Malcolm Gladwell, writer, seeker of the anthropologically quixotic, geek savant, came up with a catchy idea in his 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, the “10,000 hour rule.” Simply, the thought is that for one to become an “expert” in a skill or field, it requires 10,000 hours of practice. Now, it isn’t quite that cut-and-dry, but the basic philosophy of countless hours of hard work, discipline and repetition to master something is sound. Gladwell’s attached number is more of a rule of thumb.
“He knows there’s gonna be bumps in the road. That’s one thing (NBA) players who become coaches probably know better than college coaches who come in. There’s lots of moments in the season when confidence levels are high, low, there’s bumps, bad times, good times.
“Vinny knows things take time.”
– Gregg Popovich, speaking on Del Negro in 2009.
It’s been just over four years since Vinny Del Negro became a head coach in the NBA. And as Del Negro progresses through his fifth season, his third with the Clippers, there is a growing sentiment around the league: the Clippers are title contenders. Some suggest they would be contenders if in the hands of a more capable coach. Or that Chris Paul is the coach. Maybe Chauncey Billups. Both were listed in a recent GM survey as making the best coach someday.
Coaching is a thankless job on the hardwood, even unimportant according to some studies. Lose a few games and the burners are turned on under the seat. Lose a few more and it’s another person added to the quarterly unemployment statistics — just ask Mike Brown. When a team loses, it’s because the coach couldn’t make the adjustments, motivate his team or was obtuse to obvious data and the ever-knowing “eye-test.” But if a team is winning? Well, it’s a player’s league. Players win games; coaches lose them. It’s a unfair axiom. And while no one is weeping for the downtrodden coach – they are well compensated – it is a tenet that shapes the perception of teams and organizations around the league.
There are several ways individuals shield themselves from media fire and inherit a certain amount of credibility prior to becoming a head coach. Heady players are given the benefit of the doubt; after all, if they can lead a team on the court, shouldn’t it translate to the sideline? Another way is time under the tutelage of respected coaches – coaching trees have long been a means of establishing pedigrees. More recently, individuals have grinded their way up from the video room to earn the trust of front office executives – Spoelstra being the best known.
But Vinny was not privvy to the cover that any of these methods of provenance offered. Despite suggestions that Del Negro is a Popovich pupil, the Spurs coach shies away from being cast as a mentor, offering more support than guidance or instruction. Vinny was the third choice of a frugal Bulls, having missed on their top two candidates, and lacked any coaching experience. That’s not an insignificant amount of publicity to overcome, especially when the next job is the miserly Los Angeles Clippers.
It was less than a year ago that Del Negro was on the hot seat, moments away from his second firing in as many jobs. And yet here the Clippers stand, atop the league standings, the only team boasting top-5 offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, a team that computer projections are currently anointing the favorite to win the title, with Vinny at the helm. How did he get here? It’s a nebulous business trying to assess the performance of coaches: Xs & Os, schemes, coaching philosophies, their ability to communicate. On offense, there is little a coach can do if a roster simply lacks talent. There’s a lot of “eye-test” that has to be relied upon in terms of execution.
Something that can be measured, though, is a team’s ability to defend. That requires effort, coordination, schemes, things that link back to a coaching staff. And Vinny has finally built up enough of a resume to analyze:
Bulls DRating 08-09 18th 105.8 | Pace 9th 95.79
Bulls DRating 09-10 10th 102.6 | Pace 12th 95.53
Clippers DRating 10-11 19th 106.3 | Pace 11th 95.47
Clippers DRating 11-12 18th 102.9 | Pace 25th 91.79
Clippers DRating 12-13 3rd 97.3 | Pace 15th 94.34
via NBA.com stats database
Del Negro’s Bulls showed marked improvement from year one to year two in defensive rating despite retaining only six players. The six holdovers improved their defensive ratings by an average of 3.86.
In the case of the Clippers, there was virtually no improvement in defense from year one to year two. But the anomaly of the lockout – no training camp, little to no practice – could be attributed to Del Negro’s inability to improve the defense. Roster changeover seems to have little impact, as Chicago’s defense improved despite large turnover. And this year’s Clippers underwent a massive bench overhaul to the effect of a drastically improved defense. Another possibility is the influence of assistant coach Bob Ociepka, who was with Del Negro in Chicago and joined him in Los Angeles for the current campaign.
There is some merit to Chris Paul as coach, though. Del Negro’s three seasons sans Paul bear a strikingly similar pace. Yet, Paul’s first year in Los Angeles saw the Clippers plummet to the bottom of the league. And this year, Del Negro has mentioned in preseason and game pressers about increased tempo, pushing the pace. But the Clippers, who early in the season were third in pace, are already dropping to the middle of the NBA pack, possibly back to the bottom again, where hyper-efficient Chris Paul offenses reside (New Orleans averaged a pace of 91.97 in the six years Chris Paul was there).
Another factor in parsing out Del Negro’s evolution is what David Thorpe refers to as “royal jelly”; the stuff that turns baby bees into queens. Thorpe suggests that some players would be able to thrive anywhere. But others need the right environment, the proper nurturing to reach their potential. Without it, these players could struggle or even fall out of the league. This could be a case of royal jelly not being just for the players, but for the coach as well. Maybe being paired with the smartest point guard in the league, three of the most coach-ready active players (Grant Hill also made the GM survey list) is what will enable Del Negro’s continued improvement. Already, this season, the Clippers run cleaner sets out of timeouts. Vinny’s rotations, substitution patterns and timeouts hint at a definable thought-process. And Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, super-sub extraordinaires, credit their stellar seasons to Del Negro’s confidence and trust.
Back to the snappy Malcolm Gladwell phrase, the “10,000 hour rule:” The average head coach logs approximately 80 hours a week, 36 weeks per year. With the lockout shortened season and lack of training camp, Del Negro’s fourth year was essentially the equivalent to half a year. Three and a half years as a full-time head coach and now leading a title contending team. The learning curve for an NBA head coach is a steep one. Nevermind getting the position, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that it takes an incredible amount of luck just to keep the job – ask Avery Johnson. Somehow, while learning on the job, Del Negro’s managed to hang onto this one. And the longer he continues to work at the craft, the more he establishes himself as an NBA coach.
Vinny’s number of hours on the job going into this season? 10,080.