Vinny Del Negro eased his way into the Clippers players’ lounge and plopped down in a black chair. His eyes were bright and his spirits were high as he pulled the recliner back and smiled.
Life is good being the Clippers coach these days.
Sure, the pressure is on Del Negro to succeed with all the talent the Clippers have assembled, but, he said, it’s the kind of challenge he has embraced.
“The pressure is more exciting to me than not having it because it means people think we’re relevant,” Del Negro said. “I take the pressure as a positive.”
Del Negro rubbed his chin and smiled again after that statement.
It had been a long day for Del Negro and his staff. They were putting in extra hours poring over video, analyzing players, making suggestions for the upcoming season.
He knows he will be on the proverbial coaching hot seat and that many will critique his every move with a team that has All-Stars Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Blake Griffin, Caron Butler and Mo Williams.
“This is his great big test, because this is probably the first time that he’s had so much veteran leadership around him along with young talent,” TNT analyst Kenny Smith said. “Before, he just basically had young talent and he was learning on the fly at the same time they were learning on the fly. This is his biggest test and we really get to see what he’s going to do as a coach.”
In three years as a coach, two in Chicago and last season with the Clippers, Del Negro has a 114-132 regular-season record. The Clippers were 32-50 last season and missed the playoffs.
Del Negro did direct the young Bulls to consecutive 41-41 seasons and back-to-back playoff appearances, both first-round losses. But it didn’t end well in Chicago. There was the celebrated incident in which Bulls General Manager John Paxson pushed Del Negro after a game.
Del Negro was fired after the 2009-10 season with a year left on his contract.
“A lot of things that happened there were unfortunate,” he said. “I think all those experiences help you.”
At 46, Del Negro is still a relative neophyte in the coaching profession.
The Bulls were his first head coaching job after working in television, radio, as a scout, director of player personnel for in Phoenix and as an assistant general manager for the Suns.
Del Negro played 14 years of professional basketball, 12 in the NBA and two in Italy. All of that, Del Negro says, has helped shape him today.
“I think at times, especially as a young coach, you want to try and show your players how smart you are,” Del Negro said. “But as you get some experience, it’s not how much information you can give them, it’s what you can get them to buy into. And if you can get them to buy into your philosophy, they will play hard for you.”
He has developed a good relationship with his players, something Billups recognized when he joined the Clippers this month.
Billups is a 15-year veteran who has played for many coaches, including Larry Brown and George Karl, and has plenty of insights on what makes a good coach.
“I just knew that everybody loved playing for him and he was like a players’ coach,” Billups said about Del Negro. “I could kind of see that from the outside because he played …
“He has an awesome basketball mind, just knowing little stuff about the game. I’ve been around and I like asking questions and I’m learning still myself. He’s good.”
Paul’s best friend, Jannero Pargo, played for Del Negro with the Bulls. That gave Paul a better perspective about Del Negro before the star point guard arrived from New Orleans last week in a trade.
“Sometimes you come across coaches that have big egos that don’t want input,” Paul said. “He’s communicated with me, Chauncey, Mo, from day one. It’s been a good experience so far.”
The Clippers have the option of picking up Del Negro’s contract for next season. But that’s not his concern right now.
He’s concerned about what takes place on the court. Four keys, he said, are for his team to hold down their opponents’ field-goal percentage, strong defensive rebounding, a good assists-to-turnover ratio and “managing personalities.”
“If I can do those four things and figure out how to do them well, then we should be all right,” Del Negro said. “What I tell my players is that if our mental approach matches our physical ability, we will have success. That’s the challenge I have as a head coach.”