It was, and will end up being, one of the more dizzying games of the season. Caron Butler making nine 3-pointers and the Clippers losing. The Hornets, down their two best players, Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis, winning. A career-low four points for Blake Griffin. The Clippers making just one more two-point shot (19) than from behind the arc (18). And New Orleans, a lottery team even at full strength, on the road on the second night of a back-to-back and still getting better bench play than one of the deepest teams in the league.
And afterward things got really good.
Chris Paul, as quoted by Dan Woike of the Orange County Register, said Los Angeles lost to “a less-talented team that was well-coached.” Shots fired.
On one hand, Paul may not have intended to run over his own coach, Vinny Del Negro, then back up and run over Del Negro again by complimenting the opposing coach, Monty Williams. Paul may simply have intended to praise his former coach from their days together in New Orleans. It could have been pro-Williams without being anti-Del Negro.
On the other hand, it doesn’t matter.
Del Negro is already facing enough much-deserved scrutiny. Now Paul’s comment will only increase it. Paul’s words will be interpreted by many as the star point guard, in the final season of his contract, putting his coach in a bad light.
With a lot of other teams at other times, a player so much as appearing to pull the chair from under a coach — whether the actual intention or not — could be explained away as over-analyzing a deserved compliment for Williams. But this is about the Clippers in win-now mode yet being unable, again, to harness a championship-hopeful’s focus. It is also about Donald T. Sterling.
While a lot of owners ignore popularity contests to guide personnel decisions and go with the opinions of the basketball-ops staff, Sterling has spent decades trying to win the press conference. He famously asks security guards and ushers at the arena, media, fans, anyone, for advice in solving the Problem of the Day. Not because he is making conversation. Because he will make major decisions based on the subsequent approval rating.
Sterling has been known to care more about what his friends think than what his general manager thinks. So Paul stoking the many fans who have been hoping for Del Negro’s departure will be read as CP3 saying something along the lines of “If only we were well-coached.” Paul didn’t have to mean it that way. What matters in the Sterling universe is that it looks that way.
One thing about Del Negro continuing to catch heat, though. If he gets the blame for all performances like last night’s — such as those seen in a loss to the Warriors, a loss to the Cavaliers, a loss to the Hawks and a loss to the Hornets — he should get the credit for beating the Spurs twice and the Heat, Lakers and Bulls before the first full month is complete. There has been some good, after all. However Paul meant it.