LOS ANGELES -- They fired one coach and hired another. They restructured the front office. They overhauled the bench. They revamped the PR department. They opened the locker room to kids after games and the practice facility to opponents during summers. In the span of a year, they handed out a contract for $95 million and sent a first-round draft pick to Boston for the privilege of paying Doc Rivers an extra $21 million. They did it all for the two words, followed by three exclamation points, dispatched from the Twitter account of free-agent point guard Chris Paul on Monday morning: "I'M IN!!!" With that, Paul's long-anticipated free agency came to an abrupt end. He will play the next five seasons for the Clippers, with an opt-out after four, earning $107 million.
In mid-May, some close to Paul speculated that he might visit salary-cap hotspots such as Dallas and Houston, because he didn't experience a full-blown recruitment in college. But that proved unnecessary, given how dutifully the Clippers courted him throughout the past year-and-a-half. When New Orleans traded Paul to Los Angeles in Dec. 2011, then-Clippers general manager Neil Olshey insisted that Paul opt into his contract for 2012-13, giving the GM a year-and-a-half to prove the Clippers worthy of a star's prime. Olshey left for Portland, but the Clips carried out his plan. From the acquisition of Jamal Crawford to the ouster of Vinny Del Negro, just about everything they did was a signal to Paul that they were serious, that their standards matched his.
There is perhaps no greater bargain in pro sports than the NBA's max contract, when awarded to a truly deserving player, but the standard five years and $107 million is apparently not enough anymore. Paul also commanded a coach he could trust, a front office overseen by that coach and a second unit capable of spelling him for long stretches of the regular season to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Paul used every ounce of his leverage, though not for frivolous causes. The specter of his free agency, and the fear of losing him, compelled the Clippers to make hard yet sound choices they traditionally left for the Lakers. Paul was like the successful college football coach who doesn't just renegotiate his own contract, but also requires stadium upgrades, raises for assistants and a new study center. The Clippers are better than when he arrived, and not only because of the 18.3 points and 9.4 assists he's averaged in L.A. He has changed the culture, a tired term, but a wholly relevant one in this case.
Outside of the Heat, the Clippers may now be the NBA's most appealing free-agent destination, thanks to Paul, Rivers and the lure of L.A. Their inglorious history means nothing anymore. They will get their choice of veteran players on club-friendly contracts, and they could use one of those slots for a sharpshooter. What they really need, though, is a defensive-minded wing to help Rivers install the tight-fisted system that served the Celtics so well. The Clippers can dangle backup point guard Eric Bledsoe toward that end.
Paul's return, uncertain after the season, became a formality the moment the Clippers landed Rivers. Following his introductory press conference last week, Rivers acknowledged that he didn't know Paul well, but was talking to him regularly. He feigned anxiety over Paul's decision. Without Paul, Rivers is not a Clipper, and without Rivers, Paul would probably be starting those visits to Dallas and Houston today. Rivers locked him up, and for that, $21 million and a first-round draft pick in 2015 is a small price to pay. Rivers has spent the past seven years sparring with and pulling for Rajon Rondo, the Celtics mesmerizing but mercurial point guard. He should not be expecting any kind of respite in Los Angeles. His new floor general has demonstrated across these 18 months that he can be equally demanding, even if his public persona is more polished. Paul asks for what he wants, and what he believes his team needs, whether it's a coach or a staffer, a play or a policy, a contract for him or somebody else.
Most of the time, he gets it.