- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 7, 2010

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Vinny Del Negro could have taken it easy after being fired by the Chicago Bulls. They still owe him money, so there was no pressing need to jump back on the NBA coaching carousel.

Still, he couldn’t resist.

Del Negro agreed to a three-year deal to coach the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, taking over a team that went 29-53 last season and missed the playoffs for the 15th time in 17 years.

“I know how difficult it is, I know the challenges that we have, but that’s what makes it interesting, that’s what makes it fun for me,” he said. “I love the competition, I love the challenge.”

He replaces Kim Hughes, who finished the season as interim coach after Mike Dunleavy stepped aside in February to focus on his GM duties before leaving for good in March.

Del Negro coached two seasons in Chicago, compiling an 82-82 overall record and leading the team to consecutive playoff appearances before being fired in May.

The Bulls still owe Del Negro $2.3 million for the final year of his contract. That amount will be offset by what the Clippers pay him in his first season, which Del Negro’s agent, Lon Rosen, declined to disclose.

“The opportunities, when they present themselves, you have to jump on them sometimes,” Del Negro said. “It’s the only one (job) I really went after.”

The Clippers went 8-33 on the road last season, their worst mark away from home since 1999-00, when they went 5-36. They are overshadowed by their Staples Center co-tenants, the two-time defending NBA champion Lakers.

“I don’t look in the rearview mirror, I just look forward. I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t feel I could make an impact. How it will all turn out, we’ll have to see,” Del Negro said.

“I can assure you the players will improve. If players are not going to perform the way I feel they should, they won’t be on the court. I have the support from management and ownership.”

Though he got Chicago back on track after a poor start last season, he feuded with team president John Paxson, and the two had a postgame physical altercation on March 30 involving Joakim Noah’s playing time.

Paxson later said he was wrong in how he handled the situation and that he was embarrassed about having put the Bulls in a bad position.

“John came out publicly and apologized, so that kind of answers all that,” Del Negro said. “I’m very proud of the job that my staff and myself did in Chicago for two years.”

Interim Clippers general manager Neal Olshey downplayed the incident.

“We didn’t think it was an issue,” he said. “You put a bunch of competitors in a room, that’s what’s going to happen. At the end of the day, the result was they won. It certainly didn’t affect the product on the court.”

Olshey was impressed by what Del Negro’s teams accomplished in his first two seasons as a coach.

“Vinny’s teams got better both years as the year went on,” he said. “In both instances they were better after the All-Star break than before and I don’t think that’s been our history here. This is a guy who wasn’t burning teams out.”

Blake Griffin, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft who missed the season because of a knee injury, was on hand at Staples Center to greet his new coach.

“He seems like a great coach. Obviously, he’s done a good job with Chicago,” Griffin said. “I like how he talked about developing the young players, and making sure that they are aggressive and they’re playing and not worried about making mistakes.

“I haven’t done a lot of snooping yet, but I’ll get to it.”

Clippers point guard Baron Davis, who is overseas, said in a statement, “Coach Del Negro gets his teams to play hard and play together, and that’s what we need. He is a former player who is not too far removed from the game, and I’m looking forward to doing whatever it takes to listen and learn from him to help this team win!”

Del Negro will begin assembling his coaching staff while giving consideration to last season’s assistants, whose contracts expired June 30. He will be in Las Vegas to watch the Clippers’ team that begins play in the summer league on July 12.

Before joining the Bulls, Del Negro served as assistant GM of the Phoenix Suns in 2007-08 after being promoted from his job as director of player personnel, which he held for one season. He moved to the front office after working three seasons as a color analyst for the Suns.

Del Negro played 12 seasons in the NBA, including stints with San Antonio, Milwaukee, Golden State and Phoenix before retiring in 2002. His contract was briefly acquired by the Clippers in 2001 as part of a three-team trade, but he never played for them before retiring.

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