This conversation has always been inevitable. Even before the Chris Paul trade. For any team with Vinny Del Negro as coach, it's only a matter of time before eventually things will go bad and everyone blames Vinny Del Negro. That's just how these things work. I mean, it's Vinny Del Negro!
The Clippers have lost three straight games, including a blowout to Oklahoma City and Chris Paul's New Orleans homecoming Thursday night. They've also lost six of their past nine games. As the playoffs approach, everyone's pointing fingers at Del Negro.
But even last season -- when Blake Griffin exploded onto the NBA scene and things were better than expected -- there were plenty of people who thought the Clippers could have made the playoffs if not for VDN's ham-fisted management late in close games. When L.A. landed Chris Paul in December, the timetable for VDN's demise got fast-tracked. Instead of next March, it's this March.
The thing is, it's not totally Del Negro's fault. The Clippers have had problems all year long, and their issues can be divided into separate categories. First, there are the immediate problems:
- God, their defense is awful. They're firmly in the bottom-third of the league, numbers-wise, and it's gotten worse the last few weeks. As Zach Lowe points out, "In the last 15 games, the Clippers have regressed badly, allowing 106.1 points per 100 possessions, which would about tie them with Washington as the league’s third-worst defense." For a team with visions of a title or at least the Conference Finals, this is a serious problem.
- They signed the wrong Nugget from China. This was either bad management or bad luck, depending on whether you think signing Kenyon Martin precluded them from having a shot at J.R. Smith. I don't know. Either way, they'd be a lot better off with J.R. Smith filling a gaping hole at shooting guard than Kenyon Martin dragging himself off the bench to provide mediocre depth up front.
- Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Everyone loves the Clippers for their dunks, but the problem is, the Clippers KNOW everyone loves their dunks. Meanwhile, Blake Griffin's free throw shooting is officially Shaqtastic and he still doesn't have a post move, DeAndre Jordan is JaVale McGee in disguise, and defensively they're both overmatched against any decent front line. The highlights fool people into forgetting that these guys are still pretty raw.
Then there are the long-term issues.
- Blake Griffin. He's already a superstar, but his game's stupidly one-dimensional, and so far he hasn't improved much. A month ago, SLAM's Ryan Jones pointed out that Blake Griffin is basically LeBron without the passing, shooting, ball-handling and instincts that make LeBron an MVP. Think about it. That's still a terrifying player, but not quite the monster that Chris Paul needs to make a title run. The problem is that Griffin's already been treated like a top-10 player -- just look at how often he whines about calls -- and if or when things go bad, he may not realize that he's part of the problem, and has to get much better.
- Chris Paul. It may seem like CP3 has ushered in a new era of prosperity and relevance in L.A., but his contract's up after next season. You have to think he's already frustrated by having spent the season playing for Del Negro, and if things don't change soon and the Clippers get bounced from the playoffs early, that frustration doubles. Then you have a situation where, if the Clippers get off to a slow start next season and the situation remains dysfunctional, the Clippers have to think seriously about a trade, or they risk losing him for nothing.
That last point is where the Vinny Del Negro problem becomes more interesting. Even if the Clippers problems are bigger than a mediocre coach, if Chris Paul thinks it's all about the coach, then getting rid of Del Negro is the only option. It's the best chance to solve the immediate problems AND to deal with the long-term issues.
In the immediate, even if the interim options aren't much better, it makes sense. Nobody would have pegged Mike Woodson as a miracle worker in New York, but sometimes superstars become so fixated on the need for a change that when it finally happens, the whole team gets a lift. That's definitely what's happened with Carmelo Anthony, and it could happen with Paul and Griffin. It's worth a try, if only because the Clippers are headed nowhere as it stands.
Long term? No matter how it ends this year, keeping Del Negro around when it's obviously not working isn't something Chris Paul will forget. If there's one thing we know about today's brand of superstars, it's that taking responsibility for failures isn't exactly a specialty. Fair or not, Paul and Griffin will blame this lost season on Del Negro, and by extension, Paul could blame the Clippers for not making a change. Which brings us to the big picture in all this.
The Clippers have a young team that needs a few more pieces, and probably a few more years. Whether you believe in this roster's title potential depends on whether you believe in Blake Griffin's ability to evolve. Either way, though: they have a superstar at the center of all this who's too competitive to wait two or three years for a shot at a title, and could leave in 18 months if they don't prove they're serious about winning big. So what do you if your team needs more time, but your superstar's impatient?
Fire the coach, right? Fire the coach.
Prove you won't tolerate mediocrity, and then all the problems from this season can be explained away by blaming the coach. It's doesn't solve things forever, but it's a good bandage, and next summer when Chris Paul's weighing his options, the Clips can say, "Look, we're committed to winning titles! We fired Del Negro a year ago, and now we're on the right track. We just need more time." Firing Del Negro solves almost nothing, which makes it the classic Clippers solution.
Vinny Del Negro may not be a great coach, but for a team with bigger problems, he's always been the perfect scapegoat.