And, to be honest, I’m not even sure what my own “that” is referring to. It could be the moment Donald Sterling bought the Clippers in 1981. It could be the moment, however it happened, when he decided that Vinny Del Negro would be the Clippers coach, instead of Dwane Casey.
It could be anything along the way that reeks of Sterling and has made the Clippers what they are — the team that today put Neil Olshey and Vinny Del Negro on a conference call to discuss the wrong one of them receiving a contract for next year.
We spend time obsessing over the moves a team makes, big or small. We break down midseason contests that, because of either their own ineptitude or misfortune, have turned out to be “meaningless” a staggering percentage of the time. And generally, we come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter whether the Clippers win or lose basketball games. That as long as there is a plan, it’s worth following.
Since at least the moment Neil Olshey took over as V.P. of basketball operations, there has been a plan. When it involved throwing five players under the age of 23 out there for long stretches of time, that was cool. When it involved trading some of those guys away, that was tough, but cool, too, because it got them Chris Paul.
And as this year got underway, the plan for Neil Olshey and every member of Clipper Nation was quite literally to let Vinny Del Negro seal his own fate. He would either win or lose. The specific criteria for defining winning and losing were less important than the basic idea, which by nature would be a win-win.
Only, things played out like you’d expect from a coach without the expertise to succeed or the humility to improve. The Clippers were swept by the Spurs, a team they shouldn’t have even been playing in the second round had they won an extra game or two that they should have won along the way.
He was, by no objective measure, a successful coach. Ralph Lawler could sit on the bench and tell the guys to set a couple screens for Chris Paul. Hell, if it was coming from him, maybe they’d even do it. Successful coaches in the NBA generally have something in common: having players like Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, and Chris Paul on their side. The ones that stay successful tend to have the ability to recognize flaws and the common sense to make adjustments.
But what’s most troubling about today’s news is not simply that Vinny Del Negro will be back as the team’s coach for at least another season when he has done nothing to deserve that. We can deal with him telling us after every single game that the Clippers need to make more shots.
At least for me, it has nothing to do with Chris Paul or Blake Griffin, either. Sure, I view every moment with Del Negro on the sidelines as a wasted opportunity for this team to be great, but I also tend to think that those guys are likely to stick around for a while, so I’m not sweating each and every minute.
What is the most disturbing, disconcerting, disappointing, depressing part of this, is that they have, He has, done it again. When re-upping your Executive of the Year candidate G.M. and letting him hire a hot assistant coach on the cheap would’ve done just fine, He has no clue but to screw it up.
It doesn’t matter if the new coach could be worse. It doesn’t even matter that the new coach could be way, way better. What matters is the process, and perhaps more than ever, the Clippers’ process is broken. Even if there is a strategic motivation behind retaining Del Negro for one more season, you do not let Neil Olshey go without a contract this long.
You do not send him out there on a conference call to answer questions from reporters, asking what, in his mind, makes Vinny Del Negro the right man for this job — not when he didn’t get to make that decision, and when he knows that Vinny Del Negro isn’t right for this job.
Long-time Clippers fans are well-acquainted with the seven stages of grief. But losing games is different. Even losing a favorite player is different. This is different.
For a while there, perception was creeping into reality for the new look Clippers. Things began to make some sense — you make a bunch of smart moves, which put you in position to acquire a superstar, and you go to the playoffs.
Somehow along the way, the face of the curse faded into the background, and it became apparent that the pieces were falling into place. All they needed was a real leader to show them the way.
With one startling decision, it’s back to the minor leagues. Back to the same kid running the scoreboard and operating the concession stand. Hopefully Fireworks Fridays — better known as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin — are enough to keep the fans coming through the turnstiles.
Because when Donald Sterling is your owner, your general manager and the man at the forefront of your public relations agenda, you’ve got bigger problems than a few wins and losses.