The Los Angeles Clippers are now just a single loss away from postseason elimination, and while it might seem reductive to pin the team's recent struggles and disappointing lack of growth entirely on coach Vinny Del Negro, the fact is that he's earned his place on the chopping block.
Del Negro made it through yet another season in which his coaching acumen was a nearly constant object of ridicule. Partly because he's on the final year of his contract (we know how loath the stingy Clippers are to pay coaches who aren't on the bench), and partly because the talent on the roster couldn't help but put together a solid season.
But with his contract expiring after this year, the coaching move that everyone seems to have seen coming for a long time will almost certainly occur. Given the amount of derision Del Negro has endured from all corners during his tenure as coach, his firing will be among the least surprising (and most deserved) in recent memory.
For a couple of years now, every move Del Negro has (or hasn't) made has been the object of scrutiny.
From his late-game play-calling to rotation decisions to clock management, VDN hasn't done anything right—especially according to Twitter.
In the current series against the Memphis Grizzlies alone, there's been an uproar over his curious use of the Clippers bench and his general unwillingness to take a flexible approach to playoff basketball.
Del Negro's in-game timeout exhortations, which tend to feature him spouting a series of vague buzzwords instead of actual advice, have also earned plenty of ridicule. We're way past the days where a coach like Del Negro, who almost never sounds like he knows what he's doing, can get by without someone pointing that out.
And the coach's responses to his detractors have hardly been satisfying.
Sure, it's easy to pick apart the decisions Del Negro has made. And it's probably fair to do so.
But the biggest reason for his almost certain departure has to do with the team's change in status. Once the league's biggest laughingstock, the Clippers are now a winning team with a couple of legitimate stars in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Perhaps best of all, they're actually the "cool" team in Los Angeles.
Toss in the L.A. Lakers' embarrassing season and it's clear that the Clips have a chance to take over an even bigger share of the country's second-largest sports market.
Because Del Negro has the reputation of being...well, incompetent, his presence on the sideline not only hurts the team on the court, it also prevents the franchise from moving away from its embarrassing past.
It seems like Del Negro belongs with the old Clippers. This newer, sharper version can't go into the next phase of its development with a guy at the helm who doesn't fit that image.
Plus, the locker room seems to have been falling apart for over a year. Chris Broussard of ESPN was told by a source in March last year that Del Negro had "lost the team" and that the Clippers didn't "want to play hard for him."
Del Negro made it through another season thereafter, but now, we're learning that the team itself is turning against one another.
T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month that Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have been at odds recently and that both of them have soured on Paul.
If Del Negro has not only lost his players' trust but has also presided over a deterioration of their belief in one another, it's hard to see how his job could possibly be salvaged.
And don't discount the importance of Paul's impending free agency, either.
A first-round playoff loss would represent a huge step backward for the Clippers, and at this stage of his career, Paul probably isn't interested in treading water, let alone moving in reverse.
The Clips have become a different team over the past couple of seasons, and it appears many of those positive changes have happened not because of Del Negro, but in spite of him. Because he hasn't proven himself as a capable leader, motivator or strategist, Del Negro has been on borrowed time for a while now.
If the Clips don't get past Round 1, his time will be up.