story about the “burden to succeed” that Del Negro faces, with his returning stars and with newcomers such as Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes and Ronny Turiaf.
In May, the Clippers picked up the option on Del Negro’s contract, giving him a third season as coach for about $2 million. Still, Del Negro, 46, enters the new season in the final year of his contract.
Sitting in his office Wednesday afternoon, Del Negro leaned back in his chair and said of his situation: “I think there’s always pressure, but I think that’s a position that you want to be in.
“My goal coming here was to help change the environment, change the culture and change the direction of the organization.”
Last season the Clippers went 40-26 in the regular season and Del Negro took them to the second round of the playoffs for just the second time since the franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1984.
All signs point to Del Negro’s leading the Clippers to back-to-back playoff appearances. If that happens, it will be for just the second time during the 32 years Donald Sterling will have owned the team. The Clippers last reached the postseason in consecutive years in 1992 and 1993 when Larry Brown was coach.
Rivals can focus on Del Negro’s bank account or the “kick me” signs critics slap on his back. But the former NBA guard can point to a scoreboard that shows three trips to the playoffs in four seasons as a coach.
Big achievement? Well, it’s not small. Only six other NBA coaches can make the same claim over the past four years and they’re a pretty elite group: Scott Brooks, Rick Carlisle, George Karl, Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers and Erik Spoelstra. If you extend the criteria to those who have done it over their past four seasons as a coach, you would add Mike Brown, Avery Johnson and Mike Woodson.
Those who haven’t done it, either over the past four seasons or their past four: Rick Adelman, Doug Collins, Lawrence Frank, Alvin Gentry, Lionel Hollins, Byron Scott, Scott Skiles, Terry Stotts and Randy Wittman.
That’s 10 in Del Negro’s club, nine who aren’t (and 11 more who haven’t logged four seasons). Does that put him in the upper third of NBA coaches? Smack in the middle, allowing for those who haven’t qualified? Hard to say – and yes, it is only one narrow yardstick – but Del Negro often gets no more credit for his teams’ success than Benny The Bull or Clipper Darrell.
Already, point guard extraordinaire Paul is getting more attention for hosting NFL/barbecue parties – as a tactic for Clippers solidarity – than Del Negro gets for working actual games. As Martin Rogers of Yahoo! Sports wrote:
So when there’s a football game on, the team gets together, watches the game and feasts on barbecue chicken, salad, rice and corn, all prepared by Paul’s chef, of course, because as Paul said “all the Clippers are conscious of what we eat.”
“For the next nine or 10 months I will be with these guys more than I will be with my wife, so you have got to build that trust,” Paul explained. “There are a lot of guys who are stars in this league who don’t really talk to each other as much. With me and Blake [Griffin], we can tell each other anything and that goes for a lot of our team.”
Del Negro did sign off on the gatherings, valuing the camaraderie they can build. Bu it’s unlikely that will help him wheedle a contract extension out of Sterling, not at a time where Brooks and Carlisle worked to the ends of their deals in 2011-12 and Tom Thibodeau has been stalled on an extension by the Bulls.
Still, there are worse things than another $2 mil to walk the sidelines at Staples Center with Paul alleying, Griffin ooping and fans ahhing. Del Negro probably is fine being thought of as the Richard Starkey of NBA coaches.