It was my intention to title this piece “A Post-Mortem for Vinny Del Negro”, but out of respect for the Clippers organization and with memories of the Comeback in Memphis, I’m not going to completely count this team out. Nonetheless, the elephant in the locker room is Vinny Del Negro’s coaching performance, particularly his “overly subtle” response to the Spurs 24-0 run in the third quarter.
It may seem like VDN is getting more flack this series than at any other point during the season, but the matchup with the Spurs provided a concise test to determine if Vinny can be the coach of the Clippers future. Either Vinny would rise to the occasion as a motivator, proving everybody wrong about the importance an in-depth X’s and O’s system—OR Vinny would prove to be exactly who we all thought he was, verified by the Clippers getting trounced. The latter proved more accurate.
Game 3 against San Antonio had the fixings of a vintage Clippers performance, most notably, in its timing. Dating back to the regular season, the Clippers have come out energized to start the game, sparking seemingly insurmountable leads after the first frame. Then, to start the second half, an opposing coach’s adjustments would successfully counter those of Vinny Del Negro, providing an opponent the opportunity to erase the point differential. Gregg Popovich banked on such a calculation, seeming at the least calm, at the most clairvoyant, as he lazily draped himself on the Spurs bench during halftime warm-ups.
The 24-0 nothing run during the middle (well really beginning, middle, and end) of the third quarter took 8 minutes off the clock, during which Vinny Del Negro called one timeout and made two lineup adjustments. That means, during a run when his team missed all twelve of its attempts from the field and the Spurs were getting whatever they wanted, he couldn’t conceptualize any strategic adjustments that might improve his team’s dimming prospects. Looking at the two lineup changes he made during the Spurs’ run supports this theory. Vinny subbed Randy Foye for Mo Williams in an attempt to get a shot creator on the floor. Mo was undersized and had trouble defensively, so Vinny’s next adjustment would naturally be to put Randy Foye back in.
A good question at this point is, if Vinny is so bad, why didn’t the Clippers get laughed out of the first round? Lionel Hollins is an excellent strategist. He even received a few votes for Coach of the Year. So why didn’t VDN get abused? Chris Paul had a lot to do with it, as did the Grizzlies’ style of play. Against a team with the primitive hunger of Memphis, a classic dose of VDN “grind it out” advice yielded the appropriate antidote for Grizzlies’ physicality. The simplicity of the wrestling match in which the Clippers found themselves entangled in Round 1 is as striking as the complexity of the opponent they face in Round 2.
Popovich’s offensive system is nothing new, but it played a particularly prominent role in the narrative for this Round 2 matchup because of its stark contrast with the Clippers’ lack of a system. Even more, the Clippers have a team option on Vinny Del Negro’s contract (meaning they can choose to bring him back for another year at a pre-determined price without making any other future commitments) and experiencing the wrong side of a Popovichian domination not only proved that Vinny might be in over his head but also gave the Clippers a demonstration of a team identity that starts with the coach.
This season has always been about finding a coherent identity. The Clippers have been flying by the seat of their pants most of the way through the season, while the Spurs have experienced nothing of the sort, having a deeply ingrained identity from the coaching staff, all the way down to the players, and back up to the front office. So it makes sense, during this time of uncertainty in Clipperland that such an organization, shepherded by one of the great coaches of all time, would catch our attention and incentivize us to emulate this model.
The Clippers are in a unique position. This season was an unequivocal success but there is still clearly room for improvement. The talented young core didn’t really develop their skill sets nor have they proved to understand the game with any more depth. The Clippers experienced the wrong end of the Spurs coming out with a few stars and a hoard of talent that know their roles (and the limits of their roles). Now, with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin leading the way, Clipper Nation yearns to replicate the Spurs model, and rightly so. If Vinny Del Negro maintains his job as head coach, the Clippers may lose their one opportunity to change the franchise’s folklore.