It’s too early to discern whether Vinny Del Negro has the command, tactical strength and creativity to build the Clippers into a respectable entity in the Western Conference. My preferences for Dwane Casey aside, enough smart basketball people I’ve spoken to believe that, despite his early struggles in Chicago, Del Negro’s learning curve has been steep. They maintain that getting out from under a Chicago management team that undermined him at every turn — and let his best shooter walk in 2009, then dealt the other perimeter threat at last year’s deadline — will allow him to prosper. A good coach knows how to delegate and Del Negro’s preliminary short list of assistants is impressive. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, but the beauty of sports is that these questions reveal themselves in due time.
The organization’s choice of Del Negro reveals some important realities that have little to do with Del Negro himself:
- Owner Donald T. Sterling still makes the final call on many vital basketball decisions. It’s important to note that this isn’t unusual in the NBA and most pro sports for that matter. While Sterling might be uniquely ill-equipped to make many of these calls, he who signs the checks makes the rules. Still, it’s disconcerting that basketball people aren’t empowered to make the final basketball decisions. Tonight, LeBron James will likely announce that he’s chosen the Miami Heat as his destination. The allure of playing with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can’t be understated, but it’s not incidental that if he lands in Miami, he’s chosen an owner in Micky Arison. Comparatively speaking, Arison is a hands-off owner who remains behind the scenes and delegates basketball operations to Pat Riley. Olshey, as a first-time general manager, hasn’t built up the equity and track record Riley has in his three decades as a championship head coach and executive. But Olshey has demonstrated early on that he’s aggressive, pragmatic and has good taste in talent. One source I spoke to about the Clippers power structure told me, “Neil has the potential to be very good at this job, but the question is, will ownership let him?”
- As disheartening as ownership’s claiming the right to make the final call on the coaching hire, Olshey got his second choice out of dozens of available candidates. Del Negro wouldn’t have been named a finalist if Olshey weren’t confident he could perform the task. Part of the job for any Clippers general manager is negotiating with Sterling — on hires, trades and signings. It took Mike Dunleavy weeks to cajole Sterling into dealing Zach Randolph last summer. Whether Olshey is given the authority he should to assemble the roster the way he sees fit will become apparent in the coming weeks. He conveys a very strong power of persuasion, more so than Dunleavy. On the flip side, Sterling has been generous with the checkbook in recent years and hasn’t seen much return on his investment, a dynamic that could potentially make him more reluctant to spend.
- Presence and charisma trump whiteboard acumen, at least with many owners. The Del Negro hire also underscores the advantage former players still have when teams make choose coaches. Del Negro plugged his tenure as an NBA veteran in his press conference yesterday. For all of Casey’s attributes, Del Negro’s ability to regal someone like Sterling with stories of his playing days and to tout how that résumé item translates into respect in the locker room and on the practice court is powerful — probably a little bit too powerful.
As we head into Summer League, a few other realities are surfacing. The free agent market is insane. Mike Miller has a lot of appeal as a small forward, but he’s likely to command a five year deal in the $40 million dollar range, especially now that teams like New York have been left with enormous cap space and nobody to spend it on. The Clippers would be wise to resist the temptation to overspend and forfeit their flexibility, whether on Miller, Kyle Korver or anyone else.
A more likely scenario — and a smart one — would be to fill out the roster with decent value players. The list of available 3s won’t dazzle you, but the Clips could do a lot worse than a guy like Ryan Gomes, or even Dorell Wright, for a short-term contract while Al-Farouq Aminu finds his sea legs. Both Gomes and Wright are strong defenders on the wing and Gomes has developed a nice stroke from the outside (Wright has proficiency from mid-range). Neither will vault the Clippers into playoff contention next season — and that might be frustrating to a hungry fan base — but both bring assets that would help the development process and not kill the Clippers’ cap flexibility.
Tayshaun Prince would be a plus at the small forward spot, but only if the Pistons are reasonable with their demands. Absorbing Prince’s $11.1 million salary would still leave the Clips with more than $7 million to fill out the roster with another combo guard (Randy Foye, Shannon Brown, Roger Mason). Again, these aren’t flashy names, but the primary goal remains developing the five young players. Baron Davis and Chris Kaman will claim a ton of possessions. The Clips need to allocate the remaining opportunities to Griffin, Gordon and, when they’re on the floor, Aminu and Bledsoe.
As disheartening as the summer might be, don’t undervalue the importance of the long view. Griffin could be a star. He and Gordon have enormous potential as an inside-out threat. Be patient, allow success to materialize in due course. Winning now isn’t realistic, so plan for 2011 and beyond.