The relationship between players and coaches is a unique one. While an owner or general manager pays big bucks to an older, and theoretically more mature, person to strategize, mold, and guide a team to wins, they invest far more money in the athletes. As we’ve heard a million times, it’s the Jimmy and Joe’s not the X’s and O’s that win titles. That’s why when stars make known their desire for a change in direction, frequently management obliges. Magic Johnson helped end Paul Westhead’s time in LA, while Michael Jordan famously opened the door Doug Collins got kicked out of. This past off-season Chris Paul was a free agent. He re-signed with the Clippers and shortly after Vinny Del Negro was dismissed. Was it the right decision?
Del Negro took over in LA with the team coming off of four straight losing seasons. In his first year, the Clippers improved slightly. Year two brought the team’s best winning percentage ever and a trip to the second round of the playoffs. While Los Angeles did not get out of their first post-season series last spring, 56 wins were nine more than any other season in Clippers history, and they hoisted their first ever division championship banner. Regardless of the historic success, Del Negro was given the heave-ho, and Paul inked a five year contract worth $107 million.
The Clippers are off to a good start this year and are firmly entrenched among the top tier squads in the league. They have not yet faced Western Conference powers Portland and San Antonio, but are 1-1 against Oklahoma City and 2-0 against Houston. Their winning percentage is just a shade off of last year’s record pace.
As for Paul, he has upped his scoring average from 16.9 points a game under Del Negro, to 18.9 points a contest for new coach Doc Rivers. His 11.9 assists per game are a career high and he is the lead the league in that category by a large margin. However, he is shooting more, and at the worst percentage since his second year in the league. His 30-percent rate from three-point range is in stark contrast to his career high of over 40-percent, and has even dropped off from a sub-par 33-percent last season.
In part because of Paul’s shooting, LA ranks 26th in the NBA in three-point percentage. But, they are among the top 10 in scoring and field goal offense. How can they shoot three pointers poorly, not rebound particularly well, not be a great defensive side, yet still score and win a lot of games? The Clippers are second in the league in assist to turnover ratio. While good teams like Golden State, Indiana, and Oklahoma City tally about 1.3 assists per turnover, the Clippers are at nearly a 1.7 margin. That means passes are leading to baskets much more frequently than giveaways which often results in fast break points for the other team. Additionally, LA has cut way back on their league leading 101 technical fouls from last season.
Of course, Paul is not leading the Clippers alone. Blake Griffin has bounced back from a down year and is producing his normal 20 points and 10 rebounds every night. Jamal Crawford continues to be solid giving LA the same veteran presence and scoring that he did last season, and the addition of J.J. Redick has been significant. Like Craig Hodges, John Paxson, and Steve Kerr did for Jordan’s Bulls, and Byron Scott provided for Magic’s Lakers, Redick is a pure shooter who thrives with Paul getting all of the attention. In his first year with LA, he is averaging a career high 15.8 points a game while shooting a personal best 46-percent from the floor. Big man DeAndre Jordan is also having a career year scoring nearly 10 points a contest while ranking among the best rebounders in the league.
If the Clippers win a title or two over the next handful of years, Del Negro will become an anecdote to history. However, whether Paul and his teammates reach the promise land or not, like Westhead at Loyola Marymount or Collins with the Pistons, there is probably a team that benefit if Del Negro was given another chance.