The Los Angeles Clippers have been praised many times since adding Chris Paul in December 2011, with many fans and observers claiming that they have the chance to become one of the NBA's few legitimate contenders. Of course, that person will usually mention the limiting presence of head coach Vinny Del Negro in the same breath. Conventional wisdom states that VDN is not a top-level coach, a guy who lucked into an elite roster and now doesn't know how to organize and/or control it properly. This take could be an exaggeration, but it will only go away if the Clippers achieve more in the postseason.
At times, it seems as if the Clippers also don't believe Del Negro is the right man for the job. After a run of lackluster defensive performances, VDN says the Clips need to improve in order to make their mark on the playoffs. Star power forward Blake Griffin says that would be easier if the coach gave them a more cohesive plan. From Arash Markazi for ESPNLosAngeles.com (via PBT):
"I don't think it can get any worse, so let's look on the bright side," Del Negro said after practice Friday. "Let's flip it around. Glass is half full, right?" [...]
"Our bigs are getting stretched out a little bit," Del Negro said. "They have to have a little sense of urgency in closing out. Some guys can make that adjustment, and some guys are struggling with that but drilled it again today. That's obviously an area of concern."
Clippers forward Blake Griffin disagreed with Del Negro.
"It depends on our defensive strategy and our defensive principles for that game," Griffin said. "We switch them every single game. I don't see that, no, but I'm biased." [...]
"Our main focus of practice and our theme of practice has been defensively making sure we're executing our game plan," Griffin said. "Because like I said, we switch it up every game, depending on who we're playing and who has the ball and who's a threat for them." [...]
"We want our identity to be a defensive team," Griffin said. "We don't want to have to make adjustments for every single team and switch things up but to make teams adjust to us and the way we play."
Griffin's reaction is not good news for the Clippers, obviously, because it suggests that they have nothing to depend on at the defensive end. That's typically not the mark of a championship team. An elite defense will have a few hallmarks based on its personnel: a propensity to switch and create cross-matches, to funnel drivers to shot-blockers, to front the post, etc. If the Clippers don't have a standard system based on similar principles, then that's a major problem. NBA teams need to know what they do well in order to succeed — it's nearly impossible to change the entire plan from night to night given the talent level of even the worst team.
On the other hand, it's also natural for teams to focus their nightly game plans on a few key players — any defense worth a damn won't treat LeBron James like any other wing. In fact, it's possible that the Clippers do have standard defensive principles, and that Griffin's disagreement with Del Negro is largely a matter of miscommunication. Perhaps Griffin simply wants the Clips to adjust less, and he put the issue in terms of principles when it's a little less foundational.
Of course, that difference doesn't change the fact that elite teams don't have major communication issues in late March. It can be tempting to focus on a team's strategy and tactics as marks of their playoff readiness, but at a very basic level an NBA coach's job is to communicate those plans and roles to his team. If players disagree on what those ideas are, then they can't succeed. That's a problem for the Clippers well beyond their ability to close out on shooters.
Del Negro doesn't have the best reputation as communicator — in part because he used to call Kirk Hinrich "Kurt" — and it looks as if he's not doing a particularly good job getting his team on the same page. Unfortunately, we've been raising these same issues since at least last March. Maybe VDN isn't getting a fair shake. However, at this point, it's fair to wonder if the Clippers' brain trust is the last group with any confidence in his ability to lead the franchise to contention.