Posts Tagged ‘Vinny Del Negro’

Blogtable: P.J. and Vinny




Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


Week 28: Favorite playoff underdog | Heat’s stumble | P.J. and Vinny


Did P.J. Carlesimo have to go? Does Vinny Del Negro have to go?

Steve Aschburner: Let’s see, all Brooklyn did under P.J. Carlesimo was win at a clip (.648) greater than any Nets coach in history. Then, in the span of two weeks, he got lousy at his job? Right. That crew in the locker room has issues, from self-absorption to softness to an odd array of talents (not even the Teamsters need brawn badly enough to have Reggie Evans, Keith Bogans, Kris Humphries, aging Gerald Wallace and a 42-year-old Jerry Stackhouse on one roster). Blame the owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, who is impatient and star-driven, essentially the opposite of team-building. Del Negro? Well, the franchise has had two seasons of .600 or better winning in its 41 years. So of course the coach who oversaw it must go. In this case, it might be a win-win. Point guard Chris Paul gets control not just on the floor but off it and Del Negro gets that boost on his resume that accrues to all who exit the Clippers.

Fran BlineburyI thought P.J. did a solid job after taking over for Avery Johnson and thought he earned a chance to come back next season with his own coaching staff and a full training camp. It’s pretty clear Nets ownership wants a name they can put up on the marquee. On the other hand, despite 56 wins and the first division title in franchise history, the Clippers have clearly gone as far as they can go with Del Negro. Yes, Chris Paul is their best player and team leader, but he can’t be the only voice. The Clips need a coach who can put his stamp on the team, teach Blake Griffin to play defense and stop simply relying on the whole Lob City facade.

Vinny Del Negro (by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Vinny Del Negro (by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan: I like P.J., he’s the genuine article, but this roster needs a stern hand to come in and throw down the hammer. Because of the payroll and the restrictive nature of the new CBA for teams like Brooklyn that are over the luxury tax, this club is going to look very similar next season so a new approach is needed to maximize players like Joe Johnson and a low-scoring forward duo of Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace, who after the entire season weirdly stated that he had no idea what his role is. As for Vinny Del Negro, what does Chris Paul want? I mean that’s really all that matters at this point. But man, I really want VDN to succeed. He’s been ridiculed and ripped since he entered the league as a no-experience head coach with Chicago. The bottom line in L.A. is that the roster was not as good as many thought. Did VDN not squeeze enough out of these guys or did players like DeAndre Jordan not fulfill his contract and potential? The bottom line is if the organization believes VDN’s strategies, adjustments, etc., did not serve the team well and/or the players don’t respect him, then it’s time to move on.

Scott Howard-Cooper: Carlesimo did not have to go — the Nets’ problems were in place before he got a chance — but it is no surprise that he did. Del Negro is more in the has-to-go category. Bad finish to the regular season after a good start. Bad finish to the playoffs after a good start. Players openly questioning the lack of strategy.

John Schuhmann: Though I was pretty critical of his extended use of a forward combination that was clearly hurting his team offensively, I don’t necessarily think that Carlesimo had to go, because we don’t know what kinds of changes he would have made with a full summer and training camp. He was handed the reins in late December, righted the ship and got his two best players playing well again, which was very important. And come playoff time, his bench options were pretty limited, because guys like Keith Bogans and Jerry Stackhouse couldn’t hit a shot. Still, I think he could have been more creative with his offense and given a floor-spacer like Mirza Teletovic more playing time to figure things out. The Clippers should probably make a move too. Like the Nets, they need someone who can be a little more creative offensively and hold his players accountable on the defensive end. That team has top-five talent, but seemed to be treading water over the last two months of the season.

Sekou Smith: Carlesimo had to go. The Nets haven’t exactly hid the fact that they’re interested in some superstar type to come in and run the show in Brooklyn. And that’s not a knock on Carlesimo, mind you, it’s just the facts as we all know them. Truth be told, it wouldn’t have mattered who coached this team. The moment that Game 7 debacle at ended Saturday night at Barclays Center, it was obvious that the Nets’ next move would be to relieve their head coach of his duties and begin the hunt for suitable replacement. The Del Negro question is best suited for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Because we all know that they are the guys who hold Del Negro’s fate in their hands. If the Clippers’ two biggest stars demand that Vinny D remains in place, then it will be hard for the Clippers to make that move without a blockbuster hire to replace him (and we’re talking about a Phil Jackson-type blockbuster). As long as the monstrous shadow of the Zen Master hovers over both the Clippers and Lakers, no coach in either franchise is free from the drama. It’s nothing personal against Vinny. It’s just time to go if the Clippers plan on going bold in their pitch to keep Paul.

Lang Whitaker: As much as I like PJ Carlesimo, I understand why the Nets let him go. This is a franchise very concerned with perception, and Carlesimo was too much of a ham-and-egger to ever fit in perfectly. The first-round knockout surely didn’t help matters, although as the Bulls continue to rampage through the postseason, I wonder if eventually a postseason loss to this Bulls team will be viewed in a less harsh light? The Clips obviously need to settle the Del Negro question as soon as possible, with Chris Paul approaching free agency. The Clippers’ flameout in the Playoffs got progressively worse as they went along, and Del Negro’s inability to settle on a rotation became more and more glaring. The Clippers have improved greatly, but if they’re going to contend for a title, they need to do it now. As such, it’s time for a coach who can get them over that final hurdle. And that coach is not Vinny Del Negro.

CP3, Del Negro Top Disappointed Clips’ Summer To-Do List

 

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – California’s basketball hierarchy is on its head.

As the second round is set to begin, in is the All-Star-snubbed Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors; out are the two biggest superstars set to hit the free-agent market: Dwight Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers.

In strange symmetry, Howard and Paul were both ejected in their final games of the season. Howard twice lost his cool and got the heave-ho early in the third quarter of the Kobe-less and totally injury-depleted Lakers’ Game 4 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Referee Joey Crawford gave Paul a more controversial walk to the showers late in the fourth quarter of Friday’s Game 6 downer at the Memphis Grizzlies, the Clippers’ fourth consecutive defeat after taking a 2-0 series lead.

Both superstars will become free agents on July 1. While the smart money still says D12 and CP3 love L.A. and will stay, unceremonious endings to what were supposed to be storybook seasons for both franchises at least adds a layer of intrigue and speculation to the proceedings.

For the Clippers, 118-105 losers Friday, suddenly the celebrations of a franchise-best 56-win season and a first-ever Pacific Division title are being washed away by a tidal wave of disappointment and tough offseason decisions headlined by Paul’s choice of where next to take his talents.

“I got a lot of time to think about that,” Paul, wearing a Clipper red sports coat, told reporters after Friday’s game. “As I do with any decision I make, I consult with my wife, my parents, my brother, my family. I might even let little Chris chime in on this. We’ll see what happens.”

L.A.’s front office will wait on pins and needles for July 1 to get Paul’s answer, but they will likely move much quicker to determine the future of lame-duck coach Vinny Del Negro. When management assesses the job he’s done in leading the Clippers to the playoffs in consecutive seasons for just the second time in the franchise’s 29 years in L.A. and first time in 20 years, there will be two sides of the coin to each topic of debate.

Since being hired to lead Chicago with no previous coaching experience, Del Negro has been scrutinized, even ridiculed, like no other coach regarding his acumen of the X’s and O’s.

In this series, Del Negro’s team allowed a 2-0 lead to slip away. But how much of that is on the coach and how much is on a team that seemed to get outworked in the final four games? Did the coach not have his team prepared or did the players not show up? Did the coach fail to make proper adjustments or did the players fail to execute?

Paul averaged 22.8 points and 6.3 assists. He shot 53.3 percent and rarely turned the ball over. He didn’t get a lot of help from what was considered to be the deepest team in basketball. His All-Star teammate Blake Griffin sprained an ankle and played 24 minutes in the final two games. He finished the series with a well-below-average 13.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg while nemesis Zach Randolph dominated in the final four games.

Veteran point guard Chauncey Billups, who missed most of the season due to injury, played as if his head wasn’t in it, finishing the series with more turnovers (eight) than assists (six). After going 4-for-8 from the floor in Game 1, he went 7-for-28 the rest of the way.

Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Jamal Crawford was 7-for-21 in Games 3 and 4 and was benched in the second half of Game 6 after going 0-for-5. Matt Barnes, who threw in 30 points Friday night, was 9-for-24 in Games 2 through 5.

Caron Butler averaged 5.8 ppg in Games 2 through 5 and scored five points in 34 minutes of Games 4 and 5. Del Negro ripped center DeAndre Jordan‘s effort. Grant Hill, either injured or buried on the bench this season, was on the floor in the second half of Game 6.

The Clippers could look quite different next season. They have $45 million tied into Griffin, Jordan, Butler, Crawford, Hill and Eric Bledsoe. Two million could get returned if Hill retires as he speculated he might last month.

So let the introspection begin for a franchise that has scrapped bottom for decades and seemed to be headed for better days, if not glory days. Owner Donald Sterling in his later years has seemed to soften and to smartly open his wallet to make things happen. It’s resulted in two sensational seasons that have produced regular-season results like never before, two rare trips to the postseason while also rousing a fan base and creating a fun environment at Staples Center.

Yet the Clippers failed to accomplish Del Negro’s goal and that was go deeper in the playoffs that last season’s second-round sweep at the hands of the Spurs when Griffin was again hurt and unable to perform at a peak level.

So while Curry and the Warriors keep doing their thing, the mood is considerably darker today down in L.A.

 

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.” (more…)

Superb Sub Crawford Driving Clippers’ Game-Changing Reserves

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LOS ANGELES – Jamal Crawford spent the first few minutes after Monday morning’s shootaround being as affable as ever while answering questions about the physical nature of the series, adjustments to be made and the importance of protecting home court.

Then came the one topic that visibly soured his mood. His smile disappeared, his shoulders slumped, his voice lowered.

While the Clippers were reviewing Monday night’s Game 2 strategy against the Memphis Grizzlies, the league was announcing New York Knicks gunner J.R. Smith as the Kia Sixth Man of the Year. An award Crawford owned for the first half of the season was swiped by Smith’s late hot streak that corresponded with the Knicks’ late-season 13-game win streak.

“Congrats to J.R.,” Crawford said softly. “You can’t worry about stuff you can’t control.”

It’s uncertain if Crawford was already aware of his fate or was just learning of it. Clearly, though, when it hit his ears, his mind reeled back to late January when the All-Star reserves were announced. Crawford, the 2010 Sixth Man of the Year with Atlanta, had hoped he’d be selected for his first All-Star team in his 13th NBA season. He was not.

“Going back to the All-Star team, I guess twice in a season,” Crawford said of getting the snub. “But congrats to J.R.”

So when Crawford came out on fire in the Los Angeles Clippers’ 93-91 Game 2 win over the Memphis Grizzlies for a 2-0 first-round series lead, it sure seemed like he had come out with a Big Apple-sized chip on his shoulder.

He canned his first six shots and put together an 11-point second quarter that changed the flow of the game and a 13-point first half as the Clippers’ bench again caused all kinds of problems for the Grizzlies.

Crawford led L.A.’s bench with 15 points, plus three steals and a single turnover in 33:30. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, as expected, backed his first-year sixth man who averaged 16.5 points in the regular season, his high mark since taking the Sixth Man award three seasons ago, while shooting 37.6 percent from beyond the arc.

“He’s [third] in the league in fourth-quarter scoring, he’s had 29 20-point-plus games off the bench,” Del Negro said. “He set the franchise record for free throws (58 in a row), set the franchise record for 3-pointers made (149 in the regular season). He’s been a huge catalyst for us all season from Day 1, the whole season, so it’s hard for me to look at it and say that Jamal didn’t deserve that. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more deserving.”

With an All-Star snub in the rearview mirror and now the Sixth Man hardware in Smith’s hands, Crawford still has the biggest prize of all in his sights.

He’s the leader of easily the deepest (and arguably the most dangerous) bench in the league. During the regular season it was just one of four benches to average better than 40 ppg.

In the first two games of the first-round series against the Grizzlies, the Clippers’ bench has been superior and has forced the hand of Memphis coach Lionel Hollins.

In L.A.’s breathtaking 93-91 victory Monday in Game 2, the Clippers’ bench outscored their opponents’ reserves 30-11. In Game 1, Memphis got 19 points from Jerryd Bayless, who played 30 minutes because the Grizz were constantly playing catch-up, and that limited defensive-minded Tony Allen to  just 17 minutes. In that game, L.A.’s Eric Bledsoe went off for 13 points, four assists and six rebounds in the decisive fourth quarter.

Del Negro has pushed all the right buttons so far. In Game 1, he went to little-used power forward Ronny Turiaf instead of Ryan Hollins and it paid off. In Game 2, Crawford accounted for half the scoring, but the Clippers got five assists and 15 rebounds from the bench.

“I have confidence in all of our guys,” Del Negro said. “I have no hesitation putting them in if I feel they can help us.”

And that’s included Lamar Odom throughout the season. Although Odom’s 3-point and free throw shooting has been abysmal, he’s rewarded Del Negro in other ways. He had seven rebounds in Game 1, more than burly big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol combined. There was his fourth-quarter sequence in Game 2 that included a defensive rebound and long outlet to Matt Barnes, a leaping swat of Randolph and a terrific bounce pass to the slashing Bledsoe for a dunk.

An all-reserve second unit changed the momentum of Game 2 in the second quarter and opened the fourth quarter on an 8-0 to build a double-digit lead.

“With the depth of the Clippers’ bench, we have to match them offensively as well as do a decent job on them defensively,” Hollins said. “But we can’t go out there and not score and give up eight, 10 points in a row. Then they can’t be out there for long as a group.”

And they weren’t. Hollins got all five starters back out there early in the fourth quarter to battle, in a rare occurrence, the Clippers’ five subs.

It’s a predicament the Grizzlies must solve in a hurry.

Round 2: Blake Vs. Z-Bo

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LOS ANGELES – Where’s Vince McMahon when you need him?

When Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph get together it’s always a no-holds-barred (depending on what the refs actually allow) steel-cage match and tonight’s Game 2 at Staples Center (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT) should be no different.

In Saturday’s 112-91 victory for Blake’s Los Angeles Clippers, the opposing big fellas — who combine for at least 511 pounds — grabbed, pushed, bumped, used elbows, shoulders and whatever else to gain an ounce of traction against the other.

In the end, they effectively canceled each other out, combining for more fouls (11) than field goals (nine), free throw attempts (seven) and rebounds (nine). Both logged well below their season average for minutes played because of the constant whistles.

At one point they were handed the usually rare double-foul, only it’s not so rare for these two. It happened twice in four games during the regular season.

“It’s going to be a physical series that way,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “It was last year, it was all of regular-season games and obviously the playoffs, with the energy in the building and just kind of what’s at stake, it’s going to be like that.”

No one needs to remind Griffin what he’s in for again tonight when he steps into the ring with Randolph.

“For anybody else, I feel like it’s not that much of a fight, because most of the time things get called no matter what,” Griffin said. “But that’s his game. Over time, people get used to that. So it’s not going to really work in my favor. I just have to make sure it’s even.”

It was in Game 1. Griffin fouled out with 10 points, just nine shot attempts, and five rebounds in under 26 minutes. Randolph had five fouls, picking up two in the first quarter that sent him to bench early. He had 13 points and four rebounds in less than 25 minutes.

It’s been the norm whenever Blake and Z-Bo lock up. In four regular-season games, Randolph has shot 37.3 percent, his second-lowest field-goal percentage against a team he played more than twice. Griffin averaged 13.8 points, more than four points below his season average, and seven rebounds, also below his season average.

“People might look at the box score and say, ‘Oh, he’s not contributing,’” said Griffin, who did acknowledge that he’d like to be more aggressive on the offensive end. “But watching the film (of Game 1), our coaches and our team felt like we did the job we were supposed to do. If you look at the final stats, it reflects that because we won the rebounding battle.”

In a huge way: 47-23 (and 14-4 on the offensive glass for a 25-5 advantage in second-chance points), a margin that surely won’t be repeated in Game 2.

But the larger point to tonight’s game and the series is that Memphis, dependent on running its offense through its two “bigs” — Randolph and Marc Gasol —  can’t count on Randolph to be a dominant force matched against Blake at both ends of the floor. If those two continue to cancel each other out, the deeper Clippers are better equipped to find other ways to win as they did with a tremendous bench effort to grab the 1-0 series lead.

It was their fourth win in five games against the Grizzlies this season.

Prior to Game 1, Jamal Crawford described the physical play to come as going to be a “bloodbath.” Prior to Game 2 he said, “I think it will get progressively more physical as the series goes on. I think the best is yet to come.”

Get the steel cage ready.

CP3 Says Bledsoe’s Out, So Is He In?

LOS ANGELES – In praising young guard Eric Bledsoe, did Chris Paul divulge his plan to be back in a Los Angeles Clippers uniform next season and beyond?

“Bled is one of the best guards in our league,” Paul said following Sunday’s Los Angeles Clippers practice. “I’ve said it all season long, I’m enjoying playing with him right now because there’s no way he can be here next year because we probably won’t have enough money to pay him. He should be a starting point guard.”

Bledsoe, 23, is under contract through next season for a bargain $2.6 million. However, if the Clips max-out Paul, who will become a free agent this summer, the franchise could look to move Bledsoe, the third-year talent out of Kentucky taken 18th by Oklahoma City and traded to the Clippers for a first-round draft pick.

He was a catalyst off the bench in Saturday’s 112-91 Clippers victory for a 1-0 lead in the first-round, best-of-7 series against the Memphis Grizzlies. Bledsoe came alive in the fourth quarter for 13 of his 15 points (on 7-for-7 shooting) and all of his four assists and six rebounds as he played the entire period and Paul watched on the bench for all but 3:12 of the fourth.

“For him, I’m just enjoying it and I love to sit back and watch him because he’s a game-changer,” Paul said. “And like I said [Saturday] night, he’s the key to our run.”

The 6-foot-1 Bledsoe is explosive off the dribble and a rugged 190 pounds. He averaged career-bests with 8.5 points and 3.0 rebounds to go with 3.1 assists this season in just 20.4 minutes. His numbers per-36 minutes, or the floor time a starter might typically play, were 14.9 ppg, 5.4 apg and 5.2 rpg. He shot 39.7 percent from beyond the arc.

Bledsoe, as expected, said he’s not focused on his future beyond this postseason. Still, finding ample minutes for a remarkable backcourt arsenal that includes Paul, Bledsoe and veterans Chauncey Billups and sixth man Jamal Crawford is not easy.

“We got one goal and that’s to win the championship and I think we got a pretty good team to do that,” Bledsoe said. “So I’m not focused on next season. I’m pretty going to worry about winning, learning how to, really, for the first time in my career to get a championship.”

Through three quarters Saturday night, Bledsoe had logged 6:19 and had two points. His spurt of relentless activity in the fourth quarter included stint with Paul and Billups.

“Everybody on the team went through it,” Bledsoe said of sacrificing minutes on a deep team that routinely goes 10 and 11 deep. “For right now, it’s whoever is playing good at the time. So we’re just going to cheer the next man on, that’s part of a team. So I really can’t focus on minutes. If I get them I get them, if I don’t, I don’t.”

According to Paul, Bledsoe should be getting more next season when he’s wearing a different uniform.

And that could very well suggest that Paul plans to stay in a Clippers uniform.

The Coaching Crunch: On Thin Ice!



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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Eye contact in a timeout huddle means little to the casual observer.

NBA players do all sorts of things in timeout huddles other than locking into their coach and hanging on every word. Sometimes it means something when they stare off into the distance. And other times it means nothing.

But for a large number of coaches heading into the great (contractual) unknown at season’s end, that connection between coach and player(s) is of immense importance.

It could mean the difference between a contract extension, a new contract or no contract, depending on how certain teams finish the regular season and postseason — provided some of these coaches make it that far.

The list of coaches looking over their shoulders as the regular season winds to a close is long and filled with notable names:

DOUG COLLINS, PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

How many coaches of lottery-bound teams get to decide their own fate? Collins might be the only one in the league right now other than Minnesota’s Rick Adelman, who will make his own decision based on things other than basketball. That exhausted look on his face most nights is a reflection of a clearly exasperated coach dealing with a situation that turned a promising, young team last season upside down this season when Andrew Bynum came to town via an offseason trade.

The Sixers hit rock bottom in February and Collins couldn’t contain himself, venting his frustration for all the world to see and hear. But they’ve actually rebounded a bit lately, going 6-4 in their last 10 games and doing whatever they can to finish the season on a somewhat positive note.

His fourth year is already set. The Sixers’ front office wants him back. And they’ll need a steady, veteran coach to guide them out of the mess that the Bynum trade unleashed upon the organization and the fans. Collins is on thin ice only if he wants to be.

TY CORBIN, UTAH JAZZ

Corbin is one of several coaches whose future is tied directly to his team’s finish in the regular season. Make the playoffs, serve as the sacrificial first-round fodder for the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder and there is reason to believe that Corbin can cajole more out of this group next season.

And with just one season left on his contract, playoffs or not, the Jazz might not shake things up in the coaching ranks at a time when the roster is in such flux — Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap‘s pending free agency (among others) and the future of young bigs Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.

Corbin’s task has always been daunting in following a legend like Jerry Sloan. But Corbin has handled it about as well as you would expect from a guy who was thrust into an impossible situation.

MIKE D’ANTONI, LOS ANGELES LAKERS

The ice beneath D’Antoni’s feet won’t break this season, even if the Lakers miss the playoffs. There has already been too much turmoil, upheaval and loss for one season. But how would you like to work under the extreme pressure that D’Antoni will have to this summer and next season if the Lakers do miss out on that eighth and final spot in the West?

If the Lakers land in the lottery and the blame game kicks off in earnest, D’Antoni will be third or fourth in the firing line, behind Jim Buss, Mitch Kupchak and Dwight Howard (in whatever order you’d like). Having the unfettered support of the Lakers’ two most important players — Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash — certainly aids D’Antoni’s cause.

Still, if things come apart in Los Angeles this summer, D’Antoni could be one of two NBA coaches in the city walking around on cracked ice.

VINNY DEL NEGRO, LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

Del Negro has just as many detractors as he does supporters these days. Three different league executives have suggested that he’s done a much better job than he gets credit for, when you consider how raw the Clippers’ frontcourt remains with youngsters Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan still coming into their own.

Del Negro’s critics quickly point out that an All-Star and one of the top 10 centers in the league is a pretty good place to start your frontcourt rotation. Plus, they say, Griffin and Jordan’s rawness has as much with Del Negro (and his staff’s) inability to polish them up as it does anything else.

The Clippers have dealt with health issues and rumored locker room drama all season, but they also kicked off the NBA’s season of win streaks with a 17-gamer early in the season that cranked expectations (on the team and Del Negro) to unattainable proportions. The only thing that might solidify Del Negro’s status is a run to the Western Conference finals … and that might work.

LARRY DREW, ATLANTA HAWKS

How does a guy spend half the season as a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate and the other half on the coaching hot list? Only in Atlanta, where the Hawks coach has been on the proverbial hot seat for the past 10 years (Mike Woodson before him and now, Drew).  He’s known since last summer, when new general manager Danny Ferry arrived, that he would spend his final season under contract on a non-stop audition.

To his credit, Drew has never once made an issue of his predicament. In fact, he’s relished the opportunity to show off his coaching chops to the rest of the league. Drew knows there could be (at minimum) a half-dozen coaching openings this summer. And anyone who has presided over playoff teams every year he’s been a coach — as Drew has — has made a compelling case for making the short list of interview candidates for any openings.

Bottom line? Drew was not Ferry’s pick as coach. And if the Hawks are going to remake themselves this summer, it makes sense that Ferry will do so with his own pick as coach.

BYRON SCOTT, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Scott had to fist-fight Brooklyn’s P.J. Carlesimo for the final spot on this list. Carlesimo’s not on thin ice, though, he’s standing in the water. As long as Phil Jackson, Sloan and the Van Gundy brothers (Jeff and Stan) remain options, the coaching seat in Brooklyn is just a temporary perch. Scott is in a much more precarious position because of the belief that the Cavaliers are just a few healthy players (namely Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao) away from turning the corner in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

Scott keeps finding himself in coaching situations where he has either overstayed his welcome (New Jersey and New Orleans) or failed to get his team to the next step in time (Cleveland). The Cavaliers showed him some love earlier this season by guaranteeing the final year of his contract next season. But even a financial vote of confidence like that might not stand up to the a coaching free-agent summer that will rival anything the players offer up.

If the aforementioned big names are floating around, you better believe the Cavaliers will be fishing around to see who is interested in helping guide Irving into the prime of his career.

ALSO ON THE RADAR: Mike Dunlap, Charlotte; Lawrence Frank, Detroit; Lionel Hollins, Memphis; Keith Smart, Sacramento; Randy Wittman, Washington.

Thunder Road To Finals Is Clearing

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HANG TIME, Texas — There were just over two minutes gone in the fourth quarter when the door seemed to swing open, the red carpet rolled out and Kevin Durant was all but ushered down an empty aisle through the San Antonio defense for a slam dunk that practically screamed out.

It’s still our house and it’s still our Western Conference.

Maybe more than ever. As the days dwindle in the regular season, the inevitable rematch in The Finals with Miami seems more, well, inevitable.

It’s been more than two months now since anyone has looked capable of taking down the defending champion Heat. But it’s been thought all season that the West half of the bracket was going to be a minefield fraught with peril.

When Tony Parker limped up and down the court and finally had to be removed from the game Thursday night by coach Gregg Popovich, the path became clearer for the Thunder. It not only enabled OKC to finish off a 100-88 win and essentially take over the top spot in the conference, but could show the cracks that could eventually crumble highly successful regular season for the Spurs.

There had been a sense for much of the season that the Spurs were a more complete, more capable all-around team than the Thunder this season. That was in part due to the absence of James Harden in OKC and the development of the Spurs supporting cast of Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green.

But San Antonio is still a wheel that turns around the aging Big Three axis and Manu Ginobili is already sidelined for the start of the playoffs with a strained hamstring. If Parker’s problem (ankle? shin?) can’t be solved in short time, the Spurs could have problems in the first two rounds, let alone a conference finals showdown with the Thunder.

At the same time, a Nuggets team that has already lost its blasting cap in Ty Lawson to a torn plantar fascia in his right heel sees Danilo Gallinari go down with what could be a torn ACL in his left knee.

Yes, George Karl was the Western Conference Coach of the Month in March and will certainly manipulate his lineup to keep it from jumping completely off the track. But the beauty and the effectiveness of the Nuggets all season long has been the fitting together of so many different pieces to excel in a league usually built around individual stars. Take away one piece and you’ve got a challenge. Take away two and the entire structure begins to teeter.

Despite ringing up their first 50-win season in franchise history, the Clippers have fallen from grace since their 25-6 start. Whether it’s Vinny Del Negro’s coaching, Blake Griffin’s moodiness, DeAndre Jordan’s immaturity or Chris Paul’s carping at his teammates, there is unrest in Lob City and less a sense that the Clippers are a championship contender.

There is no reason to believe the Warriors, Rockets or Jazz are capable challengers. Even if the Lakers were to hang onto the No. 8 spot, does anyone have faith that this uneven, turmoil-filled season will suddenly take a path straight up for six or eight weeks once the playoffs begin?

That leaves the rock ‘em, sock ‘em get, get-up-in-your-face Grizzlies as perhaps the only solid, healthy challengers to the reigning Western Conference champs. If you think back two years ago to the contentious seven-game series between Memphis and OKC, there is most definitely potential for the Thunder to be tested.

But what was supposed to be round after round of roadblocks and difficult obstacles is starting to clear out like Durant’s path to the basket for a slam dunk.

What’s Wrong With The Clippers?





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – That rant Vinny Del Negro unleashed on his team after Saturday night’s blowout loss to the Houston Rockets (sans James Harden) was not an elaborate pre-April Fool’s Day ruse. It was real.

“They played harder than we did,” Del Negro said. “We were terrible. Our effort was terrible, our attitude was terrible, our urgency was terrible. Very disappointed. I didn’t see the fight in us tonight, and we need guys to step up.”

“We’re fighting for a spot, and we come out with that second-half — pretty much the whole game — effort. It was poor.” Del Negro said. “I know it’s the fourth game in five nights, but that’s no excuse. We’ve got plenty of depth. No excuses. I don’t believe in that.”

The vitriol … the disappointment … all of it was real.

With seemingly everything to play for — a top-three seed in the Western Conference playoffs, home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, simple professional pride — the Clippers cannot find the energy to finish the season the way they started (with a bang).

The Clippers have fallen off the mark in the second half of the season, squandering a league-best 32-9 start by stumbling their way to a .500 finish (17-17) with seven games remaining in the season. Chris Paul‘s MVP turn during All-Star weekend might very well serve as the lone highlight for the Clippers during the season’s stretch run if they can’t shake out of their funk.

They managed a 7-7 record in March and didn’t exactly get off to a rousing start to this final month of the regular season with Monday night’s home loss to the Indiana Pacers, a game that saw the Clippers trail by as many as 24 points before closing the gap late in a 109-106 loss.

Deciphering exactly what’s wrong with the Clippers from a schematic standpoint is basically a waste of time. They have certain deficiencies that cannot be cured this season unless both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan magically locate reliable post moves overnight. That’s not meant as a slight to either of the talented young big men, it’s just a fact.

The Clippers are not capable of playing inside-out for long enough stretches to make other high-level teams uncomfortable. Kicking off a crucial, four-game home stand with a deflating loss to the Pacers is no way to inspire confidence. And when Paul, Jamal Crawford and the rest of the Clippers’ perimeter stars are taking turns struggling as well, it confirms all of the fears we’ve been expressing about this team since their second-half struggles began.

This is code red time for the Clippers. They’ve lost four of their last five games and the finger-pointing (direct and otherwise) has already begun. The effort and energy from the players seems to be lacking, suggesting an underlying issue between the players and the coach that is undefeated in terms of the final results (the coach always has to go).

Del Negro has taken a rather aggressive approach, tinkering with his rotations and even benching starters in an effort to jumpstart his team.

“It’s up to them,” Del Negro said of his players to ESPN.com‘s J.A. Adande after the loss to the Pacers. “All I can do is take them in and out of the games.”

For any of this to be said on a team with some of the best locker room leadership in the league (Paul, Caron Butler, Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups) is a bit startling.

Just as startling is Del Negro’s pointed criticism at his biggest stars, particularly his benching of Paul and Griffin recently, moves that are sure to erode the coach-player dynamic on a team that has always had issues in that regard under Del Negro. This madness is going on with a team that needs just one more win to clinch the franchise’s first 50-win season in history.

This puts the entire operation on alert for the postseason. If the Clippers slide in and then slide out just as quickly, then it’s anyone’s guess as to where the Clippers go from there in the offseason.

Start the playoffs on the road and suffer the fate then that you did during your recent tour through the Southwest Division, a 1-3 plank walk, and whatever is wrong with the Clippers will be someone else’s problem.

Del Negro won’t have to worry about it anymore!

Del Negro Playing It Cool While Seat Remains Hot In Clipperland

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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.”