Poised to burst into playoff contention with a solid roster, buckets of cap space and one of the game's most dynamic young big men in Blake Griffin, Los Angeles had every opportunity to give itself a great push in the right direction by hiring an experienced, smart coach. Most coaching vacancies in the league have been wrapped up for weeks, and the Clippers essentially had the entire field of candidates to consider.
And somehow, some way, because they are the Clippers, they ended up with Vinny Del Negro.
Del Negro couldn't save his own job in Chicago after two straight 41-41 seasons, not after a physical flapdoodle with his boss in the bowels of the United Center, not after watching his Bulls play themselves into losing records in March, requiring miracles in order to grasp just the No. 8 seed in the puddle-deep East. Not after allowing his team to give up a 35-point third-quarter lead to a team which would eventually finish the season 25-57.
Not after calling Kirk Hinrich, his back-up point guard, a seven-year NBA veteran and a career Bull, by the wrong first name for two full seasons.
What happens on the court is supposed to reign supreme, and in most cases I agree. But that, that I can't get past. Del Negro repeatedly referenced Hinrich as "Kurt," as in "Kurt Hinrich." That's something extremely small in the grand scheme of coaching an NBA team. But to me, it just lays bare the precise problem with V.D.N.
He presents himself as "one of the guys," a veritable guy's guy in the locker room who has no problem fraternizing with the employees half his age. He's breezy, confident and always ready to smile. He talks about demanding hard work from his players, he talks about intensity and giving everything you've got, playing impassioned, playing smart, and ...
And he still can't get Kirk Hinrich's name right.
It's a small thing, but it's everything. It's attention to detail, manifested minutely. It's respect for your players, your leader. It's just so unbelievably easy to fix. And it's a microcosm of everything wrong with Del Negro's tenure in Chicago. The Bulls won half their games under V.D.N. because the team has great young talent, solid veterans and because, for the most part, Del Negro let them play.
But "let them play" doesn't always work. It didn't work in December, when the Bulls had a 79-44 lead over the Sacramento Kings in the third quarter in Chicago. The Kings went on a 58-19 run to steal the win. Del Negro stood by and watched it all unfold, acting to stem the bleeding only when it was too late. When you have a roster like that of the Lakers -- when you have MVPs and grizzled veterans -- you can get away with that. But not with the Bulls.
And certainly not with the Clippers.
Steve Perrin of ClipsNation.com makes a compelling point about Del Negro's candidacy. Dwane Casey, the well-respected and successful Mavericks assistant, was considered the leading candidate when the Clippers narrowed the field to two. Only when the formal interviews began did V.D.N. become the favorite. What does that tell you? Del Negro can sell himself. That's good for him, and that's good for his agent. But, as we learned over V.D.N.'s Chicago tenure, that means nothing on the court.
Good for Del Negro for being able to say what team executives want to hear. That's a skill. But it's extremely unfortunate that his PowerPoint victory comes at the expense of a genuinely talented, smart coach like Casey, a man fired by the Timberwolves in 2007 because he couldn't sell boss Kevin McHale on the fact he had Minnesota playing as well as could be reasonably expected. (Casey had the Wolves at 20-20 when McHale canned him. The team finished 12-30 under replacement Randy Wittman. I believe Casey is still waiting on an apology. He's certainly still waiting for a new lead job.)
So here we are, with the futures of Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon in Vinny Del Negro's shaky hands. Bad teams remain bad teams because they make bad decisions. If the Clippers are still begging for respect and not deserving it in three years, look back at this hiring process, this unbelievable result. This pick has set the ray to nowhere, a place the Clippers know all too well.