Del Negro, Paul's futures among pressing issues facing Clippers
For the second straight year, coach Vinny Del Negro is on an expiring contract
The question of whether Chris Paul is happy as a Clipper is expected to loom large
Lamar Odom's mind is right again, but he needs to slim down before the season
PLAYA VISTA, Calif. -- In any other summer, adding Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes to a team stacked with stars would have been enough for the Clippers to capture the local NBA attention.
But alas, the Lakers acquired two more future Hall of Famers and we all but forgot about the impressive foundation built by Los Angeles' other team last season when it finished in a virtual tie with its crosstown foes (the Lakers were 41-25 to the Clippers' 40-26, and both teams were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs). Nonetheless, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin & Co. are much improved on paper and among the Western Conference elite.
I stopped into Clippers camp this week to get answers to the team's most pressing questions.
How worried, if at all, is Vinny Del Negro? Del Negro has a way with facial expressions. The third-year Clippers coach has been around long enough to know how words have a tendency to haunt, so he's perfected a fascinating art of saying far more with his face than he does with his voice. An eye roll here, a subtle smirk there, and the messages being sent through body language can be far more telling than the politically correct words being spoken.
With that in mind, I left camp on Thursday having drawn two instinctual conclusions about the the league's most-scrutinized coach: His seat isn't nearly as warm as it was widely assumed to be, and he's not losing sleep worrying about whether Paul will re-sign as a free agent next summer. Of course, the current vibe could change if there's no follow-through on the Clippers' master plan, but it's safe to say there was no palpable panic on any of the most relevant fronts.
On the topic of his contract, Del Negro -- who had his team option for this season exercised in late May and is now on an expiring deal for the second straight year -- indicated that he feels strong support from owner Donald Sterling based on recent conversations.
"I don't talk about things that myself and Mr. Sterling talk about, and we've had discussions on things, but obviously I know what's going on [with his status] and the conversations we're having," Del Negro told SI.com. "So I don't really worry about it. I go about my work and do what I can to make sure this team is successful and this organization is as successful as possible and put us in a scenario to be able to improve. I feel we've done that."
Asked if he had discussed a new deal with Sterling recently, Del Negro said, "Me and Mr. Sterling talk all the time, but like I said I'll leave that between him and myself. There's no timetable on anything. My focus is, I'm going to go upstairs, I'm going to watch practice, I'm going to prepare for tomorrow with the coaches and keep focusing on the ultimate goal, and that's to be ready opening night."
The bottom line is that these Clippers need to have the look of a championship contender seven months from now to ensure that their star point guard stays. Del Negro's future, in turn, is inevitably tied to Paul's. But as moods go in early October, Del Negro couldn't have come off any more optimistic about both his and his team's situations.
It's quite the contrast from the end of last season, when the sweetness of a seven-game, first-round series victory against Memphis was quickly followed by a painful sweep by San Antonio. Del Negro, whose Clippers had the highest winning percentage in franchise history (.606) while reaching the second round for only the second time in 31 years under Sterling's ownership, faced a flurry of questions about his future when it was all over. He looked embattled, besieged, and nothing like the fresh face that's sending off far more positive signals this time around. Pride for the recent past, and a sense of confidence about the future.
"That experience, for the core of guys we have here now, was invaluable," he said. "I was proud of the way the team stuck together at difficult times when a lot of things were thrown at us. The guys worked through it, and we came together at the right time of the season when we needed to, so now we had the playoff run and something we hadn't really done.
"I was proud of how we battled through the Memphis series considering Chris and Blake weren't physically right. But we stepped up and played as a team, won as a team. It was a big step for us, and I think that helped us have a very productive summer with our young guys and the group."
Is CP3 content? Try as Paul might to minimize the chatter about his free agency, the question of whether he's happy will loom large all season long.
The early answer, quite clearly, is yes.
And why wouldn't he be? He's relishing the underdog role of being a Clipper, recently telling GQ magazine that he preferred this over joining the Lakers as part of the league-vetoed trade last December in part because of the chance to be a trail blazer (not the Portland kind).
"Winning with the Clippers would be legendary," he told the magazine.
For now, a gold medal will have to do. Paul set a championship tone over the summer, doing his part in Team USA's gold-medal run in London. Thumb injury be darned, he battled through it in eight starts at the point and had the digit surgically repaired once the mission was complete in late August.
And last but nowhere remotely close to least, he's getting a say in the roster, too. Paul gave his thumbs-up on the Odom trade, then helped recruit Barnes and Willie Green (sign-and-trade with Atlanta in late July) and wasn't shy to share his opinions with vice president of basketball operations Gary Sacks and Del Negro throughout the summer.
"It meant a lot," Paul said of his ability to speak up about his potential teammates. "Gary and [the rest of the staff] were unbelievable."
Even Paul admits that the courting, which began when he arrived via trade from New Orleans last December, is going just swimmingly.
"First and foremost, I know my way around L.A. a little bit better now -- that was the toughest thing last year," Paul said. "I think the guys that we have here know what it's all about. We got guys with championship experience, a lot of playoff experience.
"But all the guys here understand that it's more than just basketball when you're trying to become a team. It's the off the court, the communication things, it's when this guy has a function and stuff like that."
Which Lamar Odom will we see? The good news about Odom and his alleged renaissance? His mind is right again.
The bad news? His body isn't.
Odom, who was cast off by Dallas last season after his horrendous showing and traded to the Clippers in late June, isn't looking as svelte as he did in those Lakers days he'll be trying to replicate. There's time to slim down, though, and every other facet of his versatile game seems to be intact.
"You know, he could probably be in a little bit better shape, and he knows that," Del Negro said. "But he hasn't missed a practice, a rep, or anything. He's such an experienced player, he's a skilled guy, so he knows where he needs to get his body to play at a high level for us.
"Lamar knows how to play, and when he's out there the ball moves, he knows where to be on defense, he talks very well, he has great experience. He gives us a completely different look offensively because of the way he can handle the ball and space the floor. I just think every day he gets a little bit better, and I know he wants to get back to playing at the level he's used to."
Considering Odom, 32, averaged career lows in scoring (6.6 points), field-goal percentage (35.2), and rebounding (4.2) in 50 games with the Mavericks, progress shouldn't be hard to come by. Being in his basketball home again means everything, too, as Odom never recovered from the culture shock of leaving the Lakers after seven seasons when Dallas traded for him last December.
It was a jarring move for Odom and his wife, Khloe Kardashian, both of whom were ingrained in L.A.'s celebrity culture by way of their reality television show and comfortable after what had been a trying few years. As Odom has discussed in depth before, the death of his seven-month-old son in 2006 coupled with the passing of his 24-year-old cousin and his witnessing of a fatal motorcyle accident in 2011 were heavy burdens to bear.
His disappearing act in Dallas was staggering, coming just one season after he averaged 14.4 points (career-high 53 percent shooting) and 8.6 rebounds as the Sixth Man Award winner. The fitness will likely come, but Odom insists he's mentally prepared for a comeback season.
"I've been through a lot," said Odom, who spent his first four seasons with the Clippers after being the fourth pick out of Rhode Island in 1999. "I've seen a lot. Sometimes how somebody is feeling or what they're going through off the court will affect them on the court. I'm healthy [now]. I'm happy and ready to go out and perform.
"I'm in a good place, so I come to work every day and put my hard hat on and do what I've gotta do to get better and help this team. I look forward to the season starting. This team has a lot of expectations, and winning is one of them."
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