LOS ANGELES -- In his first meeting with the new Clippers coach, Chris Paul didn't get what he expected to hear from Doc Rivers. He got what he needed to hear.
"He basically told me I wasn't anything," Paul said, with a slight chuckle. "He told me I hadn't done anything in this league."
What was Paul's reaction? Indignation? Anger? Do-you-know-who-I-am? None of that, actually.
"He was right."
It sounds silly almost, how a six-time All-Star, Olympic gold medalist and widely-recognized clever floor leader could have his entire resume wiped out in a 30-minute, ego-crunching sit-down. But Rivers was, indeed, correct about Paul from the standpoint of championships. At age 28 and after eight years in the NBA, Paul hasn't made it past the second round, and Rivers was judging him on that. Players on Paul's talent level are graded on an upward curve, where titles weigh a lot heavier than All-Star jerseys. The individual stuff is a nice way to get established in this league, but legacies are built on championships, and Paul has none. Could he someday retire in peace without one? No, not really. Paul knows this, Rivers knows this. No offense to Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing and others like them, but Paul's career would be tarnished.
"I'm honest," Rivers said.
And so, one of the best point guards in the league will embark on a legacy journey starting this season, one that must include a championship pit-stop or two before he's finished for good. That's why the Clippers hired Rivers in the off-season and also fortified their outside shooting with a pair of snipers, J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, to give Paul the extra help he needs. The organization realizes the time is now to take advantage of Paul's prime years, and what's more, Paul knows this, too.
"That's our goal," he said.
The urgency to win now is hardly confined to Paul. A handful of established superstars in their mid- to late-20s are feeling the pinch: Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook the most prominent of the bunch. They've all taken steps to put themselves in position to get a ring. While their NBA biological clock isn't anywhere near the alarm stage, they want to win sooner rather than later. None are willing to go the Dirk Nowitzki route and wait until they're well into their 30s before finally cashing in. And they definitely don't want to reach the point of desperation and go team-hopping in their golden years in search of a title, as Gary Payton and a few others did in the past, as Steve Nash is doing now with the Lakers.
They all want to follow the LeBron James example to a degree, by aligning themselves with good-to-great teammates and situations, while having a huge say in who coaches them. It has become a game within the game, this spirited chase for championships among the talented twentysomethings.
You can question their methods, and many have, with LeBron's departure from Cleveland being the most dramatic example. But there's something admirable in young players wanting to win now. It speaks highly of their competitive desire and their ultimate goal, which should be every player's goal. Most players in the early stages of their careers, or even in their mid-20s, are all about personal goals. The priorities usually go in this order: Get established, win awards, make money, reap the benefits of fame, gobble up endorsements and hopefully win a title somewhere in the process. Or maybe not.
That has changed somewhat. LeBron triggered the start of a new order, at least in this generation of stars, by taking a pay cut and risking public backlash by leaving the Cavs for the Heat, even if it meant sharing the marquee with two other stars. But that was the least of LeBron's concerns. He wanted to win a string of titles -- "not one, not two, not three" etc. -- before he reached his 30s. He wanted to catch and maybe pass Michael Jordan's six rings, and the best way was to start early enough. The bar essentially was raised, and his colleagues joined in.
And suddenly, you had Melo bolting Denver for the Knicks (which was done for financial and exposure reasons as well) and Paul informing New Orleans that he wouldn't sign an extension. You had Chris Bosh leaving Toronto, where he was a star, to join a team where he'd be the No. 3 option. You had Durant boo-hooing on his mother's shoulder after losing the 2012 title to LeBron, and Durant was just 23 at the time.
"Great players want to win," said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni, who briefly coached Melo in New York. "They know they're going to get all the awards and stuff anyway. Maybe some of the lesser players are content to have a decent career and make money, but not the great ones. Not someone like Kobe."
The lack of championships caused grief to a number of players and became their scarlet letter. The most recent example is Tracy McGrady. He retired this summer after trying, and failing, to win that elusive title by joining the Spurs as a bench player. McGrady was often mocked for never getting beyond the first round, which often was due to circumstances beyond his control (injury, lack of great teammates). Fair or not, it could prevent him from making the Hall of Fame.
It's a legacy that LeBron didn't want, and one that Paul is desperate to avoid.
Paul's first six seasons were spent with the Hornets, who made gradual steps toward respectability but always fell short in the tough West, where anyone wanting a title had to go through Kobe Bryant and/or Tim Duncan. The Hornets did get David West and a few other decent players but never surrounded Paul with anyone like Blake Griffin, his shotgun rider with the Clippers. And the ownership situation in New Orleans was a mess. Sensing doom, and approaching the end of his contract, Paul bailed, leveraging his way to the Clippers after an aborted trade to the Lakers.
It wasn't done for the money; he would've gotten a max deal in New Orleans. And it wasn't done for lifestyle reasons. Paul wanted a fresh start with an eye toward a title. After a pair of disappointing finishes under coach Vinny Del Negro, the Clippers and Paul believe the formula is finally right with Rivers, who won a title in Boston (and if not for injuries, could've had at least one more).
As for the burden of being the favorite in the West in his first season with the Clippers, Rivers said: "It's open. I don't think anyone's claimed it. Since it's open, then yes, us and some other teams. But we have a lot of work to do."
The Clippers aren't on a three-year plan. They're on a win-now plan. And nobody feels the urge more than Paul, who finally has the right coach, who has teammates he can win with, and who'll be judged from this point on by how far he takes the Clippers.
To paraphrase Rivers, Paul hasn't done anything in this league except collect awards and paychecks. For someone like him, that's not enough.