Vinny Del Negro, who had the most successful tenure of any coach in Clipper history, was fired last week by owner Donald Sterling. How does unparalleled success lead to termination? Was it the intervention of star players with the owner that led to his downfall?
The Clippers have had a long and inglorious history filled with losing. Since the 1976-77 season, played in Buffalo, until Del Negro took the reigns in 2010, they had two winning seasons and went to the playoffs four times. The overall winning percentage of the franchise is .375. Their list of high first round draft picks who were unproductive is large -- from Benoit Benjamin (No. 3 in 1985) to Michael Olowokandi (No. 1 in 1998) to Darius Miles (No. 3 in 2000) to Shaun Livingston (No. 4 in 2004). They finally picked a true star in Blake Griffin.
Enter Del Negro. After a tough first season, his last two were the best in franchise history. The team steadily improved. They were ranked 19th in offense and 20th in defense per game in the NBA during the 2010-11 season. In 2012-13 they were ranked eighth in offense and fourth in defense in the NBA. 2011 showed the largest winning percentage increase from one season to the next in team history.
2011-12 and 2012-13 were the first back-to-back winning seasons since 1992-1993. These seasons resulted in Del Negro having the highest winning percentage of any coach in their history. They improved to a team record 56 wins this season after last year's lockout-shortened 40 wins. They swept the archrival Lakers four games straight. They won their first Pacific Division championship ever. They outdrew the Lakers in attendance and sold out every home game.
And this coach was not rehired.
In the 2011 season the team beat the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs before losing to San Antonio in the second round. This season the Clippers led the Grizzlies 2-0, building up great expectations. And then they were swept. This was the last image that Sterling held in his mind.
Losing dramatically to a team that they had beaten the year before in the playoffs could be viewed as a step back. Did Del Negro fail to adjust to the different approach that the Grizzlies took in the final four games? Did the injury to Blake Griffin which deprived the team of a critical weapon and the underperformance of the players play the larger role?
It became clear in Sterling's remarks this week about the decision that "the players" input was critical in the decision. There were inferences that Blake Griffin and Chris Paul told the owner that they liked Del Negro personally but had doubts whether he was the right person to take them to the next step. Paul is a free agent, his presence has much to do with the performance the last two years, and the team desperately needs to resign him. So as political as Paul is, and as much as he resisted being perceived as a "heavy" in the situation, Sterling was pretty clear that he made the call.
The situation evokes that of fired UCLA Coach Ben Howland, who led the Bruins to their best season in years and was fired after being blown out in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The question rises -- does demonstrable season-long achievement get discounted in judging the performance of a coach whose team suffers post-season losses. What have you done for me lately?
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @SteinbergSports.