Stretching the Field: Clippers have faith in Del Negro, for now
By Shawn Clarke, NBA Contributing Editor
(Sports Network) - Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling doesn't have a sparkling reputation as being a competent man in charge.
Year after year, the "other" team in Tinseltown had been plagued by poor draft choices, debatable calls from upper management, a poor fan base and, most importantly, a lack of achievement.
Sterling's own success rate is well below average and his latest decision to exercise the 2012-13 option on head coach Vinny Del Negro has many wondering what the man who is often compared to a one-dimensional evildoer is thinking. But before raising torches and hunting down Sterling for his seemingly voracious desire to mess things up for the organization, maybe it's time to give his latest transaction a chance to breath.
Clippers vice president of basketball operations Neil Olshey said in a recent conference call that Sterling and team president Andy Roeser were on board in bringing Del Negro back for another hurrah after he piloted the Clippers into the second round of the playoffs before they were swept by San Antonio, which appears to be headed for another NBA Finals appearance and the franchise's fifth championship.
"Mr. Sterling, Andy and I kind of knew this was a fait accompli right after the season," Olshey said. "It was just a matter of us having other housecleaning things to deal with. We dealt with those, and now we're ready to move on to our offseason and the first order of business was to exercise Vinny's option."
It wasn't a smooth 2011-12 campaign for Del Negro, whose squad called a team meeting following an embarrassing loss to the Phoenix Suns back in March. It was speculated Del Negro had lost control of the team and point guard Chris Paul, the Clippers' prized free agent acquisition in the offseason, was unhappy with the communication and floor assignments with both the offense and defense. It wasn't the first time Del Negro has been chastised for his personal style of Xs and Os in his career, however.
Something must have clicked for both sides after the assemblage and Los Angeles went on to win 14 of the last 19 regular-season games en route to the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference -- the highest playoff seed in team history. So that's one reason why Sterling pushed all his chips to the middle in bringing back Del Negro instead of opening the door to other possible candidates such as Jerry Sloan, Stan Van Gundy, Nate McMillan or even the great Phil Jackson. But then it's not likely the Zen master would come out of retirement to work for Sterling, unless he was awarded total control.
It was only the second time in the 30-plus years that Sterling has owned the Clippers that they advanced to the second round of the postseason. A 40-26 record in the lockout-shortened season set up a meeting with the fourth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, who the Clippers beat in seven games.
A Game 7 win on the Grizzlies' home court put another stamp on Sterling's decision to go with what's working at the moment. Having Paul, Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan to work with makes the job a bit easier, too. Who knows how far the Clippers could have went had veteran guard and team mentor Chauncey Billups stayed healthy?
"All of these guys were warriors going to war with Vinny and that's what leaders do," Olshey said in a statement. "You lead them into battle and they're willing to fight for you and that's what those guys did and that's how you beat a team like Memphis on the road in a Game 7 in a very physical series. The decision to bring Vinny back wasn't hinging on one game, but it clearly was indicative of the type of leader he is in terms of getting the most out of his players in a high-level environment, winning a Game 7 on the road."
But what about the series with the Spurs? Del Negro has a history of getting better as time goes on, but the Clippers were easily dispatched in four games by an older and more experienced group of players. Del Negro said after learning of the recent news that he has "to push guys' buttons a little bit" and his in-game decisions must improve. Stating the obvious may be his way of waxing poetic on an organization that is starving to be heard from a city that predominantly bleeds purple and gold of the crosstown rival Lakers.
Olshey noted that there are a series of other chores the Clips must take care of and locking in Del Negro for next season was one of them. Keeping Paul for years to come is one avenue to follow and making other deals with potential free agents is another. Had Paul opted to sign elsewhere instead of the Clippers, Del Negro would be looking for employment right now. Perhaps Sterling sees the potential and may finally garner the graces of his critics by keeping this young bunch intact for the next few years.
Whether Del Negro is part of the plans in Lob City past next season is another issue. At least he has the support of the men at the controls for the time being.
"I think that with a training camp, with an offseason, with an entire summer for his staff to get in the gym and work with our younger players, and a couple of roster additions we're going to take another step forward in our quest to win a championship," Olshey said. "We're not going to judge ourselves by Clipper history. We're going to judge ourselves by NBA history."
05/30 15:10:36 ET