CHICAGO – The Los Angeles Clippers in 2012-13 had the best season in their franchise history, including their times in Buffalo and San Diego.
They won a franchise-most 56 games, including 17 straight that was the best in the NBA in four years until the Heat won 27 in a row late in the season.
The Clippers won the Pacific Division for the first time since moving to the West Coast in 1978. But perhaps more significantly, they became the best team in Los Angeles for the first time ever with a 4-0 sweep over the neighboring Los Angeles Lakers, the first sweep of the Lakers since they were the Buffalo Braves in 1975.
Though the Clippers lost in the first round of the playoffs, it was in drawing the toughest opponent, the 56-win Memphis Grizzlies who then went on to upset the defending conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder.
Still, a pretty impressive season.
So, of course, the Clippers fired coach Vinny Del Negro.
Just the Clippers’ way, you would say, the franchise that had made dysfunction a middle name with decades of losing, embarrassment and poor management decisions.
But, no, it’s not owner Donald Sterling this time, the owner who paid fines to the U.S. Justice Department for discriminatory practices with his real estate properties and famously at games heckled some of his players, like Baron Davis for being out of shape. Of course, he was right that time.
And he may have been right this time in desiring to retain Del Negro.
But there is a greater power in the NBA, and these days for the Clippers, the player and one, in particular, Chris Paul.
Paul is regarded as one of the elite players in the NBA even as his resume doesn’t provide much evidence in the way of playoff success. Still, he was the force who helped turn around the Clippers and make them contenders.
Paul is an unrestricted free agent this summer, which means he can sign with any team. And there would be plenty of suitors even if he’s never played past the second round of the playoffs.
Still, he is a potential game changer and even with the dynamic Blake Griffin, Paul is regarded as the Clippers’ best player. Losing him would set back the franchise once again.
So as is reasonably common in the NBA these days, the Clippers deferred to Paul. And Paul wanted a notch in his belt for having gotten a coach.
Magic Johnson did it back in the early 1980s with Paul Westhead. Last season, Carmelo Anthony did it with Mike D’Antoni.
If not exactly becoming, it’s hardly unusual. Deron Williams already has done it twice, running out both Jerry Sloan in Utah and Avery Johnson this past season with the Nets.
True, the Clippers had their best season under Del Negro. But he isn’t recognized as a great coach.
This sort of thing is not unusual. It’s been called the A to B to C formula.
Doug Collins has long been regarded as one of the top NBA coaches. He is known as a turnaround expert, taking a poor team and making it competitive.
But then he generally is replaced because the notion is he cannot get you all the way. He gets you from step A to B. Then you need someone to get to step C.
That’s what Phil Jackson did when he replaced Collins with the Chicago Bulls in 1989.
Del Negro helped the Bulls make strides. Then he was replaced by Tom Thibodeau. Perhaps it is to be the same with the Clippers.
Though the dynamic is a bit different as Paul appears to be calling the shots.
Paul is said to want to stay in Los Angeles and with the Clippers. He really doesn’t want to be a free agent, is the view. But he wants a coach more attuned to him and his views of the game.
It’s perhaps not unreasonable as Paul is being regarded as the player to enable the Clippers to get to a title one day.
The curious part is the back story.
The rumor circulating in Los Angeles is that Paul wants a black former player as coach. There has been no comment or confirmation.
The top candidates are said to be Memphis coach Lionel Hollins, whose contract expires after this season; Byron Scott, recently replaced as Cavaliers coach by Mike Brown and Paul’s former coach in New Orleans; and former Suns coach Alvin Gentry, though he wasn’t a former player.
There is no indication given Paul’s history that race is a factor and that it likely may be more that Paul was close with Scott and wants the Clippers to hire someone with whom he is more comfortable.
Paul never openly clashed with Del Negro, but they never seemed to be close.
But as the Clippers seek to accommodate Paul to keep him from leaving, some wonder about the impact on their other star Griffin, and to a lesser extent on their starting center, DeAndre Jordan.
It’s not an easy team to coach, one NBA coach told me about the Clippers.
In part it’s the basketball makeup with Griffin and Jordan both poor free-throw shooters who are difficult to leave on the court at the close of games.
Paul is more a passing point guard, though he had to become the Clippers’ go-to scorer down the stretch of games because neither Griffin nor Jordan are isolation players who create off the dribble or good shooters. Both score best in transition with their athletic games, which is not something a team can count on in the playoffs with a more deliberate pace.
Plus, in the Clippers’ apparent desire to accommodate Paul, both Griffin and Jordan have been said to wonder why they are being yelled at so often while Paul is treated so kindly.
Additionally, Paul can be a tough teammate as he tends to be critical of teammates in a demanding way that Griffin and Jordan are said to have resented.
The seas just never seem to be smooth on the Clippers’ ship. And it looks like another storm is on the way.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”