DALLAS — Jerry Reinsdorf hired Vinny Del Negro to lead the Chicago Bulls despite not a single coaching gig on his resume. Five years later, the lame-duck coach of the Los Angeles Clippers still can’t escape the stigma of being a cheap hire for a bad team.
Only the Clippers aren’t a bad team any longer, not since Chris Paul arrived a season ago. Despite a mini-slump of late, 5-5 in their last 10, L.A. is 48-23 and closing in on franchise firsts of 50 wins and a division title.
Still, there’s little love for Del Negro. No Coach of the Year mentions as the season winds down to its final month. No contract extension forthcoming. Only one hot seat.
Worry about his future? Del Negro said it’s not something he does.
“No, my future is great. I’ve got a great future no matter what,” Del Negro said Tuesday before the Clippers lost in overtime at Dallas, 109-102. “I’ve been pretty fortunate, so I don’t really worry about that stuff so much. All those things take care of themselves. Where we finish, we’re going to be prepared, we’re going to be organized, we’ll play hard and at the end of the day, you got to try to win some basketball games and finish as high as you can and have a great playoff run. But a lot of playoff teams are saying that right now and it doesn’t always work out like that.
“But you have to put yourself in this position on a consistent basis year-in and year-out and learn and keep the core of your team together. And if you do that, with stability, usually at the end of it you get it figured out as you move forward with a young team that’s trying to develop.”
The Clippers won 32 games in Del Negro’s first season. Over the last two seasons — the last being a lockout-shortened, 66-game schedule — they’ve won 88 games and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. Expectations have been boosted this season and there’s speculation that Del Negro, hired by Neil Olshey, now Portland’s general manager, won’t be back if L.A. makes a quick postseason exit.
“I enjoy the pressure. I love the competition,” Del Negro said. “Could things be a little bit better in certain areas? Of course. But, all those things get answered at the end of the year. Our focus is on tonight’s game and on this season and all those things get answered at the end one way or the other.”
The Clippers are locked in a three-way battle for the No. 3-5 seeds with Denver and Memphis. Tuesday’s loss at Dallas slipped L.A. into fourth place with a game tonight at New Orleans, followed by road tests at Houston on Friday and San Antonio on Sunday.
“I want the highest seed possible, but we just want to make sure we’re playing the right way into the playoffs,” Paul said. “We have the capability, regardless if we have homecourt [advantage] or not. You got to be able to win on the road so either way it doesn’t matter.”
Clippers players have applauded Del Negro’s ability to manage one of the deepest rosters in the league and keep harmony among players who might not get the minutes they feel they deserve. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who coached Del Negro for two seasons in San Antonio, has lauded Del Negro’s strategic incisiveness.
At some point doesn’t Del Negro deserve credit for the Clippers’ massive turnaround? Not that it matters now. The pressure is on and expectations heightened.
“Like I tell the guys, we should thrive on the pressure because you’re in a situation where these games matter where we’re in a playoff run instead of being out of the playoffs.” Del Negro said. “So take advantage of the situation and handle the pressure in terms of be excited about it. And everyone’s vying for certain things, but we can only control what we can, and that’s our preparation and the intensity we play with.”