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.”