Del Negro: “It was Mr. Sterling’s decision”
After the best regular season in franchise history, the Los Angeles Clippers let head coach Vinny Del Negro hit free agency without renewing his contract. In an exclusive phone interview with HOOPSWORLD, Del Negro said that Clippers owner Donald Sterling made the final call.
“It’s always difficult when you part ways… the disappointment is not being able to stay and finish the job,” Del Negro continued. “I was very happy to be part of that group that was able to have a lot of success in a short period of time.”
The Clippers are at a crucial crossroads with All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who will be an unrestricted free agent in July. The team’s top priority is securing him to a long-term deal.
Was Paul responsible for Del Negro’s ouster?
T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times took that to team owner Donald Sterling in a recent column.
“This is a player’s league, and unfortunately, if you want to win you have to make the players happy,” Sterling said.
In response to an ESPN report that Paul was unhappy to be blamed for the coaching change, Clippers vice president of basketball operations Gary Sacks told Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com, “The decision not to extend a contract to Vinny Del Negro was an organizational decision from the top down.”
“Our front office evaluated the season and Vinny’s three years here before making this move, and our conclusion and feeling was that we needed a change,” continued Sacks.
On Friday, Del Negro didn’t want to step into the fray.
“I’m proud of what was done there. I got the organization moving in the right direction,” Del Negro said. “Now, it’s their job to deal with all the challenges that face them moving forward.”
If Paul re-signs, a new coach will inherit a 56-26 roster. The Clippers have been linked to Jeff Van Gundy, Byron Scott, Brian Shaw, Nate McMillan, Alvin Gentry and a host of others.
“The next person that works for the Clippers obviously is going to benefit from a lot of work that my staff, myself and everyone did there, but that’s part of the business,” Del Negro said. “I’m looking forward to the next opportunity.”
The Clippers ended the year with a frustrating loss in the first round of the playoffs to the Memphis Grizzlies in six games. All-Star Blake Griffin suffered a high-ankle sprain before Game 5, severely limiting his impact over the final two games of the series.
“It was very unfortunate,” Del Negro said. “I give Blake a lot of credit. He really hurt himself. His ankle was huge.”
“We managed a lot of injuries throughout the year,” Del Negro continued. “Whenever you can win your first Pacific Division [title], win 17 games in a row, win 56 game, set every [franchise] record home and away, those are great accomplishments.”
When Del Negro joined the Clippers in 2010, the team had modest expectations after multiple years in the lottery. Griffin’s explosion as an All-Star starter and the team’s acquisition of Paul in 2011 changed the complexion of the franchise.
“The number of sell-outs in a row, the atmosphere at Clippers games now, the expectations, those are great. That’s what you’re playing for,” Del Negro said. “I’m happy for the fans in L.A. They deserve that. They’ve been loyal fans for a long time.”
Paul was a game-changer and Del Negro would half-jokingly call the team’s offense “the Chris Paul system.”
“Chris is a pass-first point guard. Guys love playing with him,” Del Negro said. “There were some limitations in the roster, but Chris is such a fantastic player and clutch player, he makes it work.”
Del Negro is also proud of how well his team developed defensively.
“What people don’t talk about is how much we improved defensively from last year to this year in almost every statistical category other than probably our three-point defense,” Del Negro said. “We led the league in steals and points off turnovers.”
Longevity is a rarity for coaches in the NBA. Del Negro would have liked more time with the Clippers.
“It takes patience,” Del Negro said. “The teams that have had sustained success, have had tremendous stability and tremendous continuity.
“Now, you’re basically starting over when you make changes with new players and new coaches and often a different system and a different mentality. You can see that throughout the NBA with all this turnover — it makes it hard to build something. It takes time. It’s hard to work through those things for a lot of people involved in terms of ownership, front office people … or the fans.”
After five years on the bench (three with the Clippers, two with the Chicago Bulls — along with four playoff appearances), Del Negro believes he’s grown as a coach.
“You get better at the things you work at,” Del Negro said. “I’m proud of the way we changed the culture there. We built a foundation with my staff, who were unbelievable. I had a great relationship with the Sterlings.”
The Clippers’ future is uncertain until Paul gives a commitment, but that’s not Del Negro’s problem anymore. The team will hire a new head coach in the coming weeks. Paul seems more likely to stay than go, but that decision won’t come until July.
Del Negro will probably take a year off, although he’s certainly open to other possibilities.
“Right now I’m just spending time with my wife and family in Arizona,” Del Negro said. “I love coaching. I love the challenge of it. I hope there will be other opportunities, but I’m in no rush right now.”