If we use playoff appearances as a measuring stick, Vinny Del Negro has been a successful coach. His steady hand brought some legitimacy back to the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers organizations after both spent a near decade desperately trying to shed a losing culture. Both the Bulls and Clippers watched Del Negro harness the mind-bending athleticism of their teams' most recent No. 1 overall picks -- Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin -- and turn it into elite production, as both blossomed into All-Stars by the age of 21.
However, despite some decent player development and two consecutive postseason trips, Del Negro simply couldn't assemble a championship-caliber defense for either team. Consequently, he was let go.
Tom Thibodeau took the Bulls' head coaching reins from Del Negro after 2009-10 and proceeded to win a league-high 62 games the very next season, thanks to a top-ranked defense. In Los Angeles this season, the same could happen to the Clippers.
Indeed, things seem to have come full circle. Del Negro left a pair of underwhelming playoff appearances as his Clipperland legacy, with Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan in tow. In Del Negro's place comes Doc Rivers, who will bring along the same Thibodeau-constructed D that catapulted the Bulls from a playoff team into legitimate championship contenders.
To me, this is dj vu all over again, and it's why I'm picking the Clippers to reach the Finals this season from a murderer's row of contenders in the Western Conference. Why? The Clippers have found the final missing piece to an already stacked team -- a formidable defensive blueprint. It's the same one that helped turn the Boston Celtics into champions while Thibodeau served as Rivers' defensive guru in 2007-08.
There are other reasons to be bullish on the Clippers this season. They ramped up their offense in the offseason, adding sweet-shooting J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to a precocious squad that ranked fourth in offensive efficiency last season. With Paul and Griffin's talents meshed, the Clippers were almost impossible to guard then, and they'll only be more so this season with loads of new real estate to work with as Redick and Dudley space the floor.
But it's the defense that remains the biggest question mark for the Clippers. Under Del Negro, the Clippers ranked ninth in defensive efficiency last season, deterring opponents just enough to land the fourth seed in the West. But that ranking is a bit misleading.
If the Clippers were indeed tuning Del Negro out as the season progressed, it showed in the numbers. After a strong start, they ranked 17th in defensive efficiency after the All-Star break last season. Yes, below average. It became a complete liability in the playoffs when the offensively challenged Memphis Grizzlies undressed the Clippers in the first round, scoring 109.7 points per 100 possessions en route to a six-game defeat. How did the Grizzlies score after that? They put up just 96.1 points per 100 possessions against the defenses of the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
In other words, the Clippers allowed the Grizzlies to score at a Miami Heat level. Whatever good habits Del Negro instilled in the beginning of the season, it vanished by season's end and teams exposed the team's lack of a cohesive defensive system. Rivers' system, though, should take care of that.
L.A. needs Jordan and Griffin to improve their defense under Rivers.
However, it's worth considering whether the Clippers' ills were schematic or a product of personnel. Though they employed four-time All-Defensive Team member in Chris Paul, for most of the season opponents ripped through the Clippers' athletic frontline of Griffin and Jordan. When the two played together, opponents scored 104.2 points per 100 possessions last season, an output that would rank in the bottom 10 in the league. Only when the Clippers went to the second unit did they start suffocating opponents with an attack led by guard Eric Bledsoe, whom they traded to Phoenix in the offseason for the aforementioned Redick and Dudley.
Can Thibodeau's signature strong-side defense rescue Griffin and Jordan? Look at what a highly choreographed system did for Chris Bosh. Before the Heat's demanding principles on that end of the floor were hard wired into Bosh's conscience, he was known as a defenseless big man who cared only about getting buckets. Sound familiar? With some expert instruction, Bosh is now the anchor of one of the most formidable defenses in the league, despite him often being the only Heat player taller than 6-foot-8 on the floor.
We learn time and time again in this league that defensive anchors aren't born; they're taught. It's also worth pointing out that Joakim Noah never received defensive player of the year love until Thibodeau entered the picture. Now Noah's considered one of the game's best. The Clippers hope Griffin and Jordan can share a similar experience as Noah and Bosh, if not as drastic. Though the Bulls became the best defensive team once Del Negro left down, a top-five finish on that end for Rivers should suffice for championship contention.
Even without Rivers' management and Thibodeau's defensive blueprint, the Clippers already owned the third-best point differential in the league last season. What happens if they learn how to play championship-brand basketball?