Former Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro wasn't exactly viewed as the next coming of Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson when he was in Chicago. The current Clippers head coach isn't regarded as one of the league's best on the sidelines now, but a year after advancing to the second round of the playoffs, his team has even more expectations and thus far, is living up to them by leading the Pacific Division and for the time being, holding the crown of best team in Los Angeles over the turmoil-ridden Lakers.
"Just the experience of doing it. When I started here, I had never coached before. Thrown into a great franchise with great history in a great sports town, you jump in and you go for it. I learned a lot, very fortunate, very grateful to Jerry for the opportunity, but I think you get better every year. You're always looking to get better individually and make your team better, but there's a lot of decisions you have to make. Quick decisions, whether it's practice, games, game decisions, there's just a lot of stuff.
"I have to continually grow as a coach. I'm coaching here and that's what you have to have the mindset to do. I've picked the brains of a lot of veteran coaches, but you also have to have your own philosophies, your own styles and what you believe in, and every year is different. Every team is different. The personnel you're given is different, but it's about putting your team in an area of strength and try to win games. We're doing a better job of that and I think my staff has done a very good job, but we've got a long way to go," Del Negro said before Tuesday's game.
"It gives you a chance to win. If you're developing, you're losing, usually. You've got to have a good mixture. I think what we have on the roster is a good balance. We have some younger guys that need developing, we have some guys in their prime and we have some veteran guys, so there's good balance in the locker room, which I think is important. But we have a mixture of some things. The versatility now, I think, is very important with our roster, as well. We can go small, we can go big, we can play fast, slow. We have some different variations, which obviously helps us as a unit to put us in an area of strength."
Del Negro's players believe that as the Clippers rise to prominence, the coach is also improving.
"I think he trusts us a lot more," All-Star point guard Chris Paul, in his second season with the Clippers and playing for Del Negro, said after the team's Tuesday morning shootaround at the United Center. "Obviously that builds with being with a team a little bit longer and now, he sees in our locker room how we have me, Caron Butler, Willie Green, Matt Barnes, 'Chaunce' [Chauncey Billups], Grant Hill and all that, so guys that know the game and have been around the league.
Fellow All-Star Blake Griffin, the current Western Conference player of the week, chimed in: "As our team has adapted, so has he. My first year here, we were one of the youngest teams in the league--I think we were the second youngest--so it was a lot of teaching, a lot of coaching for him and now, it's a lot more about managing time, managing players because you have so many veterans and guys that have so much experience."
Jamal Crawford, the former Bulls guard, in his first season with Clippers and being coached by Del Negro, concurred: "Unbelievable. I love it. It's the most fun I've had since I was in high school. He gives me a lot of freedom, he trusts me on the court. We have a great rapport. We talk about everything and he knows how to communicate with his players, and I love playing for him."
"We're not surprised because we felt like before the season, we had a chance to do something special and right now, it hasn't been all gravy," continued the early-season favorite for the league's Sixth Man of the Year award and leader of the Clippers' potent bench. "We've had some tough home losses that we thought we shouldn't have had and a tough road trip last time. But we bounced back from that, put another streak and hopefully we can continue keeping that going.
The high-flying Clippers handed the Bulls arguably their worst loss of the young season--not the most gut-wrenching; those were narrow home defeats to Central Division rivals Milwaukee and Indiana--on the November "Circus Trip" by getting out in transition and breaking out their "Lob City" routine. They plan to do much of the same in order to pull off a season sweep Tuesday night at the United Center.
"We can't let their defense get set. I think that's what makes us so dangerous, is that we're explosive in transition. We've been at home, not so much at home, so we can't let them get set," Paul explained. "I love their defense. Everybody plays with a defensive intensity and that's why they're so good."
Crawford added: "To get as many easy baskets as possible. The Bulls are tough, they're really tough. They play tough defense, they grind it out. No game is ever over. They're a blue-collar team and they play hard every single possession, and I think that comes from Coach Thibs. He does a great job with those guys and they all believe, and buy into what he's telling them."
Crawford, a childhood buddy of Bulls backup point guard Nate Robinson--the Seattle natives also played together at Rainier Beach High School, as well as with the Knicks--also discussed his longtime friend's development as a player. While Bulls fans may occasionally agonize over Robinson's shot selection, Crawford says he's actually improved a lot in that area and is conscious of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau's disciplinary influence.
"Not with Coach Thibs; he doesn't play that. No, he's definitely improved in that area. As a [high school] freshman, he'd shoot a left-handed three in the game, so he's definitely improved, that's for sure," he said. "It's amazing to think, playing high school together, then playing four years together. It's unheard of. I think the bond will always be there, because of that alone.
"I think he's fit in well [with the Bulls," Crawford added. "With Nate, no matter where he's at, his personality's going to rub off on the team and they're all going to fall in love with him. To know Nate is to love him. If you just look at him from afar, you're like, 'Oh, this kid. What is he doing out there?' But his teammates run through a wall for him, they love him and everywhere he goes, it's the same way. It's contagious and he plays hard. He loves to play basketball. Every time he's on the court, it's a joy for him, so I'm happy for him."
Paul was a teammate of Bulls shooting guard Marco Belinelli and has kept in touch with the Italian sharpshooter. He made note of Belinelli's recent success.
"'Belli's' been hooping and I'm happy to see that because he's a real good friend of mine, but hopefully not tonight," he said. "He's one of the best shooters you'll ever see and the thing is, Belli can shoot off the move, he can shoot standstill and stuff like that, so I think a lot of the time, it's confidence and rhythm with him. But earlier in the season, I think a lot of the shots he normally makes, he missed, so I'm not surprised to see him playing well.
"I talk to Belli all the time, but this situation was actually better for Belli here. Belli's a great guy, somebody I loved playing with for that year in New Orleans.
Griffin, who sat out his entire "true" rookie season with a severe knee injury, talked about his own recovery process and expressed his confidence in injured Bulls superstar Derrick Rose returning to form.
Said Griffin, whose only NBA coach has been Del Negro: "The monotony of it [is the hardest part of recovery]. You're doing the exact same thing, the exact same exercises, day in and out, and top of that, to have to sit and watch basketball games that you're supposed to be playing in. It's tough, but if you really put in the work and you really do the things that they ask you every single day, you'll come back 100 percent and I have no doubt that D-Rose will."
One of Del Negro's former Bulls players, Kirk Hinrich, will suit up Tuesday after suffering a left-elbow injury during the first half of Saturday's home win over the Knicks, a game he didn't participate in after halftime. Hinrich practiced Monday and said then that he'd play against the Clippers, something Thibodeau lauded him for before Tuesday's contest.
"It says a lot about his toughness, I think. Kirk's one of those guys, I don't measure him statistically," Thibodeau said of Hinrich one of five current Bulls--Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and the sidelined Rose are the others--to also play for Del Negro. "I measure him by how he's running the team, how he's leading our defense and he's played well all season long."
Tags: Blake Griffin
, Tom Thibodeau
, Chris Paul
, Los Angeles Clippers
, Chicago Bulls
, Vinny Del Negro