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Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro is about to feel some real pressure

With a team that is suddenly a potential title contender, he doesn't have much of a safety net to fall on if the season unravels.

December 17, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro, shown Dec. 1 at the team's training facility in Playa Vista, is in the final guaranteed year of his contract.
Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro, shown Dec. 1 at the team's training… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

On the first day the Clippers stars shared a court, Chris Paul was joyfully throwing up three-point shots, Chauncey Billups was carefully shooting free throws and their newest big acquisition was on the sideline.

It was resting on the thin shoulders of the guy who looks like a golfer and talks like a swing coach.

It is pressure, and Saturday it officially began an extended stay atop Vinny Del Negro.

Who? C'mon, you know, Vinny Del Negro. He's the coach of the Clippers, the guy you occasionally spotted last season between Blake Griffin dunks?

Del Negro is the guy hired to run the corner grocery store that suddenly grows into a Walmart. He's the guy who manages the neighborhood garage that suddenly becomes a Lexus dealership.

He was brought here last season to guide the Clippers through a youth movement. He woke up last week to discover that playtime was over. With the addition of Paul, this 32-win team suddenly has title aspirations and a championship-sized question mark.

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this column misidentified John Paxson's first name as Jim and his title as general manager of the Chicago Bulls. He is the team's vice president of basketball operations.

Everyone knows they are good enough to get there, but is Del Negro good enough to take them there?

Can a guy with a record of 114-132 handle a team with the league's most powerful young talent and most powerful floor leader?

Can he do it as a lame duck in the final guaranteed year of his contract?

And can he do it with basketball's greatest living NBA coach casting a giant sandaled shadow?

Surely you've thought of this. If the Clippers struggle in this shortened season, how long before they put out a feeler to Phil Jackson? Few believe he's really retired. Everyone knows he loves to handle teams on the cusp of greatness, like the Clippers.

I have absolutely no knowledge that Jackson would be even remotely interested if an opening occurred. I know his girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, would probably be aghast at the thought of him going to the competition. But I also never thought that barely one season after the Lakers won consecutive championships, Jackson would have disappeared and the Clippers would have arrived.

Hey, it's Hollywood, anything can happen, and right now the guy trapped under the hottest of spotlights is Vinny Del Negro.

"Yes, absolutely, it's here, and I love it," he said Saturday. "I want to be in this position. I want a chance to win. I want to go for it. The heat is part of the deal, and I accept it.

Like many of the good folks gathered improbably at the feet of the nutty emperor Donald Sterling, it's easy to root for Del Negro.

He's smart and passionate and works hard. He's detailed in practice, but wise enough in games to sit back and let his stars be stars. He deserves points for allowing Griffin to work freely enough to become the league's best rookie, and for giving DeAndre Jordan room enough to grow into one of its most promising big men.

"We were very, very pleased with the job he did last season handling our young players," General Manager Neil Olshey said.

But nobody was watching. And now everybody is watching. Staples Center will be sold out. The national media will be dialed in. The expectations will be huge.

And if the Clippers start slow, well, let's just say nobody is going to be quick to throw Paul or Griffin under the bus, all the heat rising to the guy driving it.

"Are you kidding me?" Del Negro said. "This is great for me. Going into every game we're going to have a chance to win, which is exactly what any coach wants."

Olshey thinks Del Negro's situation is even better than that, saying, "I actually think his job will be easier this year … he is the perfect coach for this team."

Perfect for this team? The truth is, nobody knows. In Del Negro's only other NBA coaching job, he guided the Chicago Bulls through two seasons of growing pains with consecutive .500 records. His most notable moment there was an incident with John Paxson, the team's vice president of basketball operations, who shoved Del Negro after he played Joakim Noah more than the management-mandated minutes in an effort to win a game in a playoff race. Del Negro was eventually fired and the reins were given to Tom Thibodeau, who quickly led the Bulls to the next level.

What will Del Negro do now that he has given the reins to himself? He has never been in this position before. If some Clippers executives had their druthers, he wouldn't be there now. Two summers ago, he was not the organization's overwhelming first choice to replace Mike Dunleavy, but Sterling passed on the favored Dwane Casey of Dallas to take a guy who came cheaper.

He has since handled himself well, but now the handling gets trickier. Good thing Olshey has decided not to meet Del Negro immediately after any game, instead choosing to wait until things are clearer the next day.

"There will be no finger-pointing here," Olshey said. "Vinny is our guy. We're in this together."

Unless he gives Del Negro a contract extension soon, those words will ring hollow. The veterans won't back him if management doesn't formally back him. Del Negro lacks the pedigree to survive a short season on shaky legs.

We'll soon see how much management really loves him. And then, either way, it will be fascinating to see how Vinny Del Negro responds.

He looks sharp strolling the sidelines in those silk suits. How will he look wearing all that pressure?

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