LOS ANGELES -- If this were any other season, Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro and Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins probably wouldn't see each other until the second round of the playoffs, or perhaps even the conference finals.
If they were coaching in the East this season, their teams would be tied for the second-best record in the conference.
As it is, Del Negro and Hollins find each other facing off again in the first round of the playoffs despite winning 56 games this season, and there may be something more than a second-round date with the Oklahoma City Thunder on the line for both coaches.
Despite leading their respective teams to unprecedented heights over the past couple of seasons, Del Negro and Hollins are effectively lame-duck coaches. They both entered the season on the last year of their contracts without an extension, and without much talk of an extension, either.
Both historically-down franchises have taken a wait-and-see approach to the futures of the most successful coaches they’ve ever had.
It's a reality that both Del Negro and Hollins came to grips with before the season began, and one they know they can't change until the season is over, so they don't spend much time worrying about it.
"Players win games, coaches lose games," Del Negro said. "I can't control those things. What I control is the preparation of the team. All those things will be answered at the end of the season. I believe in what we've done here, I believe my assistant coaches have done a phenomenal job, and I've had great support from ownership and [the] front office ... and everybody to try to put the best team out there."
By name, Del Negro mentioned Gary Sacks, vice president of basketball operations; Eric Miller, director of basketball administration and Andy Roeser, team president.
The problem is Sacks -- who is also not signed past this season -- Roeser and Miller have been complimentary of Del Negro, but have stopped short of saying he will be back next season, and haven't even engaged him or his agent in serious contract negations after picking up the final year of his current three-year deal.
"You need players to win, so I've been pleased with the direction and kind of keeping everybody pulling in the same direction, but all of those things will be answered at the end of the season," Del Negro said. "Right now the focus should be on the players and the kind of commitment that they are putting in to help us be successful, and all of those things will be answered at the end of the season. I want the attention to be on the players. All of those things will be taken care of after the playoffs. There have been discussions early on but nothing significant, and we left it at that and now we're focusing on the playoffs."
Both Del Negro and Hollins led the Clippers and Grizzlies to the best winning percentage in each franchise's history last season, and to the highest win total for each this season. The fact the teams are even playing each other in the first round again is an anomaly. Since the NBA instituted the current playoff format in 1983-84, only one other first-round playoff series featured two teams that won at least 56 games each during the regular season, and that happened 15 years ago.
Amazingly, the losing coach might not even get a chance to improve upon the success he's had over the past two seasons. That's an outcome that would be just fine with Hollins, who played for five NBA teams during his 10-year playing career, and has coached six team over his 25-year pro coaching career.
"I've been in this league a long time, and as an assistant coach I was on one-year contracts 98 percent of the time," Hollins said. "Would I like to have had a contract before this season? Of course, but that's a decision that's made, and then you go out and do the best job that you can. It's not like it had to be done. It's just like players. You can extend players early or you can wait until later and let them become free agents. Sometimes it gives you leverage and sometimes it doesn't."
Both coaches will have to deal with unique ownership situations in the offseason. Del Negro will have to deal with Donald Sterling, who has been notoriously frugal during his 32-year tenure as the Clippers' owner, especially when it comes to coaches. Hollins will have to deal with the Grizzlies' new ownership group, which is led by 34-year-old Ubiquiti Networks founder Robert Pera, the youngest owner in the league.
Hollins was outspoken when the Grizzlies shook up the team this season, trading Rudy Gay to Toronto in a six-player deal that eventually netted them Tayshaun Prince. Despite wanting to keep his team intact, Hollins led the Grizzlies to a 26-8 record to close out the season following the trade.
"Whatever it dealt and [was] thrown in front of me through the whole term that I've been here, I’ve tried to make the best of it," Hollins said. "There have been a lot of things that have [been] thrown that have not always been positive, but this turned out to be a real positive. There's been a lot of turmoil and adversity, but the players bought in."
How much the Clippers' players, and Chris Paul in particular, buy into what Del Negro is doing will likely go a long way in deciding his fate with the team. 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.
"I don't think the organization works like that," Del Negro said when asked if his future is tied to Paul's wishes. "Obviously Chris is a huge part of it but all of those decisions will be made after the season. Our focus right now is the playoffs. All those questions about myself and Chris will be answered after the season."
After what Del Negro and Hollins have done the past few seasons with the Clippers and Grizzlies, it's surprising that their futures are question marks during the playoffs. But Hollins has been around basketball long enough to know that every player and coach, no matter how successful, has to move on at some point.
"When's it's time to move, you have to move," Hollins said. "I've been here 12 years, but there will be a time when I have to move, and when it's time, you got to go. But I'm not trying to go, I'm not looking to go, but circumstances always dictate what you have to do -- especially if you want to stay in this business."