Two Coaches With Everything To Lose

LOS ANGELES – Opposing playoff coaches Vinny Del Negro and Lionel Hollins have a lot in common. Both men have improved their clubs’ winning percentage each season as coach. The last two soared over .600 for consecutive top-five finishes in the rugged Western Conference.

Both won 56 games this season to set each franchise’s record for most wins.

And, finally, job security: Neither man has it.

In a rare, but not unprecedented occurrence, the first-round playoff series between Del Negro’s Los Angeles Clippers and Hollins’ Memphis Grizzlies, a rematch of last season’s seven-game, first-round thriller won by L.A., features two lame-duck coaches.

While both have produced excellent seasons by any measure, one will be going home earlier than hoped. And despite public stamps of approval this week from their superiors, neither coach’s future is certain, and prior to Monday’s Game 2, neither was pretending otherwise.

“Would I liked to have had a contract before this? Of course,” said Hollins, now in his fifth consecutive season and third stint as the Grizzlies coach, a relationship that dates back to the franchise’s roots in Vancouver. “But that’s a decision that’s made and you go and do the best job you can, and it’s not like it had to be done before the season is over. It’s just like players, you can extend players early or you can wait till later. Guys become free agents and they go out in free agency and sometimes it gives you leverage and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Del Negro, who guided the Clippers to the franchise’s first Pacific Division title and first 50-win campaign in his third season and second with All-Star point guard Chris Paul, has been one of the most scrutinized coaches since Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf hired him without any coaching experience five years ago. Del Negro lasted two .500 seasons there before being fired and then hired by the Clippers.

L.A. advanced to the West semifinals last season, but with Paul and Blake Griffin banged up, was swept by the San Antonio Spurs. Del Negro said this season’s goal is to go deeper, which implies a goal of achieving another franchise milestone, a first conference final. It would take finishing off Memphis and then likely ousting the reigning West-champion Oklahoma City Thunder.

“I believe in what we’ve done here,” Del Negro said. “I think my assistant coaches have done a phenomenal job and I’ve had great support from ownership and the front office … and everybody to try and put the best team out there possible.

“Right now the focus should be on the playoffs, should be on the players and the commitment that they’re putting in to help us be successful. And all those things (contract situation) will get answered at the end.”

Last postseason, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks squared off in the first round with both on expiring contracts. Carlisle was a season removed from winning the championship and Brooks had led the young Thunder out of the Western Conference basement to the conference final.

After some posturing, both signed four-year contracts to remain in place.

Five coaches in these playoffs face uncertain futures, including Atlanta’s Larry Drew, also at the end of his term, while Milwaukee’s Jim Boylan and Brooklyn’s P.J. Carlesimo remain on an interim basis.

Hollins, 59, has seen his team get outplayed and fall into a 2-0 hole with pivotal Game 3 in Memphis on Thursday night (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT). Postseason hopes were re-ignited as Hollins guided his defensive-minded Grizzlies to a 27-11 record following the controversial decision made by Memphis’ new ownership group to trade 26-year-old leading scorer Rudy Gay, a move that disappointed Hollins and of which he was publicly critical.

In the opening playoff games, the key player Memphis received in the three-team trade, veteran forward Tayshaun Prince, has averaged 8.8 points on 42.9 percent shooting. It’s unclear if a second consecutive one-and-done to the Clippers would cost Hollins his job.

Milling in the visitor’s locker room at Staples Center on Monday, new Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien praised Hollins’ coaching chops this season, but offered no insight into the new ownership group’s thinking.

“We, as an organization, agreed we wouldn’t have any comments other than to say that he’s a real asset to the team,” Levien told NBA.com. “I think we had the best record in franchise history. I think that Lionel led the way to that, led us through some adversity, real adversity in changing of players, in changing ownership. The interesting thing in the process when you buy a team is that you don’t get to talk to the management and the coaches while you’re in that process, so we really stepped in on Nov. 1. And so we got to know everybody and it’s been a very positive season overall.”

Seated at his locker not 10 feet from Levien, Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said players have not talked individually to Hollins, but that they do discuss his fuzzy situation.

“It does seem like it’s weird that it’s taken so long or if it’s going to happen or what, and we’re having such a successful year. I think everyone’s in agreement with that,” Conley said. “Him not being a part of the team next year, and the coaching staff, I think that would be kind of a shock.”

Del Negro, 46, said he and Clippers management held “discussions early on, but nothing significant.” He said he hasn’t allowed his own uncertain future to tug at him as he’s worked to develop the long-term growth of a franchise (which includes convincing Paul to commit to a long-term contract this summer) that has spent the better portion of 40 years as a league laughingstock.

New Clippers CEO Gary Sacks, a long-time member of the front office who was promoted to his current position last offseason after the man who hired Del Negro, Neil Olshey, exited to become general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers, told The Los Angeles Times on Monday that Del Negro and his staff have done a “terrific job.”

“They deserve a huge amount of credit for the way the team has played and the way our roster has developed,” Sacks said.

Echoing Del Negro, Sacks said attention should be focused on the playoffs, and he acknowledged “that this,” Del Negro’s unresolved contract situation, “is a distraction bothers me.”

Hollins, 214-201 in his three stints with Memphis, was outspoken before and after ownership pulled the trigger on the Gay trade, a move perceived by many to be more about unburdening the franchise of Gay’s sizable contract than putting a winner on the floor.

His most colorful comment after the trade implied that the organization’s small-market status dictated terms to the new ownership group. It completed two midseason trades that got Memphis under the luxury tax as it sent away five players, wrecked Hollins’ rotation and lost the team its top scorer:

“When you have champagne taste, you can’t be on a beer budget.”

On Monday in L.A., Hollins said he took “a lot of flak” for comments he made and for comments “that were taken differently than I intended them to be.” But he said at no time has he grown frustrated by not being offered an extension.

“Once I squelched that [the firestorm over his trade comments] and got back to just being able to coach basketball, that’s what I do,” Hollins said. “That’s what I have a passion for and I’ll do it for as long as I have a passion or as long as they’ll let me do it.

“Whichever comes first.”

13 Comments

  1. Brandon says:

    Vinny has done an excellent job with the clippers, however he is still not a great coach. He managed to bring together a clippers roster with an entirely new bench, manage all their egos, and have them play amazingly. However as a coach, he can not make in-game adjustments (besides switching to a zone defense). He doesn’t even have an actual, definable system or a good half court offense. While the clippers DO score in the half court, it is a lot of one on one basketball, and only occasionally ball movement. Deny CP3 the ball, and the clippers are entirely different, which is where the clippers have to rely on a real system instead of depending on Blake or Jamal to score, which they don’t have.

  2. On The Rise says:

    Both coaches are GOOD. The writer of this article is stupid. VDN made the Clippers successful. VDN made a major accomplishment for this organization, an accomplishment that they never had experienced before. Its because of Chris Paul??? tell me what Paul had accomplished in New Orleans, or just take a look of the Lakers right now. VDN molded Griffin into a star just like what he did to Rose. Crawford and Odom, tell me of their previous performance with their last team prior joining the Clippers? In short all this success has to do with the coach. Hollins, he’s been great! Hats off to him.

  3. BJ says:

    VDN has accomplished what no other Clipper coach has ever been abel to do. with all the franshise accomplishments that have been made in 1 1/2 seasons since they acquired CP3 is amazing in itself.

    So to say VDN job isnt secure is utterly ridiculous because in reality no coaches job is secure. But Vinny has a lot to be proud of in this past year or more with this team. Chris isn’t the coach, he has input and controls the game when he’s on the court, but Vinny is the coach, period. Give the man the respect he’s due.

    Clipper haters are so comical it wont’ matter how far the Clippers go. They could win the WCF and go all the way and win the Championship. People will come back saying it was luck, they got lucky and will probably never win another championship again, etc. lol.

    They won the Pacific division title…
    They accomplished the best record in franhise history…
    They won over 50 games and ended with an excellent record…
    They have placed themselves among the top 5 teams to have one of the longest winning streak in NBA history…
    They sealed the deal and got a secure spot in the Playoffs…
    They won homecourt advantage in the Playoffs..
    They ended the season on a 7 game winning streak…. and counting in the playoffs.

    They went to the second round last year with CP3, Blake and Billups injuried and holes and gaps that needed to be filled on their roster. they picked up some key players and filled those gaps. Now with all the players healthy now and playnig strong, why is it so hard to see them being able to compete with anyone right now? I don’t get it. No one in the west is dominating int the playoffs. the playoffs just started and all the teams are playing well. they have just as good a chance as any team playing right now.

  4. Amused says:

    Vinny Del Negro is not a good coach; he is only experiencing success because he has an outstanding team of veterans who play extremely well together. When you have Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Chauncey Billups, Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, Matt Barnes, Grant Hill, and Lamar Odom all on your team, you really can’t go wrong as long as you stay out of their way and let them play their game. Heck, Paul Silas, head coach for the worst team in NBA history, couldn’t screw THAT up. They should let VDN go, and then not even bother getting a new head coach. It’s Chris Paul’s show anyway, and he’s handling it just fine; let him be the awesome floor general he is, and use the money you would have used on a new coach to bring in another quality player or two.

  5. Del Negro isn’t able to wrestle control of his team from Chris Paul. Paul’s insistence on slowing down the half-court offense at the end of games is going to cost them a game in which they have a big lead. Should have cost them in Game 2. His buzzer-beater heroics wouldn’t have been needed if he would have kept his team functioning well on offense throughout the rest of the quarter.

    No ball or player movement = losing a big lead.

    But I guess he was more interested in show-boating (and getting credit for bailing his team out). And Vinny isn’t courageous enough to tell him that it’s a bad strategy and needs to keep working his team for the full 48. Bledsoe Barnes Crawford Odom and Griffin on the court to end games and keep leads secure.

  6. Shawn says:

    i think it would be a sin to fire either of these coaches. The fact that both these teams broke franchise records for most wins deserves recognition and a resigning of their contracts. They both have a respectable shot at the finals, in a tough western conference. Trading Rudy Gaye?!! i am still getting over that. I thought Memphis could actually beat Miami as great as they were playing at the beginning of the season. To fire Hollins after taking away his best scorer in the middle of the season…really? Contract or not, both these coaches have earned the right to stay. If anything, contract or not DAntoni the master finger pointer should be fired. If they keep DAntoni, i think Kobe should go to Chicago and play with Noah and Boozer and Deng, and those who are playing hard and giving it their all. It takes more than great talent to win a championship! you have to be a team player!!! and work with a sense of urgency. Those who dont understand that don’t win championships. As talented as some are, i wouldn’t build a team around that type of character. Sure they are great, but in a crunch, do they have your back or the organizations best interest in mind or heart? I go for talent, plus integrity, humility, accountability…. resilience!

  7. Patty says:

    IF I WAS LIONEL HOLLINS, I WOULD NOT CARE IF THIS LOUSY ORGANIATION WOULD FIRED ME.

    HOLLINS SHOULD GIVE THE Memphis’S ORGANIZATION A RESIGNATION LETTER AND GO AND COACH SOME WHERE ELSE.

    THEY SHOULD HAVE NEVER TRADED GAY FOR PRINCE.

    PRINCE IS NOT A GOOD PLAYER.

    RANDOLPH HAS NOT BEEN THE SAME SINCE RUDY LEFT.

    • Common Sense says:

      Prince is better in the playoffs than Gay. Prince is amazingly solid. There was a reason they picked him for the Redeem Team and not Rudy Gay. But you have to shake up the TEAM. There should have been better communication with their head coach though, that way he wouldn’t have made the champagne comment. Their record after the trade speaks for itself. And the record of Toronto speaks pretty loud too.

  8. Apostolos says:

    VDN coached the game of his life in game 1 but those are rare. Vinny Del Negro will lose his job because he’s one of the worst at making in game adjustments, and still hasn’t found an identity for the Clippers after 3 years. Simple as that really, unless he somehow miraculously gets the L A Clippers to the Western Conference Finals. It’s Cp3 & Blake’s team anyways they’re the franchise I imagine in the end it comes down to whether the two franchise players believe he’s the guy to get them to the Championship (He’s not).

    • E-SY says:

      Are you kidding me? If there’s any team in the NBA that has an identity, it’s the Clippers! It takes a descent coach to let your franchise player – CP3 – take the honours of leading the team and meanwhile make sure everybody on such a deep roster is happy with his role and play as hard as they can night in night out!
      A coach is there to facilitate, to create chemistry… Del Negro is doing just that!

      Hollins as well is doing a good job with what he has to work with. He lost his best offensive player this season and still manages to let the team play consistant ballgames. Sure a trade like that affects the team, but the coach should do all he can to keep the situation as steady as possible, for in the long run it could work out in favour of your team.

      I live in The Netherlands where soccer is the no. 1 sports… I hate it, not only for how slow and boring the game is, but also for the way franchises blame coaches for everything and fire them after they lose 3 straight games! It’s stupid! Players are not doing their jobs properly and a coach gets fired! The coach has to get the chance of at least a couple of seasons to organise things in such a way the team can benefit. If a coach can’t create chemistry, he has to get out of the franchise. And maybe if a coach has been there for a number of years and the formula seems to have lost his possible growth, it’s time to move on. But in these two examples, both teams and coaches are doing a good job of building a team and they should continue building in the years to come.

      • Common Sense says:

        VDN had one year with a rookie in Griffin. A second year in a shortened season with no training camp, with a whole new cast of players and took them to the playoffs and into the second round. This year they again have a new cast for a bench, but had a training camp. With that, he secured the first pacific division ever, best road record ever, best home record ever, and best overall record ever in franchise history! I’d say his past three years were pretty good.

      • BJ says:

        I completely agree E-SY, if anyone has an identity the Clippers definitely do. Lob-City is the identifiable name I believe. they have style, character, depth, talent and skillz…. bigtime. All being lead by VDN.

        when San Antonio lost 7 or 8 games straight before the end of the season I didn’t hear anyone saying they don’t have an identity and they need to fire the coach or they just don’t have what it takes to go all the way. its a joke.

    • BJ says:

      Apostolos, you have no basis for your statement, none. The Clippers have just as good as a chance than any team right now. No one is dominating, no one is. The teams are so good right now its honstly about what team is going to play the hardest to win.