Part 7 in a series on head coaching candidates for the Denver Nuggets. Today we look at Vinny Del Negro, a coach with some experience and a reputation.
Vinny Del Negro played for the legendary coach Jim Valvano at North Carolina State in the mid 1980’s. He played two seasons for the Sacramento Kings before going overseas to play for Benetton Treviso in the Italian league. He won a championship for Benetton in 1992 while scoring over 25 points per game. After two seasons in Italy he returned to the NBA, this time joining the San Antonio Spurs where he spent six seasons between 1992-98. He bounced around the league for a few years after that before retiring in 2001.
After retirement, Del Negro worked in media before joining the Phoenix Suns front office in 2006 as director of player personnel and was later promoted to assistant general manager. In 2008, he was given his first shot at coaching when he was hired by the Chicago Bulls to be their head coach. In both seasons with the Bulls, Del Negro led the team to a 41-41 record and trips to the NBA playoffs. In his first season as coach, the Bulls took the Boston Celtics to seven exciting games in one of the great, under rated playoff series of the last half decade. The following season the Bulls fell to the Miami Heat in five games. Del Negro was fired shortly after the season ended.
Del Negro wasn’t unemployed for long. In July of 2010, the Los Angeles Clippers came calling and offered him a chance to coach another young team with promising talent. Del Negro coached the team to 32 wins behind rookie of the year, Blake Griffin. The team added Chris Paul the following offseason and Lob City was born. The team won 40 games and advanced to the second round of the playoffs for just the 2nd time since the franchise moved to Los Angeles.
The following season, the Clippers set a franchise record with 56 wins, including a 17-game winning streak en route to their first ever Pacific division title. Perhaps equally as importantly, the Clippers swept their season series with the Los Angeles Lakers, the first time they had done so since moving to L.A. The victory parade was cut short, however, when the Clippers lost four straight games in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies after holding a 2-0 series lead. Del Negro’s contract was not renewed.
Del Negro’s team’s always played hard. He was known as something of a motivator, perhaps a trait he learned from his former coach and one of the best motivators of all time, Jim Valvano. He’s earned a reputation as a player developer. Both Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin won rookie of the year awards playing for Del Negro.
He isn’t known as an X’s and O’s coach and received heavy criticism from media and fans alike for his perceived ineptitude in game planning in playoff series. The 2013 series with the Grizzlies was especially damning as the Grizzlies seemed to figure the Clippers game plan out, running away with the series in four straight, relatively sizable victories.
Del Negro put a lot of trust and responsibility in his point guards, allowing them to call plays and direct the pace and flow of the game, perhaps to a fault. His playbook is also fairly small. In 2012, the Clippers led the league in isolation possessions. Despite maintaining the leagues 4th ranked ORtg, the team often looked stale and predictable, relying heavily on Paul to coordinate and create shots. The Clippers defense was also curiously average in 2012 and 2013 despite having strong individual defensive talent at all positions.
Del Negro also tends to play certain players heavy minutes. Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe were all in the top 15 in minutes per game under Del Negro Likewise, Luol Deng was among the league leaders when he was coached by Del Negro (although he went on to play even MORE minutes per game under Tom Thibodeau). Del Negro’s tendency to play his players heavy minutes, even when they weren’t fully recovered from injury, was a cause of conflict in Chicago. General manager John Paxon got into a physical altercation with Del Negro including choking and punching the coach after he played Noah more minutes than the team physician had prescribed.
Despite an impressive overall record as a head coach (.533 win percentage), Del Negro is widely regarded as one of the league’s worst head coaches. His success in Chicago was dwarfed by the success that Thibodeau had with the same roster the year after Del Negro was released. His success in Los Angeles is equally dwarfed by both the success that Rivers has had with the team and with the disappointing playoff performances that the team suffered under his leadership.
Del Negro became a punch line among basketball twitter in 2012 when the team repeatedly ran out of timeouts at the end of games, repeatedly made the same mistakes on defensive coverages in close games, and repeatedly looked lost on offense when a team took away their first option. His trouble managing timeouts is sort of his calling card, dating back to his days in Chicago. While most rookie or inexperienced coaches show a steep learning curve on those things, Del Negro never seemed to improve at all as a game manager or game strategist. Chris Paul reportedly insisted on Del Negro’s ouster before he’d resign with the organization in 2012, although Paul furiously denied such reports.
I’d feel somewhat comfortable saying that Del Negro just isn’t that sharp of a basketball mind compared to most of the other coaching candidates. His strength as a coach comes from player development and keeping a locker room together, both of which are probably over stated since Rose, Noah, and Griffin were likely to develop regardless of who they had coaching them. And while he is known as a fairly positive guy, he still had a habit of complaining to the media about player performances.
Simply put, I think Del Negro coaching the Nuggets would be a disaster. You’d be hard pressed to find many people around the league that have faith in Del Negro to lead a team to an NBA championship. He’s basically a filler coach, the guy who you hire to have "a name" on the bench while the team is searching for direction. That is what he was with the Bulls and that is what he was with the Clippers. In both cases, the team had as much talent or more than the current Nuggets roster.
Hiring Del Negro would seem to show a lack of creativity and willingness to take a risk by the Nuggets front office. Truth be told, I’ve only included him in this series because I see his name appear in rumors as a possible candidate. The Nuggets don’t yet have an identity, but with Del Negro, their identity would be solidified: a team too feckless to take a swing on a promising young coach and a team too cheap to pay for a more proven coach.
Ultimately, I think Del Negro is among the worst candidates available.