Here and now matters plenty for Clippers' future

DALLAS -- Vinny Del Negro can say he doesn't feel the pressure of these final games of the regular season.

He can say that he and the Los Angeles Clippers are simply taking it one game at a time and trying to compile as many wins as possible by the end of the season.

He can say that the Clippers' roller-coaster ride this season is part of "the process" the team needs to go through and that the players continue to grow with every game and every practice.

He can say all this, but he should know there is more on the line over the final 11 games of the regular season than the Clippers' seeding in the Western Conference standings.

After Tuesday's 109-102 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in overtime, the Clippers have now slipped to the fourth seed behind the Denver Nuggets, and are another loss away from starting the playoffs on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies, as they did last season.

But simply duplicating last season's results isn't going to be enough this season.

Where the Clippers end up and how this postseason plays out probably will determine the foreseeable future for the team.

Last season was essentially a dry run for this group. The Clippers completely revamped their roster mere weeks before the start of the lockout-shortened season, adding Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler over a one-week stretch in December. They finished with the best regular-season winning percentage in team history and advanced to the second round of the playoffs for only the third time in club history.

As good as that season was, it was merely a test because everyone knew that Paul would opt into the final season of his contract and the Clippers would exercise their option to keep Del Negro for one more season.

There will be no one-year options after this season. The Clippers will have to decide who they want to lead their team for the next five years after this season is over.

The first part of that equation is easy. The Clippers will offer Paul a five-year, $108 million extension in July, and by all accounts he's expected to accept the offer after he turned down a three-year, $60 million extension last summer. Blake Griffin already accepted a five-year, $95 million extension to his current contract last year.

After locking up the cornerstones of the franchise for the next five years, the Clippers will then turn their attention to locking up a coach and a group of role players for the next five years as well.

That's what makes this stretch run so intriguing and so crucial for the Clippers. The repercussions of how they finish probably will be felt for the next few years.

How far do the Clippers have to go in the playoffs for Del Negro to get a five-year extension and the long-term trust of the organization to lead Paul and Griffin to a championship? And, perhaps more important, do Paul and Griffin believe he's the coach who can lead them there?

Del Negro didn't seem to be fazed by his future when asked Tuesday night as he leaned against the wall outside the visiting locker room at American Airlines Center.

"I enjoy the pressure," Del Negro said. "That's what it's about. I love the competition. Could things be a little better in certain areas? Of course. All those things get answered by the end of the year. Our focus is on tonight's game and on this season and all those things will get answered at the end, one way or another."

The Clippers have continually said their identity needs to be that of a hard-nosed defensive team if they want to be a championship team. Does Del Negro fit that mold? He was a .500 coach in his two seasons with the Chicago Bulls before they hired defense-minded coach Tom Thibodeau to replace him, prompting the Bulls to go 62-20 and advance to the Eastern Conference finals the next season. Derrick Rose, who was named the Rookie of the Year under Del Negro, blossomed into the league's MVP under Thibodeau.

Del Negro is one of many faces on the current Clippers that have to be evaluated in the offseason if the team flames out again in the first two rounds.

How much better does DeAndre Jordan have to get on offense for the Clippers to keep him rather than deal him and the four-year, $43 million contract he signed last season? In a league built on contending teams having three stars, the Clippers can ill afford to wait around while Jordan shoots 40 percent from the free-throw line and sits on the bench at the ends of games. The Clippers were in talks to trade Jordan and Eric Bledsoe for Kevin Garnett before the trade deadline largely because having Garnett on the floor at the end of games is infinitely better than having Lamar Odom playing ahead of Jordan.

How do the Clippers go about assembling a roster around Paul and Griffin moving forward?

Jamal Crawford and Caron Butler will be returning, as will Jordan and Bledsoe, although the latter three could be on the trading block if a good deal comes along. Meanwhile, the playoffs might go a long way in deciding the futures of Odom, Matt Barnes, Billups, Grant Hill, Willie Green, Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins. As good as Billups and Hill have been in the locker room, the Clippers have to decide if that is worth not being able to depend on them for much of the regular season.

These are questions that the Clippers might not be thinking about as they enter the final few games of the regular season and the playoffs, but how they do in these games will go a long way in determining the answers to these questions and shaping the foreseeable future of the franchise.