Clippers thrive under improved ex-Bulls coach Del Negro


Clippers thrive under improved ex-Bulls coach Del Negro

Former Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro wasn't exactly viewed as the next coming of Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson when he was in Chicago. The current Clippers head coach isn't regarded as one of the league's best on the sidelines now, but a year after advancing to the second round of the playoffs, his team has even more expectations and thus far, is living up to them by leading the Pacific Division and for the time being, holding the crown of best team in Los Angeles over the turmoil-ridden Lakers.
"Just the experience of doing it. When I started here, I had never coached before. Thrown into a great franchise with great history in a great sports town, you jump in and you go for it. I learned a lot, very fortunate, very grateful to Jerry for the opportunity, but I think you get better every year. You're always looking to get better individually and make your team better, but there's a lot of decisions you have to make. Quick decisions, whether it's practice, games, game decisions, there's just a lot of stuff.
"I have to continually grow as a coach. I'm coaching here and that's what you have to have the mindset to do. I've picked the brains of a lot of veteran coaches, but you also have to have your own philosophies, your own styles and what you believe in, and every year is different. Every team is different. The personnel you're given is different, but it's about putting your team in an area of strength and try to win games. We're doing a better job of that and I think my staff has done a very good job, but we've got a long way to go," Del Negro said before Tuesday's game.
"It gives you a chance to win. If you're developing, you're losing, usually. You've got to have a good mixture. I think what we have on the roster is a good balance. We have some younger guys that need developing, we have some guys in their prime and we have some veteran guys, so there's good balance in the locker room, which I think is important. But we have a mixture of some things. The versatility now, I think, is very important with our roster, as well. We can go small, we can go big, we can play fast, slow. We have some different variations, which obviously helps us as a unit to put us in an area of strength."
Del Negro's players believe that as the Clippers rise to prominence, the coach is also improving.
"I think he trusts us a lot more," All-Star point guard Chris Paul, in his second season with the Clippers and playing for Del Negro, said after the team's Tuesday morning shootaround at the United Center. "Obviously that builds with being with a team a little bit longer and now, he sees in our locker room how we have me, Caron Butler, Willie Green, Matt Barnes, 'Chaunce' Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill and all that, so guys that know the game and have been around the league.
Fellow All-Star Blake Griffin, the current Western Conference player of the week, chimed in: "As our team has adapted, so has he. My first year here, we were one of the youngest teams in the league--I think we were the second youngest--so it was a lot of teaching, a lot of coaching for him and now, it's a lot more about managing time, managing players because you have so many veterans and guys that have so much experience."
Jamal Crawford, the former Bulls guard, in his first season with Clippers and being coached by Del Negro, concurred: "Unbelievable. I love it. It's the most fun I've had since I was in high school. He gives me a lot of freedom, he trusts me on the court. We have a great rapport. We talk about everything and he knows how to communicate with his players, and I love playing for him."
"We're not surprised because we felt like before the season, we had a chance to do something special and right now, it hasn't been all gravy," continued the early-season favorite for the league's Sixth Man of the Year award and leader of the Clippers' potent bench. "We've had some tough home losses that we thought we shouldn't have had and a tough road trip last time. But we bounced back from that, put another streak and hopefully we can continue keeping that going.
The high-flying Clippers handed the Bulls arguably their worst loss of the young season--not the most gut-wrenching; those were narrow home defeats to Central Division rivals Milwaukee and Indiana--on the November "Circus Trip" by getting out in transition and breaking out their "Lob City" routine. They plan to do much of the same in order to pull off a season sweep Tuesday night at the United Center.
"We can't let their defense get set. I think that's what makes us so dangerous, is that we're explosive in transition. We've been at home, not so much at home, so we can't let them get set," Paul explained. "I love their defense. Everybody plays with a defensive intensity and that's why they're so good."
Crawford added: "To get as many easy baskets as possible. The Bulls are tough, they're really tough. They play tough defense, they grind it out. No game is ever over. They're a blue-collar team and they play hard every single possession, and I think that comes from Coach Thibs. He does a great job with those guys and they all believe, and buy into what he's telling them."
Crawford, a childhood buddy of Bulls backup point guard Nate Robinson--the Seattle natives also played together at Rainier Beach High School, as well as with the Knicks--also discussed his longtime friend's development as a player. While Bulls fans may occasionally agonize over Robinson's shot selection, Crawford says he's actually improved a lot in that area and is conscious of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau's disciplinary influence.
"Not with Coach Thibs; he doesn't play that. No, he's definitely improved in that area. As a high school freshman, he'd shoot a left-handed three in the game, so he's definitely improved, that's for sure," he said. "It's amazing to think, playing high school together, then playing four years together. It's unheard of. I think the bond will always be there, because of that alone.
"I think he's fit in well with the Bulls," Crawford added. "With Nate, no matter where he's at, his personality's going to rub off on the team and they're all going to fall in love with him. To know Nate is to love him. If you just look at him from afar, you're like, 'Oh, this kid. What is he doing out there?' But his teammates run through a wall for him, they love him and everywhere he goes, it's the same way. It's contagious and he plays hard. He loves to play basketball. Every time he's on the court, it's a joy for him, so I'm happy for him."
Paul was a teammate of Bulls shooting guard Marco Belinelli and has kept in touch with the Italian sharpshooter. He made note of Belinelli's recent success.
"'Belli's' been hooping and I'm happy to see that because he's a real good friend of mine, but hopefully not tonight," he said. "He's one of the best shooters you'll ever see and the thing is, Belli can shoot off the move, he can shoot standstill and stuff like that, so I think a lot of the time, it's confidence and rhythm with him. But earlier in the season, I think a lot of the shots he normally makes, he missed, so I'm not surprised to see him playing well.
"I talk to Belli all the time, but this situation was actually better for Belli here. Belli's a great guy, somebody I loved playing with for that year in New Orleans.
Griffin, who sat out his entire "true" rookie season with a severe knee injury, talked about his own recovery process and expressed his confidence in injured Bulls superstar Derrick Rose returning to form.
Said Griffin, whose only NBA coach has been Del Negro: "The monotony of it is the hardest part of recovery. You're doing the exact same thing, the exact same exercises, day in and out, and top of that, to have to sit and watch basketball games that you're supposed to be playing in. It's tough, but if you really put in the work and you really do the things that they ask you every single day, you'll come back 100 percent and I have no doubt that D-Rose will."
One of Del Negro's former Bulls players, Kirk Hinrich, will suit up Tuesday after suffering a left-elbow injury during the first half of Saturday's home win over the Knicks, a game he didn't participate in after halftime. Hinrich practiced Monday and said then that he'd play against the Clippers, something Thibodeau lauded him for before Tuesday's contest.
"It says a lot about his toughness, I think. Kirk's one of those guys, I don't measure him statistically," Thibodeau said of Hinrich one of five current Bulls--Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and the sidelined Rose are the others--to also play for Del Negro. "I measure him by how he's running the team, how he's leading our defense and he's played well all season long."

What can the Cubs expect from the Cleveland Indians in the World Series?

What can the Cubs expect from the Cleveland Indians in the World Series?’s Dan Hayes and JJ Stankevitz saw plenty of the Cleveland Indians while covering the White Sox in 2016, and set their sights on what kind of a challenge the Tribe will provide the Cubs in the World Series.


The American League’s second-best offense has slowed down considerably in the postseason as its .635 OPS ranks seventh among 10 playoff teams in 2016. But the Indians have received enough clutch hitting from part-timer Coco Crisp and their star in the making, shortstop Francisco Lindor, to make the most of their stellar pitching in the playoffs.

In the regular season, the Indians finished second in the American League in runs scored (777) in part because of an aggressive approach on the base paths and even though the team’s best player, Michael Brantley, was limited to 43 plate appearances because of injury. The Indians ranked second in the majors in extra bases taken with 186, two ahead of the Cubs, according to The team also finished second in the majors with an extra bases taken percentage of 45 and led the AL with 134 stolen bases in 165 tries (81 percent).

The offense is centered around designated hitter Carlos Santana, who blasted a career best 34 home runs and posted an .865 OPS. First baseman Mike Napoli and second baseman Jason Kipnis also established career highs in homers with 34 and 23, respectively. Kipnis finished with 68 extra-base hits, including 41 doubles.

Third baseman Jose Ramirez picked up much of the slack for a team that also was without projected outfielder Abraham Almonte for half the season because of a suspension for PEDs. Ramirez had 46 doubles among his 60 extra-base hits and produced an .825 OPS in an outstanding all-around campaign that could garner him a few MVP votes. Rookie Tyler Naquin also filled a big void in the outfield with 14 homers and 43 RBIs in 365 plate appearances.

So far, Indians manager Terry Francona has divided up the plate appearances among his outfielders in October. Only right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall has received consistent playing time as the Indians have platooned Crisp, Naquin, Rajai Davis, who stole 43 bases this season, and Brandon Guyer.

-- Dan Hayes


Andrew Miller may be having the best postseason a relief pitcher has ever had. The big-ticket trade deadline acquisition threw 11 2/3 innings in the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox and ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays, striking out 21 while allowing only five singles and two walks (that’s good for a laughable .132/.171/.184 opponent slash line). Manager Terry Francona hasn’t been shy about using Miller early in games, too — he inserted the 6-foot-7 lefty in the fifth inning of Cleveland’s ALDS Game 1 win over the Red Sox, and half of his six playoff appearances this year began in the sixth inning or earlier. Miller’s ability to throw multiple innings will put pressure on the Cubs to score early and often against the Indians’ rotation.

Francona’s willingness to use Miller early has been critical toward helping maximize the success of a starting rotation without two of its three best arms in the postseason. Carlos Carrasco (fractured gone in right hand) won’t pitch in the World Series, though Francona hinted that fellow right-handed All-Star Danny Salazar (strained flexor muscle in right forearm) could return to start in the World Series. Right-hander Trevor Bauer, who sliced his right pinky open while repairing his drone and only managed to record two outs before his finger gushed blood in Game 3 of the ALCS, will start Game 2 or 3.

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With or without Salazar and/or Bauer, though, Cleveland’s rotation has been effective. Corey Kluber is the unquestioned ace of the staff and allowed only two runs over 18 1/3 innings in three postseason starts, which stands as a continuation of his strong regular season numbers (18-9, 215 IP, 3.14 ERA, 3.26 FIP). Josh Tomlin has had a short rope, only throwing 10 2/3 innings in his two starts, but allowed three runs in that span with 10 strikeouts and three walks. Rookie left-hander Ryan Merrett threw 4 2/3 shutout innings in a clinching Game 5 win over the Blue Jays last week, too, showing no signs of “shaking in his boots” in his first postseason start.

The rest of Cleveland’s bullpen -- which tied for the second-best ERA in the American League (3.45) in the regular season -- has found success in addition to Miller in the playoffs. Hard-throwing closer Cody Allen has looked unflappable in five save opportunities, allowing five hits and three walks with 12 strikeouts. Right-handers Dan Otero (3.1 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K) and Bryan Shaw (5.2 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 1 HR) have been go-to options if Miller can’t bridge the gap between the starting pitcher and Allen, too.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that Cleveland has found pitching success in the playoffs, even with so many injuries, given their 3.86 staff ERA ranked 7th in baseball.

-- JJ Stankevitz


Nobody has been as outstanding of a defensive team as the Cubs in 2016. But, the Indians are still near the top of the second tier team and have proven a remarkably improved squad over the past two seasons. Much of their improvement stems from the stellar play provided by Lindor, who ranked second in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating (20.8) among shortstops and fourth in Defensive Runs Saved with 17, according to Combined with Kipnis, who ranked sixth in UZR (7.3) among second baseman, the Indians have a strong double play combo. Ramirez also proved to be a steady defender at third base after taking over as the full-timer following the release of Juan Uribe.

Though the club has missed the presence of starting catcher Yan Gomes, it has handled his absence extremely well. Not only does replacement Roberto Perez rate among the game’s best pitch framers, he also threw out 13 of 26 runners who attempted to steal a base with him behind the dish.

-- Dan Hayes


Francona won two World Series trophies with the Boston Red Sox, including the one in 2004 that ended that franchise’s 87-year title drought. He’s led Cleveland to two postseason berths since taking over in 2013, and the Tribe haven’t had a losing record in his four years at the helm.

The 57-year-old has been lauded for his aggressive use of Miller in the playoffs, deploying the lights-out lefty as a study bridge between a starting rotation beset by injuries and dominant closer Allen.

First baseman/catcher/designated hitter Santana is hardly a prototypical leadoff man, but he’s hit first in six of Cleveland’s eight games in the postseason after leading off 85 games in the regular season. And that’s the batting order position he’s been most effective from --- In the regular season, Santana hit .260/.385/.502 with more walks (67) than strikeouts (60) as a leadoff man. Francona’s willingness to eschew stolen bases and speed on the base paths has put early pressure on starting pitchers by having Santana on base so frequently.

Said Cubs starter Jon Lester, who pitched for Francona in the Red Sox 2007 championship run: “I know that manager on their side’s going to be prepared, I know their coaching staff’s going to be ready.”

-- JJ Stankevitz

Jon Lester says Cubs haven’t done anything yet: ‘Nobody likes second place’

Jon Lester says Cubs haven’t done anything yet: ‘Nobody likes second place’

As Cubs players and generations of fans celebrated Christmas in October, Jon Lester had to be The Grinch for a moment. Sure, the Cubs would party from Saturday night into Sunday morning, probably get “a little bit” drunk and enjoy the franchise’s first National League pennant in 71 years. But the reality of the Cleveland Indians would set in once the Cubs got rid of this hangover.

“We ain’t done anything yet,” Lester said during the Wrigley Field celebration after the Cubs eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Nobody likes second place.”

There are enough Boston Red Sox connections in this World Series that Lester already knows what to expect, starting with Indians manager Terry Francona, who became a father figure as he dealt with a cancer scare as a rookie.

There are ex-teammates from those championship teams in 2007 (Coco Crisp) and 2013 (Mike Napoli, Andrew Miller) at Fenway Park. There is the accumulated experience from throwing 119 postseason innings (2.50 ERA) and becoming one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.

“I don’t want to sound like a smart-ass, but we got a long ways to go,” Lester said. “I know that manager on their side’s going to be prepared. I know their coaching staff’s going to be ready. I know their players are going to be ready, just based on one player alone, and that’s Mike Napoli. I know what he brings to the table. He helped transform our 2013 team.

“Come Tuesday, we got to put the gloves back on. We got to get ready to fight and grind and do what we’ve done well all year. We got four more games to win.”

After limiting the Dodgers to two runs in 13 innings, and being named the NL Championship Series’ co-MVP along with Javier Baez, Lester should be a worthy Game 1 starter opposite Corey Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner.

This is why Lester took a leap of faith with Cubs bosses/ex-Red Sox executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and chairman Tom Ricketts’ family and what had been a last-place team in 2014.

Two seasons into the $155 million contract that signaled the Cubs would be serious about contending – and not just in the Baseball America/Baseball Prospectus prospect rankings – the franchise has won 200 games and four playoff rounds and remained in position to dominate for years to come.

“Theo and Jed and the front office and Tom and all these guys had a belief,” Lester said. “I believed in that belief. The talent here speaks for itself. I didn’t do anything – I came here because I wanted to win in Chicago. I’m just happy to be here and be a part of this and get to this point.

“(But) we’re four hard wins away from doing what we set out to do in spring training.”

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As bright as the future looks on the North Side, Lester will be 33 next season and his left arm has already accounted for more than 2,000 innings during his decorated career. John Lackey turned 38 on Sunday. Jake Arrieta only has one more season before becoming a free agent.

The Cubs built their franchise around young hitters, with the idea that they can figure out the pitching later with free agents, change-of-scenery trades and bounce-back guys. Easier said than done. They have a true No. 1 starter now in Lester, who as a free agent watched a recruiting video that imagined what it would be like when the Cubs win the World Series.

“This isn’t it,” Lester said. “It’s been a tough playoffs for us to this point and it’s only going to get tougher. We’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to show up Tuesday in Cleveland ready to play. We’ll see what happens.”