LOS ANGELES -- The Clippers won a franchise-record 56 games this season, captured their first Pacific Division title and made history by sweeping the Lakers. In a normal Clippers summer, they'd have feted head coach Vinny Del Negro with a lucrative contract extension for maintaining harmony on a 12-deep roster where minutes and shots are happily sacrificed. But this is not a normal Clippers summer because Chris Paul is not a normal Clippers point guard. After the Clips fell in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies, Paul was asked if he could take solace in the team's regular-season accomplishments. He dismissed them as meaningless. His standards are high and the Clippers are raising theirs in accordance.
Paul becomes a free agent July 1 and the Clippers don't have many more opportunities to show him how serious they are about seizing a championship. Last offseason, they heeded his advice and rebuilt their bench, signing reserves he suggested. On Tuesday, the club announced they would not renew Del Negro's contract. And while Paul's role in the decision is unknown, the Clippers haven't done much in the past 16 months without his endorsement.
This was not the move of a woebegone franchise grateful to win the division and bust out of the Lakers' shadow. It was a cutthroat act designed to prove Pacific titles and intra-city victories aren't enough anymore. Paul demands more, so owner Donald Sterling does, too. The Clippers clearly recognize the all-or-nothing stakes of this summer. If they re-sign Paul, they remain a Western Conference contender for the foreseeable future, a destination for ring-hungry free agents. If they lose him, it will be back to the shadows. Sterling has made plenty of questionable calls over the years, but this time, he is taking no chances.
Del Negro may not be a master strategist, but in three years he oversaw a dramatic overhaul of the Clippers' culture, chemistry and record. If power forward Blake Griffin doesn't land on Lamar Odom's foot during a practice before Game 5 of the first round, the Clippers might still be playing. But Griffin was severely limited by a high ankle sprain, Memphis took advantage, and now the Grizzlies' Lionel Hollins is the hot free-agent coaching candidate while Del Negro is out of a job. Sterling was at the Spurs-Grizzlies game in San Antonio on Sunday, possibly to scout Hollins.
The Clippers have been courting Paul ever since they acquired him from New Orleans in December 2011, but there is not much more they can do. They can't sign a premier free agent. They don't have a top draft pick. There is only one bouquet left to send, in the form of his next head coach, and a single name stands out. Paul played his first four seasons for the Hornets under Byron Scott. He has referred to Scott as family. Scott has referred to Paul as a son. Paul has already brought parts of New Orleans with him to Los Angeles, from shooting guard Willie Green to PR director Dennis Rogers. Scott would fall in line. If the Clippers' priority is to hire the best coach, they may look elsewhere, but if their priority is to appease Paul, they can probably stop at Scott.
The Clippers have a different kind of history with Scott, who grew up in Inglewood, about 15 minutes from their new practice facility. In 1983, Sterling's second year as owner, he drafted Scott fourth out of Arizona State. But after an ugly holdout, Scott was shipped to the Lakers, where he won three championships. He once joked that, without the trade, he'd be somewhere recovering from reconstructive surgery. As a coach, he has made stops in New Jersey, New Orleans and most recently Cleveland, where he was fired after this season. Scott occasionally compared Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving to Paul, the highest praise he could muster.
In roughly six weeks, Paul will make a decision on his future, ending nearly a year-and-a-half of intrigue. The Clippers will either leap forward, with more momentum than ever, or sink back. Sterling has made a variety of moves to earn Paul's trust and convince him the Clippers are worthy of his prime. He only has one left.