CULVER CITY, CA -- Looking at the Clippers' 40-26 recorda franchise-best 60.6 winning percentageand an appearance in the second round of the playoffs for only the second time in the Donald Sterling Era--picking up the option on Coach Vinny Del Negro's contract seemed to be a no-brainer. These are the Clippers, however, an organization still fighting to overcome a perception of ineptness and frustration, also germane to the Sterling Era.
Critics continually refuse to believe that recently the Clips have actually acted like a model NBA franchise under Sterling, President Andy Roeser and General Manager Neil Olshey, and the perception now seems unfair. Nevertheless, when the announcement was made that Del Negro would be back for his third year, the skeptics were out in force.
On a conference call with reporters, Del Negro was asked if he was worried because the team waited a while to make the official statement
"No, not really," said Del Negro, who has a 72-76 record with the Clippers. "There's always going to be speculation. It was a difficult season for everybody.
"Neil and I talk every day, and the results speak for themselves. We have certain areas that we need to get better, all of us, and we will."
Olshey, who was instrumental in bringing Del Negro in after he was fired by the Chicago Bulls, was pointed in his answer to the same question.
"We won a seventh game, on the road, with a roster of the walking wounded," he said. "Vinny has been in on all the meetings and has been part of the decision-making process. He was instrumental in helping recruit Chris Paul and Caron Butler. He certainly has the team pointed in the right direction. Vinny clearly had one of the most successful seasons as a coach in Clippers' history.
"We're not going to judge ourselves by Clipper history, but we are going to judge ourselves by NBA history, and we're on the right path. With an entire summer to work with our players and a full training camp, we're going to take another step forward toward winning an NBA title.
"There's no greater compliment for a coach than to see how hard his players are playing (for him) at the end of the year. That wasn't always the case in this organization. Even though we lost Games Three and Four to San Antonio, the players competed right down to the final whistle.
"We're going to make some roster moves, bring in some more talent, and I'm confident Vinny will make sure we're playing at this time next year."
Despite the success Del Negro and the Clippers had in 2011-2012, his re-hiring will likely bring some negative reactions.
Radio talk show hosts and callers have already referred to him as the "Del Harris of the 21st century"a reference to the former Laker head man; a good coach, but not good enough to get the Clippers to their ultimate goal of a World Title. And it won't be the first time he's faced the verbal firing squad.
Following the loss of team leader Chauncey Billups with a torn Achilles tendon on February 6th in Orlando, the team struggled for a while to find itself. They went 11-14, including consecutive road losses at Indiana, Oklahoma City and Memphis. The rumor mill began to swirl and it was reported that Del Negro might be fired immediately. Didn't happen, though, and the Clippers won 13 of their next 15.
"Those were tough times, but we knew if we could weather the storm, we'd have a chance to get better," said Del Negro. "That's what we did."
There was the remarkable playoff comeback against the Grizzlies on the road in Game One of the first round, in which the Clippers were trailing by 27 late and found a way to come back and win. They also showed toughness and solidarity after blowing a 3-1 series lead, going back to Memphis with an injured Paul and Blake Griffin, yet managing to win the seventh game and move on to face San Antonio in the conference semis. They were swept by the rejuvenated Spurs, but Del Negro definitely showed that he deserved at least another year to coach the Clippersa season not tainted by a condensed schedule, nine-day training camp and a rash of injuries that would have crippled most other teams.
And he wasn't hesitant to admit that he also needs to improve his coaching ability.
"This is always a work (in progress)," Del Negro said during the conference call. "I want to get better at my craft, no doubt about it. That's what I love. I love the competition, but I love the opportunity to improve, challenge myself to improve and help make the organization and team better."