Del Negro’s future with Clippers still unclear

LOS ANGELES — Coach Vinny Del Negro is proud of the Los Angeles Clippers’ breakthrough season, even though he doesn’t know if he’ll be around for the next one.

Del Negro’s contract expires this summer after three seasons with the Clippers, who still haven’t told him whether he’s returning in the fall. He led the Clippers to a club-record 56 victories and their first Pacific Division title this season, but Los Angeles then lost to Memphis in six games in the first round of the playoffs.

The Clippers expect to decide Del Negro’s future in the next several days, but Del Negro and vice president of basketball operations Gary Sacks gave no indication what’s likely to happen after they meet with owner Donald Sterling.

“You’re going to have your ups and downs during the season — injuries, some tough losses — but we’ve set every franchise record you can set in terms of a lot of things,” Del Negro said Monday at the Clippers’ Playa Vista training complex.

“So I’m proud of a lot of the things we did which had never been done,” he added. “The interesting thing is, when I came here, (we were) trying to create this, so now the expectations are higher, and the results need to be better. And as difficult as the results are right now, I’m actually proud of that, because that’s the direction I want this team to go, and that’s the mindset I want the organization to have — that it’s not good enough, that we can do better. That always hasn’t been the case (with the Clippers).”

Del Negro is 128-102 in three seasons in charge of this long-struggling franchise, giving him the highest winning percentage (.557) for a coach in club history. He is the only coach to post consecutive winning seasons since the Buffalo Braves moved to California and became the Clippers in 1978.

Yet Del Negro also is the only Clippers coach who ever had Chris Paul and a healthy Blake Griffin on his roster, and the Clippers’ star players receive much more credit for their success than Del Negro, who regularly takes heat for his decisions and rotations.

After praising Del Negro’s work ethic and professionalism, Sacks acknowledged that the Clippers’ “No. 1 priority” is re-signing Paul, an unrestricted free agent this summer. Although he wouldn’t mention specifics, Sacks likes the franchise’s chances after his exit interview with the All-Star point guard, who could receive a five-year, $108 million deal in July.

“I feel very confident,” Sacks said. “I think he is an integral part of this, and we feel like we had a great partnership for the last couple of years, and we want to continue it. These are decisions that have to be made, and some of them will be taken care of at the appropriate time. We can’t talk to him until July 1, so we’ll go ahead and do that. We’ll move forward when it’s appropriate.”

Griffin and Paul have both been publicly supportive of Del Negro, and Sacks acknowledged that the players’ opinions should be part of the decision on Del Negro.

“I don’t think there’s anything necessarily we need to know (about Del Negro) that we don’t already know,” Sacks said. “But I think it’s just getting together and seeing what vision we have together, and where we are as an organization.”

If Del Negro isn’t retained, he would be just the second coach to leave the Clippers with a winning record, joining Larry Brown in 1993.

“I enjoy working with (Paul and Griffin),” Del Negro said. “They’re great guys, and they’re incredibly talented. They’re the nucleus of the team, obviously, that you want to keep intact and move forward with.”

The Clippers had just six winning seasons in their first 41 years of existence, but they’ve put together consecutive winning records and playoff appearances for the first time in 20 years. Paul, Griffin and Del Negro also have turned the Clippers into one of the NBA’s most exciting teams, with acrobatic dunks and dazzling playmaking skills on display almost every night at Staples Center.

“I think Coach did a great job,” said forward Matt Barnes, who had the best season of his well-traveled NBA career.

“People don’t understand, it’s hard to manage people like us — young, and people that have money and egos, and family in their ear and friends in their ears,” Barnes added. “For a coach to put all that on one page and get everyone to go for the same goal, and really with a new team to do it so fast, you’ve really got to take your hat off to him. There were things said about this and that, but every time you play or coach in L.A., you’re going to be in a fishbowl. I think Vinny did a great job of managing the egos and taking this team to a new level.”

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