It's been seven years since the Los Angeles Clippers conducted a broad search for a head coach. After years of hiring coaches on the cheap, they signed a high-profile candidate, Mike Dunleavy, to a hefty four-year deal in 2003. That relationship ended when Dunleavy was fired as head coach in February and then stripped of his remaining responsibilities as general manager a month later.
Since the end of the season, the Clippers have moved very deliberately though the hiring process. After evaluating a slew of candidates ranging from high-profile names such as Mark Jackson to strong X's and O's minds like Houston assistant Elston Turner, the Clippers have whittled their list of coaching candidates down to Dallas assistant coach Dwane Casey and former Chicago head coach Vinny Del Negro. Coincidentally, Casey and Del Negro were the final two candidates standing when the Bulls were filling their head coaching vacancy in June 2008.
Despite the team's underperformance since its spirited 2005-06 campaign, the Clippers have been accumulating attractive young assets. Forward Blake Griffin, starting shooting guard Eric Gordon, curio center DeAndre Jordan and Thursday's draftees Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe are all 21 years old or younger. In addition, All-Star center Chris Kaman is 28.
It's a very athletic core, one that a new coach can turn loose in transition, particularly with guard Baron Davis running the point. Davis has uncommon court vision and remains one of the league's best passers, but he'll also present a serious challenge for his new coach.
Although Davis insists that he has no problem with offensive structure so long as the coaching staff clearly defines each player's role, history paints him as a difficult customer. Davis had a solid relationship with his first pro coach, Paul Silas, but has publicly clashed with virtually every coach since Tim Floyd took over the Hornets in 2003. In addition to Floyd, the list of Davis' adversaries includes Byron Scott, former UCLA coach Steve Lavin, Mike Montgomery, Mike Dunleavy and even Don Nelson, who benched Davis in his penultimate game in Golden State.
Davis might be temperamental, but he's also a smart, strong and dynamic point guard. Getting him to buy in to a system and recognize his limitations as a shooter and as a player on the other side of 30 won't be easy, but that's the job at hand. Davis loves to play with athletic teammates who can work in transition. He's also beginning to recognize that he can't carry a team by himself.
With all of the youth on the roster, the Clippers' brass should afford its incoming head coach some time to grow with the team. In his brief time as general manager, Neil Olshey has shown himself to be a pragmatist. The Clippers are building for the future, and so long as the new coach can cultivate the team's young talent, he should get something of a long leash -- but progress in the player-development area is a must.
In June 2008, Doug Collins took himself out of the running to be Chicago's new coach. The Bulls had fired Scott Skiles on Dec. 24, 2007 and finished out the season with Jim Boylan as interim coach. With Collins out of the picture, the Bulls were down to a pair of finalists -- Casey and Del Negro.
After more than a decade as an assistant under George Karl, Paul Westphal and Nate McMillan, Casey spent a season and a half as coach of a Minnesota Timberwolves team that consisted of Kevin Garnett and a hodgepodge of spare -- and some combustible -- parts such as Ricky Davis, Eddie Griffin, Rashad McCants, Troy Hudson, Marko Jaric and Michael Olowokandi. After posting a 33-49 record in his first season, Casey had the 20-20 Wolves in position for a playoff berth when he was fired in January 2007. Given the team's 12-30 record the rest of the way, it's fair to say that Casey overachieved with his motley crew and got a raw deal.
Del Negro was a surprise entrant into the Chicago search. After a stint as Phoenix's radio commentator, Del Negro spent a couple of seasons in the front office, first as director of player personnel and then as assistant general manager. He had no coaching experience when tapped by the Bulls, but was extremely popular around the league.
Casey went through two interviews, and also endured a strange visit with a psychologist whom the Bulls hired to test his reputedly measured temperament. Meanwhile, Del Negro, who was friendly with then-general manager John Paxson as well as the son of Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, wowed the Bulls' principals with his spirited presentation. Charmed with the idea of going with a fresh face, the Bulls opted for Del Negro. Casey joined Rick Carlisle's staff in Dallas, where he oversaw the Mavericks' defensive game plan.
Casey and Del Negro are a contrast in style and biography. After a college career under Joe B. Hall at Kentucky, Casey never logged a minute in the NBA. A student of the game, Casey moved into the coaching ranks. He joined hoops legend Pete Newell to coach the Japanese national team for five years. He then joined the staff in Seattle, where he mastered the "SOS Defense" and became McMillan's right-hand guy, devising the Sonics' nightly game strategy.
Executives, colleagues and scouts around the league describe Casey as a basketball lifer. Though he's never been inducted as a member of the basketball fraternity, he's regarded as a guy more comfortable with breaking down film and working with players in the gym than swinging a golf club or schmoozing. One front office executive said that if Casey had McMillan's playing career, he'd be 10 years into a successful head-coaching career.
Del Negro has countless friends around the league who sing his praises as a person. His hire in Chicago was a testimony to his affable demeanor and his ability to communicate. Lost in all the heat Del Negro took in Chicago was the overall performance of the Bulls under his tenure. Anyone who watched the Bulls regularly might have a hard time giving him high marks as a tactician, but whiteboard management aside, it's difficult to size up the circumstances that Del Negro experienced in Chicago and conclude that he was a failure.
Del Negro led the Bulls to the playoffs in his first season, which included a spunky first-round performance against the defending champion Celtics. The Bulls then let Del Negro's best scorer walk during the offseason. Then, two months into the season, Bulls general manager Gar Forman essentially gave Del Negro a public declaration of no-confidence. Through it all, Del Negro managed a young team, helped foster Derrick Rose's progress, develop Joakim Noah from a problem child to an untouchable and turn Taj Gibson into one of bigger rookie surprises. After being left for dead midseason, the Bulls scratched their way back to .500 and earned another playoff berth.
Both Casey and Del Negro are regarded as strong communicators, albeit with completely different styles. Casey approaches his interactions with players as a professor. He's neither fiery nor emotional. Meanwhile, Del Negro's most common mantra this past season was, "We'll keep fighting." His young squad did just that.
Casey has engendered a ton of goodwill from present and past employers. If it were up to Hawks' general manager Rick Sund, who presided in Seattle while Casey was an assistant, Casey would be the new head coach in Atlanta today. For all of Del Negro's likeability, he was never able to get on the same page with Chicago's management -- though that might be a product of dysfunction upstairs more than anything else.
Casey has a decisive edge over Del Negro in the X's and O's event. Casey has nearly 2,000 professional games to draw upon from his array of coaching experiences. He learned from one of the game's greats in Newell. He managed stalwart defensive squads in Seattle. And he helped out with the adjustment from a rigid structure during Carlisle's early struggles in Dallas (remember the Mavs' rough 2-7 start in 2008?) to their successful "push" offense, which allowed Jason Kidd to orchestrate a read-and-react system.
One can imagine Casey installing a similar system with Clippers. Davis would assume the role of Kidd. Unlike Dunleavy, Casey wouldn't commandeer specific sets from the sidelines (at least for the first three quarters). Instead, he would assign his players spots, let them move freely in the half court and demand that they make sharp reads. There would also likely be a steady diet of early drag screens with Blake Griffin and quick pick-and-pops with Chris Kaman.
This approach would require great accountability for both Casey and Davis. In some sense, the two men would be tied together with a common goal. Both have something to prove. The Clippers' gig would be Casey's second -- and possibly final -- shot at building the head-coaching career that he's worked tirelessly to get. Davis' great achievements as a player can be boiled down to two glorious weeks in April 2007. If he wants his legacy as a basketball player to consist of more than just an epic first-round upset and folk-hero status, he'll need to graduate into a steady influence over a young, athletic Clippers core.
Casey has been devising smart defensive schemes for nearly two decades alongside some of the savviest strategists in recent memory. Though the Clippers will be without the infallible services of Marcus Camby for the first time in three seasons, they will have plus-defenders all over the floor whom Casey can sculpt into a coherent defensive unit. Casey is also versed in the emerging field of advanced statistics. He's worked with analytics godfather Dean Oliver in Seattle and most recently in Dallas with innovator Roland Beech. He understands how to asses which units are performing up to par and how to make data-driven adjustments.
Del Negro has been roundly criticized for his game plan and in-game adjustments, be it his "after timeout" sets or his inability to draw up creative alternatives to the Bulls' rote offense. Examine enough Bulls game tape from the past two seasons and you'll see a predictable procession of middle pick-and-rolls at the top of the floor. Under Del Negro's direction, the Bulls finished 18th in offensive efficiency in 2008-09, then fell to 28th without Ben Gordon in 2009-10.
Defenders of Del Negro will counter that he can't be faulted for using the path of least resistance. What's a coach supposed to do with few -- if any -- consistent perimeter shooters and zero post scorers? Rose was the only arrow in Del Negro's quiver and the second-year guard hasn't developed an outside shot of his own. Still, the stagnation in the offense was palpable. Luol Deng's versatility was rarely put to use and there are countless examples of the Bulls failing to capitalize on mismatches in the half court.
Defensively, Chicago got at it. After finishing 18th in defensive efficiency in Del Negro's first season, they vaulted to 10th, which is pretty impressive considering Rose's shortcomings at the top of the floor as an on-ball defender. Del Negro did an admirable job simplifying coverages for his younger, less-experienced players. In general, Chicago's youngsters grew immensely under Del Negro. His most vociferous critics insist that causality is an "in-spite-of" not "because-of" phenomenon, but it's hard to argue with the results.
The commitment to either Casey or Del Negro will be the biggest hire the Clippers have made in a long while. There's a reason that, among the dozens of coaching candidates on the market, these two have emerged as the finalists. Olshey is close with Del Negro and has a fondness for Del Negro's record of developing the Bulls' young talent. But the Clippers' general manager also has immense respect for Casey's acumen and character.
When Chicago elected to go with Del Negro two years ago, he was a clean slate. That's the thing with first-time coaches: Teams can imagine them to be whatever they want them to be. Two years later, Del Negro comes with the baggage of a tumultuous tenure in Chicago that exposed some of his weaknesses as a strategist and head man. Casey garners a lot of praise for his knowledge of the game, yet he's still a relatively unproven commodity who has never coached a postseason game.
The Clippers have given themselves a very distinct choice. And the outcome of this test for the organization will tell us a lot about its approach to the future.