It's cruel to point out, but Vinny Del Negro's time as coach of the Los Angeles Clippers has gotten exactly to the expectation point those that watched VDN's tough turn as Chicago Bulls coach thought it would. He's been given a mismatched roster, to be sure, but his 28-21 Clippers could be characterized as "underachieving," and all the hallmarks of a Del Negro-coached team are there. The squad's offense is predictable, players are apparently chafing at his style of leadership behind the scenes, and (less importantly, but most annoyingly) Del Negro is still keeping up with that tradition of clapping and yelling at opposing 3-point shooters near his bench, as if he was a pep squad member in an amateur setting.
This is why rumors have been swirling about Del Negro's permanence and impermanence for most of the month of March, a month that has seen the Clippers go 8-9. This is also why the Clippers GM Neil Olshey and owner Donald Sterling gave Vinny what sportswriters are legally bound to refer to as the "dreaded vote of confidence" on Monday. Here's Sterling's take on his beleaguered coach:
"I like him," Sterling told the Los Angeles Times. "I usually follow the advice of my people, and I think they care for him, like him and want him to succeed. And I think he will….I don't know where all these stories are coming from; nobody talked to me. Everything is good.
"Would I like more wins? I'd like more. I'd like the players to develop more; I'd like to play better. But then I have great expectations, and to a certain extent they've been realized. To some extent they haven't, but I'm a patient guy."
Sterling is a patient guy. His Clippers have made the playoffs just four times in his nearly 30-year tenure as owner, and he's also patient when it comes to sending the guaranteed money he's owed former Clipper coaches to the actual coaches. All the more incentive for Del Negro to fight to keep his job.
Of course, this is presuming that Del Negro's job was ever in danger. There are sound basketball minds in the Clipper front office, and I've no doubt that some of them have grumbled to the press about their hope to see Del Negro replaced. The same goes for the players, off record; though at some point Blake Griffin (who is just no fun to watch, at this point) will have to own up to his game's lack of development, and sour ways with the referees. The final decision comes down to Sterling, and he is not going to be in favor of paying two coaches in a year, once VDN is let go and a replacement (even an interim one) is named.
After all, he's a patient guy.
He better be. Del Negro was vaulted into the role of a coach with expectations when the Clippers went big with the Chris Paul deal. Thought to be "the-coach-before-The-Coach" (as was the case in Chicago, where Del Negro was replaced by the eventual Coach of the Year in Tom Thibodeau), Del Negro's ability to make hard workers out of young players (as he did in Chicago) was thought to be the right move for a team slowly bringing along Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon and an upcoming lottery pick.
The Clippers traded that pick to free themselves of Baron Davis' contract, though. The team dumped Gordon for Paul, brought in Chauncey Billups, and looked to take a run at the Los Angeles Lakers' perennial Pacific Division champion nod. Opposing teams see right through Del Negro's offense, though it is ranked sixth in the NBA, the team's defense is terrible, and there is a legitimate fear that a continued spiral could send the Clippers out of the playoff bracket.
That would be the chance for Sterling to let Del Negro go, so he can go about his usual route of refusing to hire a coach until the summer months have passed, saving on a few months' worth of salary along the way.
Could a new coach -- either assistant Mike Iavaroni, or an established out-of-work guy like Larry Brown (who coached the Clippers to two playoff appearances in the early 1990s) -- make a difference? Maybe not Iavaroni, who underwhelmed during his time coaching the Memphis Grizzlies, but there is room for in-season growth despite the loss of Billups and Mo Williams' upcoming two-week stint on the injured list. It's so late in the season, though, with just 17 games left before the postseason; you just don't see teams pulling the rug out this late on a squad with playoff potential. It's just about unprecedented.
Toss in the expectations gleaned from the history behind Sterling's typical ways, and it's a long shot at best that Vinny gets the heave-ho. For once, he needn't dread this vote of confidence.
Check out Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears and Greg Anthony as they discuss Del Negro's future in this video: