Almost three weeks after the Clippers were knocked out of the Western Conference playoffs, the team decided to part ways with Coach Vinny Del Negro on Tuesday.
The Clippers told Del Negro, their coach for three seasons, they would not renew his contract when his deal expires at the end of June.
Del Negro told The Times that being let go was “hard to take.” He added: “You try not to ever be surprised, but it is a business.”
“This was a difficult decision,” Clippers vice president of basketball operations Gary Sacks said in a statement. “But we feel this is the best decision for our franchise moving forward.”
After the Clippers lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Memphis Grizzlies, owner Donald Sterling assessed his coaching staff and players and decided to make the change.
The Clippers’ front office will present Sterling with a list of potential candidates so that the team can begin the search for a new coach, said NBA executives who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will be consulted about the new coach, just as they were about Del Negro’s contract not being extended.
Paul and Griffin liked Del Negro personally, but according to various teammates the two All-Stars had some doubts about his ability to lead them to a championship.
Former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Byron Scott, Golden State Warriors assistant coach Mike Malone and San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer are the top candidates to replace Del Negro, one NBA executive said.
Indiana Pacers assistant coach Brian Shaw and ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy also are candidates, as is former Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry, who coached the Clippers for three seasons, from 2000 to 2003, a league executive said.
Former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy would have been a candidate for the Clippers job if he hadn’t said recently that he wasn’t interested in coaching next season, the executive said.
Atlanta Coach Larry Drew, whose future with the Hawks remains uncertain, is also interested in the Clippers job, several NBA executives said.
Memphis Coach Lionel Hollins, whose team is playing the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals, also is someone the Clippers are interested in. But Hollins, who is in the final year of his contract, might be too pricey for the Clippers, and the Grizzlies haven’t given any team permission to speak with Hollins, an NBA executive said.
Scott coached Paul during the guard’s first seasons in the NBA with the New Orleans Hornets, from 2005-06 through Scott’s dismissal in November 2009. Malone served an assistant coach for Hornets Coach Monty Williams during Paul’s final season in New Orleans, 2010-11.
The Clippers will take their time and plan on having a coach in place by the June 27 NBA draft, one executive said.
“They are just trying to do their due diligence right now,” an NBA executive said. “They haven’t talked to any coach yet. They are just starting the process. There is no timetable for them.”
Del Negro, 46, led the Clippers to consecutive playoff appearances for only the second time during the 32 years Sterling has owned the team.
But the Clippers lost the best-of-seven series, 4-2, to the Grizzlies, and it led to his dismissal.
“I want to thank the fans, the organization and Mr. and Mrs. Sterling for giving me this opportunity,” Del Negro said in a phone interview from his home in Phoenix. " I want to thank the players and my entire staff for their effort and support.”
Del Negro helped the Clippers to several historical marks during the 2012-13 season.
The Clippers won their first Pacific Division championship and had a franchise-best 56-26 record. And they had a franchise-record 17-game winning streak, going 16-0 during December.
Over his three seasons as coach of the Clippers, Del Negro had a 128-102 record.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done there, things that had never been done there before,” Del Negro said. “But I do think the organization is in a much better place. This is disappointing, but I also feel very fortunate. You move forward from here.”
Another key order of business for the Clippers is signing Paul to a new contract when he becomes a free agent this summer. The Clippers are expected to offer Paul the maximum deal of five years for $107.3 million.
Paul could sign with another team that has enough space under the salary cap for four years and $79.7 million. But that would be $27.6 million less than the Clippers can offer and one year fewer of guaranteed money.
However, Paul also could sign that four-year deal with another team and get an opt-out clause after the third season and then sign another five-year deal for more than $100 million.
Paul and the Clippers can’t begin negations until July 1.