LOS ANGELES -- After just five games into the season it looked as though a coaching change had already come to the Clippers.
Chauncey Billups was in player/coach mode, manning the perimeter at the Clippers' practice facility and teaching for long stretches as if he were the one who was expected to take the team to new heights. Chris Paul looked like the lead assistant, helping to implement the latest wrinkle to a system that changed drastically because of his recent arrival. The actual head coach, meanwhile, was standing silently and nodding, yielding to the players who have nine All-Star appearances between them and perhaps even learning a thing or two along the way.
If Vinny Del Negro does one thing right with his blessing-and-a-curse challenge, it will be to listen to the ones who can help his cause. Suddenly, and willingly, he is on the best kind of hot seat, having been given the sort of talent that makes his job both easier and harder in the final guaranteed season of his contract. And with expectations on the rise and the question of whether the Clippers will eventually opt for a big-name coach to go with their big-time talent, the former Chicago coach who is known more for his charisma than his coaching is well aware that this is no time to pretend he has all the answers.
"Vinny's greatest skill is as a communicator," Clippers GM Neil Olshey said. "He delegates a lot to his assistants. He doesn't want to burn guys out on hearing his voice. He wants feedback from guys.
"I think Vinny realizes that he's a young coach in the league, and if there are guys who know what works for them, and it can accelerate his learning process with how best to utilize their abilities, then why wouldn't he be open to that kind of dialogue?"
Especially when he could gain a few allies in the process.
If Del Negro is to survive the season and perhaps even return, it will be because his personable and open ways became part of a winning Clippers fabric that changed the L.A. landscape like never before. He's a players' coach, as they say, an easygoing personality most of the time whose teams are notorious for getting better in the second half of a season, in part, because he doesn't grind on them like so many coaches do. That was the case in Chicago -- where his Bulls teams lost in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs twice after back-to-back 41-41 regular seasons before he was fired in May 2010 -- as well as with the 2010-11 Clippers that were 27-29 after a 5-21 start.
Del Negro might have played for Gregg Popovich, but he is no "Pop" or Phil Jackson or even Mike Brown. Del Negro has three seasons of head-coaching experience, plus a two-year stay in Phoenix's front office and previous time on the mic as a Suns radio analyst. He isn't Mark Jackson, the ABC analyst-turned-Golden State coach who had no prior coaching experience but was widely regarded as a natural leader during his long and successful playing career. Del Negro was a high-level role player during his 12-year playing career, using his skill-set to complement the likes of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. And he has every intention of repeating that approach with his star-studded Clippers team.
Nine players are gone from the team that won just 32 games last season after a 29-win campaign under Mike Dunleavy and Kim Hughes in 2009-10. There are seven new Clippers, with Paul heading the group but Billups, Caron Butler, and Reggie Evans playing major parts, as well and the re-signing of restricted free agent center DeAndre Jordan (five years, $43 million) also key. Del Negro's All-Star count has soared to five (Paul, Billups, Blake Griffin, Butler and Mo Williams), with Griffin the only one lacking playoff experience. The other four have taken part in a combined 42 postseason series (Billups accounts for an astounding 27).
The ears-wide-open approach to coaching never seemed more appropriate.
"[The new players] do have experience, and I want them to feel as comfortable as possible out there," Del Negro said. "What we're doing, how we're going about it, it's not like we're changing a lot or reinventing the wheel, per se. It's just that we've got to make sure they're comfortable."
The early returns have been positive for the revamped Clippers. Three days after upending the Heat, 95-89, in overtime they won their first turf war against the Lakers, 102-94. The Clippers are currently 7-4 after going 1-10 through their first 11 games last season.
But Del Negro's finest work may have come before the first tipoff. After signing Butler to a three-year, $24 million deal, the Clippers picked up Billups via amnesty, traded for Paul and signed Evans six days later -- all in a span of 13 days.
"He's a great recruiter," said Butler, who was wooed by Del Negro and Olshey during a late-night dinner in L.A. before he signed. "I felt real comfortable with him, talking to him and having dinner with him. ... I got a good vibe off of him.
"He said, 'We want to win. We want to win now.' I knew what was out there as far as the possibility of re-signing DeAndre, having Blake there and the possibility of getting Dwight Howard or Chris Paul. I was like, 'This is a great situation.'"
Billups, who was admittedly upset by New York's decision to use its amnesty clause on him as a means to sign center Tyson Chandler, said Del Negro had talked him off the ledge after Billups had warned teams not to pick him up off waivers.
"He was just talking to me about the process, the way that he coaches and what he believes in -- just the whole experience around here," Billups said. "Talking and listening to him played a big part in me saying, 'All right, let's do it.'"
Most importantly, of course, Del Negro managed to connect with Paul in his trademark way during a two-hour phone interview that included Olshey and Paul's agent, Leon Rose, and was a prerequisite to the trade. With both sides looking to learn more about each other's intentions and a possible pairing for years to come, Paul was convinced he could be happy playing for Del Negro and agreed to pick up his 2012-13 player option as a sign of his long-term interest.
"Vinny just seemed cool because he was open to anything and everything," said Paul. "There's a lot of coaches who say, 'It's going to be this way.' But as we talked, it was 'Well how do you like this? We like to do this.'"
Only time will tell if Del Negro's approach fits this group for the long haul, but his style is clearly geared toward keeping his players smiling and sane.
"So many young guys come into the league that sometimes you have to almost -- like coaches will say -- 'over-fun' it rather than 'over-coach' it," Del Negro said. "As you go through the process, you have to understand your audience, manage your personalities, and depending on who it is, give them one or two or three things to work on ... so they can develop and improve.
"That just depends on knowing who you're dealing with and how much they can understand and how much they get a feel for what you're trying to teach them. At the end of the day, you're a teacher."
The teaching has been even harder this season. A new system had to be put in place in a matter of days to fit the Clippers' new pieces, while the lockout-shortened 66-game campaign loomed. And while the Clippers' schedule has been more favorable than most (10 non-game days in the first 16 days of the regular season), there was no shortage of work to be done.
"We spent six months putting together a package for a specific team, and then in the last few weeks we've had to revamp it because our personnel has changed," Del Negro said. "So trying to get everybody on the same page as quick as possible is tough."
Everybody certainly wasn't on the same page during his days in Chicago. Del Negro's stay was stained by the ugly incident on March 30, 2010, in which Bulls executive vice president John Paxson reportedly shoved the coach in his office and challenged him to a fight over a disagreement about the minutes given to ailing center Joakim Noah in a loss to Phoenix. Del Negro would speak only generically about those times, but said he became a better coach as a result of them.
"I love my experience there in a lot of ways, seeing the players develop, being able to free up a lot of opportunity for them to improve the organization, making the playoffs twice," Del Negro said. "Learning, getting better, having to deal with certain things that were unfortunate to have to deal with as a coach, but you learn from them and you move on and hopefully get more experience and work through things with a new organization that's been supportive of what I'm doing."
Not that Donald Sterling or his re-energized Clippers Nation will be patient in the new era. Thus, the downside of roster upgrades for any coach: Expectations go up, too.
"Vinny's job got easier and harder at the same time," Olshey said. "It got easier because he has guys who are on a whole different level. I mean he has a Hall-of-Fame backcourt now. Last year he was playing five guys with college eligibility. It got harder because of the expectation level.
"It's kind of baptism by fire. But I think if you asked Vinny, he would embrace it. ... Vinny wanted this as much or more than I did."
Barring a disastrous regular season and unthinkable absence from the playoffs, Del Negro's future will likely be decided after the postseason. Olshey said the goal now is to not only make the playoffs but "to be a factor in the playoffs" and then "wherever the chips fall, you never know."
Olshey also hinted at more roster moves to come before the March 15 trade deadline. "We want to be peaking toward the end of the year," he said, "and it's my job to look for moves as we get closer to solidify a couple of the holes we have that were created by the trade."
Del Negro will be all ears until then, taking any and all advice from his new group and looking to finish strong like his teams often do.
"I'm pleased with the direction we're going," Del Negro said. "Are we where we need to be? Of course not. We're always looking to improve, and this is just the first step of a long process, or a consistent process, to make us consistently in the picture.
"That's the goal, and then we'll see how it all comes out at the end of the year and then we'll make our adjustments from there."
What he's hoping to hear above all else, of course, is that he'll be part of that picture.