Despite players' support, Del Negro not in the clear just yet
Vinny Del Negro's standing with the Clippers is better after four straight wins
The team's streaky performance has been due in part to a string of injuries
Randy Foye, Blake Griffin, Reggie Evans all expressed support for Del Negro
LOS ANGELES -- Move along, NBA coaching vultures. Nothing to see here -- for now, anyway.
All is well for the Clippers and the embattled Vinny Del Negro again, what with their 98-97 win over the Trail Blazers on Friday night that made it four straight. This came, of course, after their three-game losing streak a week before that put Del Negro back on the hot seat.
The man who will ultimately decide Del Negro's fate, Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling, enjoyed himself so much that he stayed seated courtside in the minutes that followed the latest Staples Center celebration. He was the life of the party again, with friends and associates flocking his way to offer congrats and good cheer as he wore a permanent grin.
It was a huge game in that regard, the momentum continuing that could ensure Del Negro survives the season. Meanwhile, the players who had reportedly given up on him continued to come to his defense.
"Everyone was on coach, saying that he lost the team, saying that guys are not responding to him," said Randy Foye, who had 20 points and hit a three-pointer with 47 seconds left to put the Clippers up 96-95. "None of that was true at all. We just stuck with it. We stayed behind coach. We understood that we had three in three days against a tough playoff team in Indiana, and then Oklahoma City, the No. 1 team. And then it was emotional when Chris [Paul] went back [to New Orleans, in a loss]. We understood that, but everybody else didn't. I think the main thing is just to stay together. Whenever you hit a little bit of adversity, stay together."
And, as forward Blake Griffin said, to enjoy the game again.
"To me, it's just about having fun," Griffin told SI.com after Friday's win. "And the last several games, that's how it's been and I just want to keep it that way.
"It's never as bad as it's portrayed [in the media]. Well, in most cases I've been in it hasn't been as bad. People that aren't inside the program talking makes it worse, because they're just speculating. We knew that road trip was going to be tough. It's not one of those things where we felt like the world was falling apart and we've got to do this or do that. We just had to go out and get wins, and we did. I like how we responded."
Forward Reggie Evans bristled when the topic of his coach's fate was raised on Wednesday.
"Did you honestly think we were going to keep on losing like that?" he asked. "Let's be real. It's the NBA. You're going to go through your ups and downs. You've got a team that had no training camp together, we're still adding on players, and you're still trying to make all this stuff work. You're going to go through ups and downs.
"So to try to make it like, 'Vinny this, Vinny that.' We ain't beefing with Vinny, man. You know what I'm saying? We're trying to find ourselves."
Yet, as was reported by ESPN.com on March 23, sources with knowledge of the situation say Del Negro was in danger of being fired. And despite the public assurances from Sterling and general manager Neil Olshey in the Los Angeles Times on Monday that a move wasn't coming, Del Negro -- who is in the final year of his contract -- isn't in the clear just yet.
Only Sterling knows exactly how he sees the situation, but the reality here is that there's not many ways to fix a broken team this time of year beyond changing the coach. That's why the Del Negro spotlight is suddenly so much brighter, with the trade deadline in the past and the endless roster changes complete at this late juncture.
The Clippers held on to big man DeAndre Jordan in free agency last summer, then picked up (and later lost to injury) veteran point guard Chauncey Billups, bruisers Kenyon Martin and Evans, as well as Bobby Simmons.
Above all else, trading for Paul meant expectations soared and that any performance that falls short isn't likely to be tolerated -- even with the team's rash of injuries. And should the dissatisfaction from on high return, chances are we'll be revisiting Del Negro's status soon enough.
Sources say that the affable coach has helped himself by keeping his ears open to anything that could help the team and save his hide. He has been asked to push his team's pace -- a challenging proposition with Paul playing lead but mandated nonetheless. A priority has been placed on defensive aggression, as well. And above all, Del Negro has been told that ownership supports a style in which he is free to coach the stars and role players alike, with the same level of scrutiny.
But as Del Negro accurately noted, the season-ending loss of Billups in early February (torn Achilles) and the recent absence of reserve guard Mo Williams (sprained toe, suffered on March 22 and out at least two weeks) means he's making this playoff push with a team that simply isn't the same as before.
"People tend to forget that we lost our starting two guard, our sixth man, but the guys are still battling, other guys are stepping up, so that's a good thing," Del Negro said at his team's shootaround on Friday. "It's not always going to be perfect. We've had our stretches where we've struggled, and we've had our stretches where we've played pretty good basketball, so we're just trying to improve as a group, stay together, and try to handle this homestand the right way."
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