Over the past six months, the Clippers have set about systematically whitewashing every detail of their well-worn narrative as the most dysfunctional, inept, corrupt and woebegone franchise in professional sports.
Sadly, for them, the season has ended.
Now, after being vanquished by the San Antonio Spurs, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul et al, will no longer be front and center several times a week, selling Lob City t-shirts, playoff tickets and the newfound concept of relevance to a market – and a league – that had largely forgotten them.
The idea that a new dawn, at long last, was upon the Clippers lasted about as long as the new dawn of the offseason, which began Monday morning with bleary-eyed players and coaches filing into the team’s facility 12 hours after their season ended to collect belongings, conduct exit interviews and meet with reporters.
That’s when general manager Neil Olshey chided a reporter for asking about the only real topic on anyone’s mind – the contract status of coach Vinny Del Negro, whom the team has an option on for next season.
“Coaching contracts, general manager contracts, trainer’s contracts – that’s not today,” Olshey said. “There [are] 15 guys in that locker room dividing up playoff shares. We want them to take a victory lap. All that stuff will sort itself out.”
Except that with the Clippers, it rarely does.
Olshey himself has been without a contract since October, Griffin can be offered a max contract extension on July 1, and eight of the players divvying up playoff shares could be free agents soon. Paul will be a free agent next summer, when the Clippers can offer him more money than anyone else.
Olshey and Del Negro addressed the players at the start of the playoffs, telling them they were in the same boat as many of them, and because they wanted to limit distractions, everyone’s contract situation would not be resolved until after the season – including their own.
“Whenever this thing is over, you’ll have an answer within three minutes,” Olshey said during the Memphis series when asked about Del Negro’s status.
When reminded of that remark, Olshey said with a smile: “Well, I was lying.”
Del Negro, asked if it was strange that he was talking to players about plans for next year when he may not be around, said: “No, not really.”
When Paul was asked for his assessment of Del Negro’s contract situation, he said: “I don’t know and luckily that’s not what I get paid for. Luckily, my job is just to go out there and be a point guard and try to help us win ball games, so I’m sure the front office will do an outstanding job.”
Paul is too smart and too savvy to have his fingerprints anywhere near Del Negro’s job. But if you believe that Paul, who was peeved when New Orleans fired Byron Scott and traded Tyson Chandler without informing him, won’t be voicing his opinion to Olshey, then you believe Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony had nothing to do with putsches it Orlando and New York.
In fact, that conversation may have already occurred. Paul, who left Staples Center on Sunday night with his agent, Leon Rose, was on the phone with Olshey by midnight talking about next season.
Paul will be a free agent in 2013, and as Orlando displayed Monday, owners and upper management listen to their stars, not their general managers and coaches.
The case on Del Negro is both complicated and simple. The Clippers, with a brief training camp, an overhauled roster, a crucial injury to Chauncey Billups and scant practice time finished the season with the best winning percentage in franchise history. The Clippers staged a 24-point fourth-quarter comeback against Memphis, accomplished a rare Game 7 win on the road and never gave the impression during the last two months that they had tuned out Del Negro.
So, in that sense, it seems almost inconceivable that Del Negro’s job status is in question.
But there is also the perception that Del Negro is a starter coach. A common criticism is that the Clippers’ offense – especially in contrast to San Antonio – was rudimentary and predictable and that Del Negro, though a hard worker, isn’t sharp enough to grow into the job’s new expectations. That this view is held by some in the organization is not a good sign.
One assistant suggested late in the season that Del Negro might not be safe even with a trip to the Western Conference finals.
“With this organization, you never know,” he said.
Del Negro, asked Monday to assess his performance, did not want to go into detail but he did offer a one-word evaluation: “Great.”
Take that as a sign that simply picking up Del Negro’s option will not be enough to satisfy him. If Del Negro isn’t given another year, then the questions about his future – the ones that roiled around the team during its March malaise – will be rekindled the first time the Clippers drop three in a row.
“I think every decision we make going forward is how do we make sure next year we’re still playing at this point?” Olshey said.
But if Olshey suggests to owner Donald Sterling that the Clippers would be better with another coach – the newly available Stan Van Gundy joins a list of possibilities that could include Nate McMillan, Mike D’Antoni and perhaps even Phil Jackson – there is no telling how that would go over.
Sterling, who is rarely allowed to speak with reporters by the ever-vigilant Clippers media relations staff, is said to be fond of Del Negro and who knows what he will think?
So, while Olshey did a masterful job pulling off the trade for Paul (with an assist from David Stern) and applying the pieces around Griffin and Paul, will he address Del Negro’s status with Sterling before he addresses his own?
It is the most intriguing decision in a summer that could be full of them, with Griffin deciding whether to accept a max deal, the Clippers deciding whether they can re-sign Billups, Randy Foye, Nick Young, Kenyon Martin or Reggie Evans, and whether they can deal the expiring contracts of Mo Williams and Ryan Gomes.
But it is the big decisions, which require a broad view, which will determine – as much as any lobs – whether there is a new dawn in Los Angeles. Or just the same old Clippers.