Vinny Del Negro is aware of many improvements he needs to make as a coach. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
The critique was a general one, but it gradually got more specific.
Frankly speaking, the coach needed to improve his time management during practice, he should consider using different techniques in pushing the right buttons of his players, and, on top of it, improve those crucial in-game decisions, on both ends of the court.
But this assessment of an NBA coach wasn't coming from a newspaper columnist, an ex-player turned TV talking head, anyone with a hidden agenda or some goofy slide show on a blog.
This was Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro talking about … well, himself. Give him bonus points for self-awareness.
He was speaking during a conference call May 29, the day the Clippers announced he would be returning for a third season, having just guided them in the regular season to the highest-winning percentage in the franchise's history. That, and reaching the second round of the playoffs for just the second time in the 31 years Donald Sterling has owned the team.
Higher expectations from Clippers Nation created a different form of pressure, distinct from the demands faced by Del Negro's predecessors on the sideline. Not only did the Clippers bring in seven new players in the off-season, they reached contract agreements with Chauncey Billups and Blake Griffin, the latter signing a five-year extension.
Then there is Chris Paul — i.e., the Game Changer —- back for his second season with the Clippers. Really, it comes down to the presence of one spectacular point guard, forcing everyone to recalibrate the team's prospects.
"I don't have the time to worry about it [the pressure] — whether it's the critics or the blogs or the papers or the TV," Del Negro, 46, said recently. "I don't have the time nor the energy. My energy is directed toward the preparation of this team on a daily basis."
It's a far cry from when Del Negro signed on with the Clippers. They opened the 2010-11 schedule 1-13 — the team's worst start in 12 seasons — and once featured a starting lineup with two 20-year-olds, two 21-year-olds and one 22-year-old. Of course, the 21-year-olds were Griffin and Eric Gordon.
Del Negro has made strides from those early days, too. That first season he left Gordon on the bench for an extended period — the entire second quarter — in a December loss to the Rockets, confounding Gordon and his bosses.
Wobbles of that sort were long forgotten when Del Negro out-coached the Grizzlies' Lionel Hollins in the wild opening round of the playoffs last spring, overcoming a 27-point deficit in Game 1, winning Game 7 in Memphis and earning quiet praise from his colleagues.
Del Negro had never coached before he took over the Chicago Bulls for two seasons. In his four seasons as an NBA coach, he has missed the playoffs just once. The good and the bad in Chicago shaped him, just the way the good and the bad has done so in Los Angeles.
"There was no question all those experiences make you better," Del Negro said. "Are some of them difficult to go through at times? Yeah. But that's probably the best part about it, as you look back at it. Hopefully you become better at your craft. You have to work at it. It's a never-ending process."
The longest-tenured Clippers player happens to be center DeAndre Jordan, now entering his fifth season. But Jordan has noticed the difference in Del Negro and the team during a tumultuous two seasons in which very little stayed the same, featuring a rotating cast of characters.
"It took us a year and a year and change for everybody to really get on each other's page," Jordan said. "It's great now. He's a player's coach. New guys, different personalities came in and we're all on the same page and we all know what our goal is. The coaching is going to get a lot easier with the guys that we have."