LOS ANGELES – Vinny Del Negro’s office at Staples Center looks more like a vacated apartment.
Outside of a portrait of him in the middle of a huddle during a timeout that the Clippers hung up last year, Del Negro hasn’t put up a single thing in the room since being hired two years ago.
To be fair, Del Negro’s other office at the team’s training facility is more decorated. But by contrast, when Mike Dunleavy was the Clippers’ coach, his Staples Center office next to the Clippers locker room was a mini man cave, decorated with more pictures, basketballs and trinkets than a museum.
When Dunleavy stepped down as the Clippers’ coach two years ago, he needed a couple of boxes to clear out his belongings from the room. Del Negro could probably fit all of his into the computer bag holding the laptop he opens up on his desk before every game.
Del Negro doesn’t anticipate he’ll have to clean out his office anytime soon, but he didn’t know what the future held for him on Saturday after the Clippers beat the Memphis Grizzlies, 101-85. No one ever does in this business.
As he stared at his laptop in his office Saturday morning before the game, his focus was solely on the Grizzlies. After all, the only thing that will save his job and his team’s season at this point is wins. Everything else is secondary.
“It’s aggravating,” Del Negro said of the rumors about his job status. “It is, but that’s part of the job. We’re not playing well and I’m the head coach. There are responsibilities that go everywhere, but that’s part of the deal. We need to play better. We’ve lost some games I thought we should have won and maybe we won some games we shouldn’t have. At the end of the day we have to play better.”
Del Negro said he spoke to Clippers general manager Neil Olshey when the team returned from their winless three-game road trip and rumors began to circulate about his job status but he wouldn’t comment on what was said in the meeting.
“I’m not going to tell you about that,” Del Negro said. “We talk every day.”
Olshey, who is normally engaging with reporters, angrily refused to comment on Del Negro when approached before the game.
“I’m not answering any questions about Vinny Del Negro,” he said. “Ask me anything you want but don’t ask me about Vinny Del Negro. That’s a story you guys created.”
Del Negro actually responded to the rumors about his job security with a sense of humor when a reporter teased him about still being the coach before the game. “Yeah,” he said. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
“All the speculation and all the sources, I don’t spend a lot of time with that stuff,” Del Negro said. “I don’t have time. We just played three games in a row and we have a noon game, so I’ve been focused on getting ready for today’s game.”
If the Clippers were the Clippers of old, Del Negro would be the perfect coach. He has the team in position to make the playoffs for the first time in six years, he always says the right thing when microphones are in front of him and is overly affable with the media. He knows every reporter by name and often compliments them on their attire after they ask him a question. You can see why he would interview for a job well or perhaps keep a job longer than he should. He’s a good guy. The problem is good guys don’t always make for good coaches.
After the team acquired Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler in the offseason and picked up Kenyon Martin and Nick Young during the season, simply making the playoffs wasn’t good enough anymore. As it stands now the Clippers aren’t even a lock to do that, which is an amazing reality for a team that started the season 19-9 but has gone 8-12 since then.
“Managing expectations is the hardest thing in this business,” Del Negro said. “Just because you get certain players and get off to a good start, it doesn’t work like that. You have to put in the time. You have to stay together as a team. You have to build something. You don’t just put together a group in a month and boom, expect them to be on cue with no practice time with the schedule we’re going through. And then you add in five or six new players so we’re trying to help Reggie [Evans], trying to help Kenyon, trying to help Nick, trying to help Bobby [Simmons] and trying to help everyone come together as a team. It doesn’t work like that.”
The Clippers’ completely revamped roster and lack of practice time, especially in March where they are playing 20 games in 31 days, has been Del Negro’s go-to excuse since the start of the Clippers’ free fall last month. It is usually mixed in with pointing out that Billups was lost for the season and that the Clippers have tried to integrate Evans, Martin, Young and Simmons into a rotation.
“The bottom line is there are some games and some things we have to do better.” Del Negro said. “We have to finish games out. But if you look around the league there are a lot of teams going through this. Look at the Western Conference, I mean we’re in the thick of things and we haven’t played well.
“Luckily we got off to a good start and obviously losing Chauncey was a big thing but you can’t worry about that, all you can do is prepare and do the best you can and at the end of the day I know we’re doing that but we have to a better job, everybody does. Not just myself, my staff, the players, everyone. If you get everyone moving in the right direction and pulling in the right direction it gives you a better chance but when there are things that don’t do that and pulls energy from the team, it makes it harder.”
As much as Del Negro would like the focus to be on the team and not his job status, he realizes that won’t happen until the team starts winning consistently. Until that happens, however, he will continue to approach the rumors and reports with a sense of humor as he did on Saturday.
“No one died,” he said with a smile. “Everybody relax. Take a deep breath. It’s OK.”