LOS ANGELES -- The fans took their time leaving Lob City on Sunday night, all those raving red shirts standing around to soak in what had been a most memorable Clippers season.
There was still joy in the air, a sense that so much fun had been had, that something special might still be on the horizon, that they all knew there was no way around this San Antonio Spurs team that looked destined for its fifth championship with the way it swept this Western Conference semifinals series and extended its winning streak to 18 games with a 102-99 victory in Game 4. That is, of course, for everyone but Donald Sterling.
The Clippers' dark lord owner sat in stoic silence at his center court seat, his mood as black as his sweatsuit, socks and sandals. He had just witnessed the intersection of success and failure all at once, this postseason point still qualifying as major progress but the way in which it all ended clearly leaving him confounded.
He eventually arose to discuss the end with the friends who always hover around him after games, and Sterling could be heard lamenting it all: the need for more players to pair with Chris Paul, the shiny new franchise centerpiece for whom the Clippers infamously traded in mid-December and could lose next summer unless the progress continues; the fact that Game 4 came down to the last two possessions, an observation that hinted at the coaching realm and, by extension, the uncertain future of coach Vinny Del Negro.
Tensions are high here because it's all on the line, because history says the Clippers always find a way to screw it up and it remains entirely possible that they will once again. Blake Griffin's situation should be the easiest to resolve: He is eligible for an extension and it's as much of a no-brainer as there will be in this offseason. But Paul's contract expires after next season, and the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement ensure that the only way he'll re-sign with the Clippers will be next summer in free agency. Last but certainly not least, the Clippers have the team option on Del Negro's deal and the question now is whether Sterling sticks with the coach whom he hand-picked over Dwane Casey (now the Raptors' coach) in the summer of 2010, or opts for an upgrade.
Despite Sterling's habit of employing people without the existence of an actual contract, Clippers general manager Neil Olshey appears safe because of the roster that he built. It went way beyond Paul, with key free-agent additions of Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin and the trade with Washington for Nick Young. It's Del Negro's future that's in question, and anyone with the ability to read between the lines could hear the coach fighting for his professional life afterward.
He praised his players, reflected on the fact that the team posted its best regular-season winning percentage in franchise history (. 606, 40-26), then turned the red-hot spotlight in the direction of the front office, which has been scrutinizing him all season long.
"We have to do a good job moving forward [of] putting certain types of players in front of Chris and Blake," Del Negro said. "That is the next step. I think that will help ease the strain and some of the things [Paul] had to do to carry us at times, especially in the fourth quarter."
He wasn't done with the personnel pontifications just yet.
"We've got to get some shooters and space the court for him a little bit, help Blake, help our spacing," Del Negro said. "When you look at the top teams, they can space the court. A lot was given up to get Chris [in the trade], after a lot of things had already been done, but now we'll address all that stuff as we move forward."
Paul's vote, as you might imagine, is the one that matters most. It's a weighty opinion that he'll likely give in the coming days, as Paul is widely considered one of the smartest players in the league and has been known to be brutally honest about his coaches in the past.
He was furious in New Orleans when Byron Scott was fired without his knowledge in 2009, yet he found a new favorite last season when Hornets coach Monty Williams came on the scene and earned his respect. Paul -- who finished with 23 points, 11 assists and six rebounds Sunday but had a turnover and a miss on his last two looks -- gave an early stamp of approval for both Del Negro and Olshey. But the public comments, as is always the case, aren't the ones that the owner will be listening to.
"I think coach did an outstanding job, also Neil and our front office," Paul said. "Everybody knows what happened in mid-December, with the trade going through and picking up Chauncey [Billups] off the waiver wires and then Chauncey going down [with a season-ending injury in early February] and all the injuries we had to endure.
"It's been a roller coaster season for us. I think the way they managed everything was great. Bringing in K-Mart, bringing in Reg [Evans], they did an outstanding job. This season was crazy enough with 66 games. They helped us get here, and now we've got to build from it."
As for who will take part in the building? Only time, and Sterling, will tell.