Vinny Del Negro Stands Between L.A. Clippers and Title Contention

Ethan Sherwood StraussNBA Lead WriterOctober 16, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 20:  Head coach Vinny Del Negro of the Los Angeles Clippers reacts in the second half while taking on the San Antonio Spurs in Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 20, 2011 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Clippers are largely dismissed from the ranks of title contention, and I'd agree with that assessment. Last year, they finished with a 2.6 point differential—a far cry from what you'd expect from a contending team.

We forget so quickly, but the Clippers were perceived as title-worthy not long ago, before "Lob City" gave way to the derisive nickname "Flop City." Dreams of an alley-oop trapeze display gave way to the cold reality of DeAndre Jordan missing defensive rotations and Vinny Del Negro feebly screeching at opposing shooters from the sideline. 

We have all adjusted our expectations according to events. Few believe in a team that actually shouldn't be any worse than last year—at the very least. Some are underwhelmed by Blake Griffin in the aftermath of last season, and many are disenchanted with DeAndre Jordan's performance on D. The rational among us don't fault Chris Paul, after he delivered yet another transcendent season.

My contention is that this squad should be contending, based on the players involved. If we pick apart this roster, deride its depth and dismiss Griffin's defense, we're missing the point. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin should afford you a wonderful NBA title opportunity. This isn't a matter of Griffin not being a star—it's a matter of coaching and management under-serving a roster worse than any squad in recent memory.

If the Clippers merely had a defense, they would be elite. Los Angeles was 19th in defensive efficiency last season, a rank that will eliminate you from winning a conference. Defense is very much dependent on scheme, on coaching—more so than offense, I'd argue. This is because all participants must be involved for a defense to work properly. An offense can trundle along by the grace of a penetrating superstar. If said offense employs a non-scorer or two, it can still be elite thanks to effective slashers.

If your defense has a non-participant, it's death. A guy who doesn't move on offense merely reduces your options. A guy who doesn't move on defense opens up a canyon for scorers to traipse through. 

You might recall that the Bulls were in no great defensive shape when Tom Thibodeau took over the team. Today, they're tops in the league for a second year running. Do you remember who coached the Bulls prior to Thibs? Of course you do, since it was Vinny Del Negro. Much as I want to complain about DeAndre Jordan's misuse of his own defensive talent, I must suspect the coach in this instance. 

Of course, the rot goes straight to the top. Donald Sterling had little interest in getting a real coach, as evidenced by his re-hiring of VDN while the equally initialed SVG (Stan Van Gundy) waits in the wings. I am not certain that Stan Van Gundy would even be interested in a Clippers job, but if a coach near his caliber were to ever take the position, this squad would be a lot more formidable. 

I had my concerns about the Clippers offense, but Chris Paul has worked magic with his non-shooting frontcourt, dragging them to the No. 4 rating in offensive efficiency. To confront your possible doubts on Griffin's emerging superstardom, I would cite his elite scoring and rebounding, as well as passing and handle (for a big man).

Blake has leapt from a 21.93 PER to a 23.50 in one year. He's improving, despite some recent criticism. I am not sure what the Clippers are getting from peripheral players like Chauncey Billups, Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford, but I am certain that the healthy core should dominate offensively. 

The Clips are a title team, beset by lottery ownership and coaching. They should still be challenging the Lakers for Los Angeles supremacy. Instead, they'll fade to the background as the Lakers lurch ahead once again.