Chris Paul is one player. Doc Rivers is a culture.
Blake Griffin elicits wide-eyed awe. Doc Rivers elicits real expectation.
Clipper Nation is built on the unrelenting hope of fans in the shadows. Doc Rivers doesn't settle for hope, and that cloud cover is about to clear.
That Rivers is Donald Sterling's new head coach doesn't mean you have to start cheering or fearing the Clippers, but it does mean you have to start paying attention. For an organization that has held the NBA's gaze only for as long as it takes for somebody to complete a dunk, this prolonged stare is far more important.
The Lakers can curse they have to share a hallway with a true Boston Celtics hero, but they still have to start paying attention. The "other" team has the coach with the NBA championship ring. The "other" team has the young stars who will blossom from that credibility. The "other" team could now be the Lakers-meet-Phil-Jackson team of 14 years ago, and if that doesn't scare these Lakers, nothing will.
The teams in the NBA's Western Conference can tell themselves that Chris Paul cannot get to the Finals by himself, but they also still have to start paying attention. Although the former Celtics coach's arrival ensures Paul will re-sign with the Clippers, Rivers' presence is about making everyone else better. His toughness will rub off on Blake Griffin, his smarts will be pounded at DeAndre Jordan, he will be the coach Chauncey Billups tried to be, only with the authority and power to make it happen.
Even the longtime Los Angeles basketball fans, who mostly love the Lakers and discount the Clippers, are going to have to start paying attention. Rivers is different from other Clippers headlines. Rivers, unlike any other Clippers savior before him, has the juice to not only steal the attention, but steal victories, and steal playoff series, and turn Lob City into Legit City.
Rivers may have won only one NBA title as a coach, but he's one of only four active coaches to have won titles, period. He may have won his only championship with three future NBA Hall of Famers, but he did so in a manner that has worked for others in winning virtually every recent NBA title, a simple system of melding egos and demanding grit.
It is the classy Rivers who fashioned crude hothead Kevin Garnett into such a leader, the two opposites becoming best of friends. It is the demanding Rivers who forced legendary ball hog Ray Allen to swallow so much pride, Allen becoming the ultimate whenever-you-need-me shooter. This was evident in Allen's perfect moment that saved the Miami Heat in this year's NBA Finals.
You think the Clippers could benefit from someone with the juice to turn down their star power and make them better teammates? Heck, you think the Clippers could benefit from someone with the credibility to make them stop whispering about each other?
One of Rivers' more legendary moments in Boston occurred when he basically told enigmatic Rajon Rondo that none of his teammates liked him. What others say behind backs, Rivers says to the face, a trait that reportedly nearly led him and Rondo to brawl this season during a heated locker room conversation.
In recent years, devout Clippers fans couldn't end a sentence without bemoaning that despite all of their progress, they were still saddled with Vinny Del Negro or Mike Dunleavy. That narrative has been drastically changed, and kudos to the Clippers and Sterling for being willing to pay big money to a coach and part with the first-round draft pick to change it.
While other Clippers coaches have been criticized for failing to make late-game adjustments, Rivers once made an adjustment that became part of NBA Finals lore. Late in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the 2010 NBA Finals against the Lakers, with his Celtics leading yet struggling to move the ball upcourt, Rivers literally sprinted to the foul line to call a timeout to save them from a backcourt violation. Garnett was so stoked, he buried his shoulder into Rivers on the way to the bench as if he were congratulating a fellow lineman on a big hit.
Rivers is known for rousing sideline timeout speeches that often led to big Celtics baskets immediately after those timeouts. Yet he is also known for quietly slipping motivational notes under his players' hotel doors.
He is willingly to leave the Celtics because, with aging players and no real future hope, they had long since left him. But he is leaving the Celtics with a legacy that should make Clippers fans shiver.
That's exactly what Rivers was doing in the final seconds of the Celtics' championship win over the Lakers in 2008. He was shivering, because he was the first NBA coach in history to be doused with Gatorade on the court after winning a title.
That sort of celebration had always been reserved for champion football coaches, tough and smart guys who were respected by other tough and smart guys.
The Clippers never really have had that sort of guy, but pay attention. They do now.