I told myself that if the Clippers lost Game 6 that I wouldn’t blame it on Vinny Del Negro.
Blake Griffin was injured. The Memphis post game was near unstoppable. The shots just weren’t falling. See, the thing is, I like Vinny Del Negro. From his first day on the job, it wasn’t easy. He inherited a college-age core with some peripheral veterans. He worked for a historically cheap franchise, always indifferent to winning.
Then, in rapid succession, the Clippers nabbed a star and uncharacteristically spent a good deal on payroll. All of a sudden, the Clippers were built to “win-now.” Whether your skills as a coach are technical, organizational, or motivational, it’s not easy to be successful if someone moves the goal posts.
But the Clippers did keep moving forward. Regular season results improved drastically during Paul’s first season, and once again improved during his second season as the Clippers’ leading man. But the playoffs were different. The first time the Clippers faced the Grizzlies in Round 1 the path to victory was unconventional. In a brawl of a series, the Clips failed to closeout a winnable Game 6 at Staples Center. They travelled to Memphis and pulled off an impressive, though anticlimactic victory.
In Round 2 against the methodical Spurs’ offensive machine, the Clippers defense needed a sophisticated plan. They had to execute swift rotations while maintaining a deep awareness of how interior spacing must balance perimeter spacing, and vice versa. Unable to unplug Popovich’s machine, the Clippers got swept. They managed to wrestle four of seven games away from the Grizzlies, but hand-to-hand combat didn’t stand a chance in the age of modern weaponry.
This postseason, the Clippers faced familiar foes in Round 1 with a repeat matchup against the Grizzlies. The narrative parallels the previous playoffs, with Lionel Hollins and the Grizzlies upgrading their ammunition before the third game of the series. Vinny Del Negro and the Clippers responded by dusting off their muskets, a barely noticeable upgrade. Just as they dropped four straight to San Antonio, the Clippers dropped four in a row to the Grizz.
Vinny Del Negro extolled the virtues of “stability and continuity” more than a few times during his exit interview. For a franchise that’s been to the playoffs six times in 25 years, “stability and continuity” represent quite desirable characteristics. “Press forward along this path,” the thinking might go, “and we’ll continue to be a customary postseason participant.”
It’s a very odd feeling to generally agree with the sentiment of Vinny Del Negro’s words. The problem (of course there’s a problem) is that Vinny Del Negro didn’t embrace the sentiment of Vinny Del Negro’s words.
Stability and continuity may seem like inherently positive concepts, but in reality, they’re enabling concepts. (It’s similar to the introduction of new technology; the innovation is neutral. It’s the people who use it that give it beneficial or harmful characteristics.) Stability and continuity enable growth and understanding within a specific context—“I’ve seen a similar problem or opportunity before. So this time, I know how to react.”
Under Vinny Del Negro, the Clippers did grow. The individual players on the Clippers roster did learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses and improved accordingly. But each step forward was accompanied by uncertainty. We were constantly left to wonder if the Clippers would integrate an improvement into their schemes or if Vinny Del Negro would simply send the same lineup onto the floor and tell them to recreate the magic?
Recreating “magic” is much more difficult than reprogramming a definitive system. So, I’ve said it. The dirty word that bloggers throw around with such nonchalance. Vinny Del Negro didn’t have a system. And now to the crescendo: what’s the point of stability and continuity if the franchise doesn’t build on said stability and continuity?
Del Negro embraced the “win-now” strategy as was entirely necessary when the Clippers acquired Paul, but he did so in a myopic way. He rarely, if at all, sacrificed short-term for long-term, even within the context of the Chris Paul Clippers. And that’s not entirely his fault. In both seasons since Paul arrived, Vinny’s been in the final year of his contract, a lame-duck whose only hope for retaining his job was winning.
The abstract concepts of stability and continuity have such resonance for Vinny Del Negro because blind adherence to them would require Clippers management to re-sign the head coach. And re-signing Del Negro would be just that—blind.