In his first season as coach of the Clippers, you could say Vinny Del Negro was exactly what we expected him to be. His perceived ability to develop players and to “get” his team to play hard through the last whistle were the reasons the Clippers hired him over Dwane Casey, who came with high praise for his tactical acumen and leadership. The Clipper Organization believed in the results they saw from Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson under Del Negro in Chicago, and Neil Olshey said as much on the day they introduced him as coach: “We wanted someone who had a history of developing and being willing to play young players, which when you look at [the Bulls'] starting lineup, they certainly did [in Chicago].” As was the case in his last situation, it’s unclear just how much impact he had on the progress of his young players.
The thinking went: if Vinny could preside over Blake Griffin’s imminent launch to superstardom and facilitate the transfer of playmaking duties from Baron Davis to Eric Gordon, the rest of the team would follow their lead, thus transforming the culture of the organization, both on and off the court. No longer would Clipper teams start out strong and show promise, only to degenerate over the courses of injury-riddled, losing seasons.
Never mind that Rose, like Griffin, was probably bound for greatness no matter which coach he played for, the key would be fostering an approach that emphasized player development and would aim to compete in and hopefully win games with the support of veterans like Baron, Chris Kaman, Ryan Gomes, Randy Foye and Craig Smith. It would not matter to the Clippers if the young players developed because of him or in spite of him, as long as they progressed.
While the possibility of a winning season vanquished early on, arguably his strongest moment of his first season as coach came at the start of training camp when he called out Baron Davis for his poor fitness level and handled Davis’ eventual return to the lineup with an unwavering sense of purpose. Even in the face of a 1-13 start, he stuck with his approach and allowed Eric Bledsoe to gain valuable experience as the starter. Indeed, the team played hard, but the season was ending before it had a chance to start.
Ups and Downs
With so much depending on how players perform, we can only judge one in the context of the situation Vinny was in. For instance, he had to deal with his share of injuries, as has become the trend with recent Clipper teams, but for the year, the Clippers finished consistently in the bottom half of the league in most significant statistical team categories. According to Basketball-Reference, they ranked 22nd out of 30 teams in Offensive Rating (105.5 Points Per 100 Possessions) and 18th in Defensive Rating (108.6 Points Allowed Per 100 Possessions). As you might expect given their youth and athleticism, they ranked in the top half of the league (12th) in Pace Factor with approximately 93 possessions per 48 minutes.
But all of these numbers mean little without understanding the some of the unique ups and downs of this Clipper season:
- The 1-13 start; Baron hurt/benched; Bledsoe and eventually an entire Under-23 lineup starting.
- 4-4 over their next eight, with wins over two teams with the league’s best record at the time (New Orleans and San Antonio) and the Kings twice. Four losses came against Western Conference playoff contenders.
- Four straight losses against playoff teams.
- Three wins in a row, including a one-point win at Chicago.
- The best stretch of the season with almost everyone healthy, winning 14 of 22 including upsets over the Nuggets, Heat, and Lakers.
- 2-14 in February; Eric Gordon sat out the whole month with wrist injury.
- 11-11 with Mo Williams.
They showed the ability to beat the best teams in the league, and they did so with frequency not indicative of a team with their record. With the pieces in place and a year of experience together, the standard will be set much higher next season. Throughout it all, consistent with his reputation, his team remained generally competitive. They developed an exciting brand of play, which D.J. Foster described after a late-season loss to Dallas:
“Blake Griffin and the Clippers are about more than just the dunk itself – they’re about the energy that comes behind it and from it. They play hard every night. They want to dunk on you, they want to embarrass you. They want to take your heart and destroy you, even if they’re still figuring out the best ways to do it and how to do it consistently.
But all of that is happening and has been all year long. Sure, the Clippers aren’t without their flaws. They turn the ball over too much (21 times tonight), they slump in third quarters and they miss too many free throws, among other things. But those are things you can teach and fix with time.”
X’s and O’s
Del Negro’s critics have always pointed to a rather primitive offensive philosophy as perhaps his most glaring weakness. Like most coaches, he made some questionable decisions — like this one at the end of the game in Memphis towards the end of the year, broken down by Sebastian Pruitti at NBAPlaybook.com. One common concern arose during stretches in some games where the team either settled for jump shots or failed to get Gordon and/or Griffin sufficiently involved. Keeping in perspective that the ball was in the hands of the free-wheeling Davis, the rookie Bledsoe or the newly-acquired Williams for most of the season, it’s reasonable to grant the team time to learn to play together. Going into next year, it is not unreasonable to ask for a more nuanced offensive approach that gives the Clippers a shot to execute better in the half court, and certainly an enhanced emphasis on his two stars. To Vinny’s credit, it’s not like the Clippers didn’t execute their share of inbounds plays out of timeouts, a typical – if not overly simplistic – measure of coaches game-planning abilities.
For a team with such gifted athletes and even some strong individual defenders, you would also have to mention team defense in a discussion of the Clippers’ – and by extension, Del Negro – weaknesses. The team struggled to defend the perimeter, especially when Eric Gordon missed time, and consistently battled poor rotations that led to easy baskets for opponents.
It’s also important to remember that Del Negro is far from the only voice for the players. With so many new faces throughout the year and an entirely new coaching staff, you have to assume that they could (and should) benefit from this season together. Bledsoe, for instance, is presumably working closely with assistant coach, Robert Pack. He told Lisa Dillman around the end of the team’s horrific start to the season: “Coach Pack was telling me he still wants me to play fast,” said Bledsoe, who has been struggling with turnovers. “That’s what I’m trying to do, play fast at the same time but be under control.”
Aminu also spoke about the extensive input he would get from injured vets early on in the season: “They’re like coaches, especially since they’re injured now, so not even playing. They’re just watching the game. They’ve been doing a real good job, like coaches off the court for the coaches.”
Vinny’s impact was mottled with the chaos of a young team and new coaches coming together. But with the foundation of the team now in place, he’ll be judged much more carefully next year.
Without question, Vinny’s primary task was to develop the team’s young core, and in this regard the results were mixed. He spoke ad nauseum at his introductory press conference about having his team “play the right way,” and the Clippers felt comfortable buying into that hope. But what would that mean? Mostly what all coaches mean when they outline their plans for success: take care of the ball, play good defense, give it 110%. But he also stressed patience, a clear indication of his and the organization’s priorities.
When he spoke about “playing the right way,” he certainly couldn’t have been hoping for his team to take such poor care of the ball as they did. The Clippers were 2nd worst in the league in Turnover Rate, which may reflect a lack of discipline and structure, but also the unexpected need for Bledsoe and Aminu to play big minutes right out of the gate. It is disturbing just how easily they could turn the ball over at times, but some offseason work in that area from Gordon, Bledsoe and Aminu and a standard boost that should come from playing together could (and again, should) go a long way towards rectifying the issue.
While Griffin and Gordon are well on their way to stardom, perhaps Vinny’s biggest developmental challenges are with Jordan, Bledsoe and Aminu. Bledsoe was pressed into starting duty in the fourth game of the season, against the Spurs. His consistent energy was a welcome sight for fans looking to forget the image of an out-of-shape Davis dragging things down, but that often came at an expense. His role fluctuated throughout the season, but he continued to play with confidence to go with his exceptional athleticism and speed. He had what appeared to be a couple of “breakout” performances – the March 5 game against Denver jumps to mind – but failed to establish any real consistency. Vinny questioned his (and Aminu’s) preparation and professionalism – his season might best be summed up by the season’s last two games, in which he received a one-game suspension, followed by an electrifying performance in the finale – but if Del Negro and his staff can work to foster his growth as a point guard, they could have yet another young star on their hands.
Like Bledsoe, Aminu struggled to settle into a steady rhythm with the rotation in constant flux, but he did have one stretch early on that suggested his tremendous potential, and it reeked of Del Negro’s support to go out and play without fear of making mistakes. Starting when he scored 20 points on 7-10 shooting in the team’s eighth game, a loss at New Orleans, Aminu had a stretch in which played well enough to legitimately earn a starting spot, one that he would hang onto for 14 of 15 games. From November 9-28, he played 11 games, scored in double figures in eight. He shot 53% from three, 44% from the field and prompted Brian Chan to proclaim: “The Chief has arrived!”
As it turned out, Aminu would come back down to earth, ultimately finding himself behind Jamario Moon on the depth chart even after Gomes’ year ended prematurely. It was disappointing to see Del Negro turn to Moon over the rookie, considering their disparate places in the team’s long-term plans, but we have to consider the possibility that Aminu did, indeed, have work to do in terms or focus and/or preparation. On the other hand, you could see a scenario in which Del Negro chose to eschew development in favor of more immediate stability, arguably a departure from his stated mission and a decision from which Aminu might understandably bristle. Either way, the trajectory of his season left something to be desired, and that has to reflect, at least in part, on the coach.
Both precocious rookies showed glimpses of what they could be, but they generally came mixed with agonizingly typical first-year shortcomings. I’m not sure we can blame a coach, or even a coaching staff, for the kinds of mistakes that these two tended to commit. I do, however, believe that their ability to diagnose and adjust will be of the utmost importance going forward.
DeAndre pretty obviously took another step forward on the defensive end, and he played as big a role as anyone not named Griffin in establishing the Clippers identity in the paint — they led the league in dunks, were second in points in the paint and 8th in total rebound rate. In some ways he is like a much more athletic version of Noah, albeit less cerebral. He has a way to go before reaching Noah’s constant energy, but both have shown the ability to make a difference without any offensive game to speak of. Assuming he re-signs with the team, Del Negro’s ability to keep him engaged has to be a priority this offseason. Still just 22 and with plenty of potential for growth, Vinny knows that consistent effort and focus are the keys for DeAndre.
In his first year, Vinny Del Negro won exactly one more game (32) than former Clippers coaches Mike Dunleavy, Alvin Gentry and Mike Shuler did in their first seasons. Only Paul Silas had more in franchise history, 36, while the team was in San Diego. Considering the dismal start to the season, that’s something. What became clear over the course of the season is the unprecedented potential for the franchise. For Del Negro and his staff, their true value will show in what they do from here, amidst the elevated expectations that come with such promise.