The long, slow dance with Vinny Del Negro ended on Tuesday when the Clippers finally informed him he would not be returning as coach next season.
It was about as big a surprise as the primary reason behind it: Chris Paul didn't think Del Negro was the right coach to push the team toward championship contention.
Paul wasn't the only one in the locker room down on Del Negro, but his voice matters most. The moment we've all been waiting for since Paul clumsily landed with the "other" team that plays in Staples Center in December 2011 has almost arrived: his unrestricted free agency, which begins July 1.
No one I've spoken with who has any semblance of a connection to Paul believes he's leaving. It's true that the Cavaliers moved heaven and earth and fired a 60-win coach -- Mike Brown -- to curry favor with LeBron James, only to watch him leave anyway in 2010. But this doesn't appear to be what CP3 has in mind. What he has in mind is shaping the franchise to fit his vision of winning. Thus, so long to Vinny Del Negro, and hello to a coach Chris Paul really likes.
Paul already has endorsed several moves as de facto GM of the Clippers, a term that chafes him and others in the organization. But it's a fact that Paul advocated for the acquisitions of Willie Green and Chauncey Billups, and he's said to have a few more roster moves in mind. And it's also a fact that any NBA team that hopes to keep a player of Paul's talent and stature and free-agent status would do well to ask his opinion and deliver on it when possible. This isn't so much about Chris Paul as it is about the NBA culture. This is just how it is.
Put another way, I guess what I'm saying is that if the Clippers want to listen to Chris Paul and make him happy and hope his ideas are better than the alternatives, I can't say I blame them. Whether Paul ultimately will be held accountable if none of this works is unlikely, and that's also another fact of life in the NBA.
So who's next? Coaching sources have maintained for weeks that Golden State assistant Michael Malone will be high on the Clippers' list since he and Paul have a good relationship from their days together in New Orleans, where Malone was an assistant under Monty Williams. Paul holds Malone in very high regard, as does James, his friend and former agency-mate at CAA.
Speaking of Williams, word is that Paul would love to join forces with him in L.A., but Williams is under contract and the chances of him being made available to discuss a lateral move are remote.
Given his strong relationship with Paul, former Nets, Hornets and Cavaliers coach Byron Scott also figures to be in the mix. Scott, however, has won 50 games as a coach only twice in his career and hasn't done it since the 2007-08 season. Also, I don't recall Paul going out of his way to back Scott publicly when his firing in New Orleans became inevitable. Like James, Paul is extremely cautious about advocating for personnel or coaching moves in public.
Phil Jackson? It's pretty clear the Zen Master is seeking a front-office role as opposed to returning to the bench, and also, let's face it: His finance, Jeanie Buss, owns the Lakers. But the coach Jackson had hoped would succeed him with the Lakers, Brian Shaw, could make some sense.
So while Paul publicly pretends not to be interested in pulling strings on trades, free-agent signings or coaching decisions, the fact is that this is his chance to have the ultimate influence over his immediate future in L.A. If nothing else, the fact that Paul is interested in having a say should assuage any doubts that he's going anywhere else.