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BILL PLASCHKE

Coach Vinny Del Negro left in limbo as Clippers sink lower

He probably was a lame duck even before the season, with Clippers brass believing he wasn't right for a talented, exciting team. Their recent 12-14 slide has only made his status shakier.

March 24, 2012|Bill Plaschke
  • Coach Vinny Del Negro cheers on the Clippers at Staples Center on Saturday. Their 101-85 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies may have prevented Del Negro from losing his job that day.
Coach Vinny Del Negro cheers on the Clippers at Staples Center on Saturday.… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

It was the sigh before the storm.

During a joyous couple of hours on the Staples Center court Saturday, the Clippers rediscovered their alley and dug up their oop and sprinted their way to a 101-85 drubbing of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Yet during a somber few minutes in his locker-room office afterward, the embattled Vinny Del Negro acknowledged that it might not matter.

"We'll see," he said softly. "We need to win. We need to play better. But I don't worry a lot about it, because there are things out of my control."

One of those things is a belief within the Clippers organization that, no matter what happens the rest of the season, Del Negro is not the right coach for this team.

While nobody would say it publicly, there were indications Saturday that Del Negro might not survive the 18 games remaining in the regular season, and if he does, he would certainly not be retained for next season.

The move actually might have been made Saturday if this once-promising team had lost for the 15th time in 26 games and crept closer to being bounced from the playoffs

"We're kind of in a fight right now," said Blake Griffin.

The coaching move still could be made at any time in the next couple of weeks if Clippers officials feel that one of their assistants, probably Robert Pack, could find a way to prod this talented and exciting group to more tangible success. If the Clippers make the playoffs, even a run to the conference finals might not save Del Negro, considering his contract will expire and the summer market will be filled with experienced winners like Jerry Sloan, Nate McMillan and, yes, even Phil Jackson.

When asked to discuss his coach's status, Neil Olshey, the vice president of basketball operations, declined to comment.

When ask about a lack of public support from his bosses, Del Negro also declined to comment.

Of course, because the Clippers are owned by the predictably unpredictable Donald T. Sterling, all of these ominous indications could mean nothing. Maybe Sterling decides he would miss Del Negro's smile. Maybe Sterling decides other options would be too expensive. Maybe Del Negro has a new three-year deal by the time you finish this story.

But, at least on Saturday, even Sterling seemed flustered by the situation, greeting courtside friends by throwing up his arms and shaking his head.

"Is everything perfect around here? Of course not," Del Negro said. "We have our issues like everyone else, but there are only a few teams who don't."

In regard to their head coaching situation, the Clippers' issues are more urgent than most. They are on the verge of what could be the first championship era in the team's history, and cannot afford their usual personnel inertia.

Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are guaranteed to be here together for only one more season. Ticket prices have been raised as much as 35% in anticipation of the excitement the two players generate.

The Clippers need to win at least one playoff round this season and seriously contend for a title next season if they want to keep their stars interested, their fans invested, and their owner excited. They know the buzz could vanish as quickly as it appeared. Lob City is only one long losing streak from becoming Sob City, and they desperately need a coach who can keep them flying.

They no longer think Del Negro is that guy. Considering he was hired before last season to coach a vastly different team than the one currently in his locker room, they actually began this season thinking he wasn't that guy. They then proved it by refusing to extend his contract even though his lame-duck status has made him easy prey for dissatisfied veterans.

The lack of job security on a suddenly veteran team, compounded by a lack of practice time in a suddenly shortened schedule, put Del Negro in a no-win situation even before the first game.

Then, once they started playing, he didn't help himself with predictable offensive sets, an inability to coax consistent effort on defense, and a loss of connection with his new and patchwork locker room. He's also been hurt by Griffin's failure to improve his game and DeAndre Jordan's giant step backward.

"We don't beat Memphis by 16 points if the players aren't playing hard for me," said Del Negro, the nicest of guys in the ugliest of situations.

The Clippers began the season going 15-7 with great leadership from Chauncey Billups, then Billups was lost to a torn Achilles' tendon, and Del Negro has been unable to fill that void, the team going 12-14 since then, leading to the current awkward mess.

When a reporter opened Del Negro's pregame news conference by jokingly asking if he still had a job, Del Negro laughed back.

"Amazing, isn't it?" he said jokingly.

As usual, is life with the Clippers anything less?

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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