Del Negro’s fate up in the air

PLAYA VISTA, Calif. – The Clippers of two seasons ago would have been ecstatic. Fifty-six wins? Fifty-six? A winning season, a playoff berth – that was enough.

The Clippers of two seasons ago would be throwing parties for Vinny Del Negro if they knew what was to come. They’d be utterly elated, one has to think, that their team’s fate is about to change so drastically.

This is not two years ago, though. This is May 2013. The Clippers are the Pacific Division champions, owners of a 17-game December winning streak. They are Lob City, the new darlings of Los Angeles basketball, at least for a moment.

They are all that, and then they lost, rather grimly, to the Grizzlies in the playoffs’ first round on Friday.

And so yes, the team’s fate has changed. But with that change comes others, changes of culture and environment. Changes of expectations.

Which brings us to one man whose fate this summer is uncertain. (No, not Chris Paul.) It brings us to Vinny Del Negro, the Clippers coach who’s been under perpetual scrutiny since taking the job in July 2010, whose contract is now expiring and who may just have created his own demise.

There are certain facts one must know before weighing Del Negro’s fate: He took the Clippers from 32-50 two seasons ago to 56-26 in 2012-13. This season marked the team’s first division championship and its highest win total ever. It marked the Clippers’ second consecutive playoff berth, and coming off a second-round sweep at the hands of the Spurs last spring, they wanted more. Del Negro certainly wanted more.

This year, though, they did less. Despite the December win streak. Despite playing the same first-round opponent that they defeated last year, one that traded away a major piece at the deadline for little more than cap space concerns.

Despite all that.

And so here stands Vinny Del Negro, his fate up in the air. Here stand the Clippers, who face perhaps the most crucial offseason in franchise history, and how this ends depends on how the team views what’s just transpired.

One way is to see that the Clippers are the best they’ve ever been, to believe that Del Negro got them there, and then to unquestionably think that he should stay.

Another is to think that they fell short this season – whether or not that’s true – and to believe that Del Negro, who’s never been the most secure of coaches in Los Angeles, has taken them as far as he can take them.

“I don’t want to take way from so many great things we did this year, winning the Pacific Division and changing the culture of this franchise,” Caron Butler said Saturday at the team’s exit interviews. “Everybody’s looking at this organization as not a little brother to anybody but more of a contender organization year after year, with unbelievable talent and Hall of Fame guys on the squad. Saying that about the Clippers now, that’s unbelievable.”

Two years ago, it certainly would have been unbelievable. But Butler’s words, along with those of many of his teammates, left a lingering impression that maybe one has to take something away from it all. May does matter more than December, playoffs more than the regular season, success now more than success then. There are certain standards that come with Butler’s description of his team, and those standards were not met, not this spring.

And so the question of what about Coach? lingered on Saturday. Players were asked over and over in such a setting where the only appropriate answers were along the lines of he’s great, we hope he comes back, he did a lovely job.

Yet the disappointment was palpable.

There were valid points made, of course, valid compliments of Del Negro and the task with which he was charged. Matt Barnes pointed out the obvious, which is so often overlooked, that doing what Del Negro – or any NBA coach – is asked to do is one hell of a project.

“People don’t understand, it’s hard to manage people like us, young people that have money and egos and family in their ears and friends in their ears,” Barnes said. “For a coach to put all that on one page and get everyone to go for the same goal and to do it so fast, you’ve really got to take your hat off to him.”

You’ve really got to; Barnes is right. Del Negro was given good, even great players and led them to win, which is a task that 99 percent of the population is not cut out to do. But is it enough? Is what he was able to achieve this year in line with the standards the Clippers have established, the standards they hope establish?

That’s up to ownership, perhaps in part to Paul, depending on his demands as a free agent. That’s up to whichever viewpoint the Clippers take, of whether Del Negro has gotten them somewhere or is still in the process of getting them somewhere better. The situation will likely gain some clarity on Monday, when the coach and Clippers vice president of basketball operations Gary Sacks will speak to the media, but until then, we speculate – and perhaps after then, as well.

For losing teams, the end of the season is a tidy package. Coaches are fired simply because they lost, and come mid-April, the decisions have been made. Things are closer to black and white, whereas winning makes things grey.

Winning delays the decisions and complicates them. Winning pushes value judgments into May and June, and it distorts them, too. But for the Clippers, winning just ran out, and decisions come now, just two weeks after the losers.

No one expected two weeks. No one expected the harsh realities of the offseason to hit so fast, and now that they have, those two weeks certainly aren’t working in Del Negro’s favor.

Soon enough, we’ll see if those two weeks outweigh the past two seasons.