The Los Angeles Clippers started the 2012-13 season on fire, prompting analysts and NBA talking heads instantly proclaiming them as the best team in the Western Conference. What a difference a week can make.
After winning eight of their first ten games, the Clippers have now dropped their last four and now hold just a one-game lead over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Pacific Division. Granted, three of the four losses were on the road and to potential playoff teams in the Oklahoma City Thunder, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks, but the Clippers Monday night loss to the rebuilding New Orleans Hornets demonstrated some of the faults that will ultimately lead to the Clippers’ demise this season.
First things first; Vinny Del Negro is by no means a championship caliber head coach. The Clippers roster is littered with talented players, from Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the starting five to their seemingly endless bench of quality veterans (Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe and Lamar Odom’s likeness). It takes a special type of coach to manage this must talent, and Del Negro has struggled with rotations and substitution patterns early on.
An example of this came Monday night when Caron Butler was on absolute fire from three-point range in the third quarter, draining six of his nine threes for 18 points. Instead of pulling Butler out a little early to rest him for the fourth quarter, Del Negro attempted to ride Butler’s hot shooting to bring the Clippers back in the third. Butler wound up missing three of his final four shots of the quarter and making just two baskets the rest of the game, with fatigue most likely playing a role in the process.
Things were clicking for the Clippers in the first ten games, with the starters getting them going and leaning on Crawford working his one-man show to close out games while scoring 20+ points six times in the first ten games. But in the last four, Crawford is only averaging 13.8 ppg on .375 from the field and has even found himself on the pine in favor of Eric Bledsoe in key late game situations.
While Crawford may not be hitting his shots as accurately as in the first ten games, he is still the Clippers’ second-best player behind CP3 at creating his own shot. Bledsoe may have a ton of potential as a young point guard, but NBA teams need players that can get buckets late in games. Del Negro has yet to fully adapt this mentality into his coaching strategy.
Del Negro has also dropped the ball by continuing to play an out of shape Lamar Odom over Rony Turiaf or Ryan Hollins. Odom is not and probably will never be the same player he was before the Lakers shipped him to the Dallas Mavericks. This isn’t the pre-season; Del Negro needs to sit Odom until his conditioning is up to par, instead of playing him in games that count.
Add to it that Del Negro is having these rotation issues without Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill, who are both scheduled to return in about a month or so.
Previously I wrote that the Clippers may have more depth than needed to be successful. Early on, the Clippers have been equally solid defensively and offensively, but there has been key stretches in each of their four straight losses where Del Negro’s inexperience managing a deep team have cost them the game. Del Negro needs to shorten his rotations and sit some of his players for the better of the team.
For the Clippers to truly become one of the NBA’s elite teams, Vinny Del Negro will eventually need to be replaced by a more experienced head coach following the 2012-13 season.