His words were a “formality,” simply confirming what the team already knew, one Clippers official said Wednesday, after news broke about a trade that sent the All-Star guard to the Rockets in exchange for guards Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams, forward Sam Dekker, center Montrezl Harrell, other players who do not have guaranteed contracts and a 2018 first-round draft pick.
Paul’s relationship with Clippers coach Doc Rivers had grown rocky — possibly over the team’s refusal to include Austin Rivers, the coach’s son, in a deal to acquire Carmelo Anthony — and there also was a sense that Paul and fellow All-Star Blake Griffin had tired of playing with each other.
The Clippers still were interested in re-signing Paul, but not for the maximum five years and $205 million, one team executive said. The prospect of paying Paul more than $46 million in the final year of such a deal, when he would be 38, wasn’t attractive. And the Clippers were not interested in granting him a no-trade clause.
On his Twitter account, Paul thanked the Clippers organization and the team’s fans. He also wrote, “Unbelievable amount of emotions right now — I don’t even know what to say. Lots of love and tears. I’m so blessed and thankful for the ability to play this game, this is the part that no one can prepare you for.”
In the end, what happened to the Oklahoma City Thunder last year when it lost Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors became a cautionary tale for the Clippers. “The Clippers had to deal or they would have lost him for nothing,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “The Rockets could have created cap space to get Chris.”
The trade allowed the Clippers to get something in return, and it saved the Rockets the trouble of having to clear salary-cap space before the start of free agency.
“We feel that combining two of the league’s greatest players in James Harden and Chris Paul, operating in Coach [Mike] D’Antoni’s system, gives us a championship caliber team that will compete at the highest level for years to come,” Rockets owner Leslie Alexander said in a statement.
In Beverley, the Clippers get a tough, hard-nosed competitor who was on the NBA’s All-Defensive first team. He has a team-friendly contract that pays him $5.5 million next season with a team option for 2018-19 for the same price.
Dekker, 23, is an athletic player with decent three-point range. Williams is one of the NBA’s best sixth men. Harrell is a high-energy player who will be entering only his third season in the league. The other players coming to the Clippers — forward Kyle Wiltjer and guards Darrun Hilliard and DeAndre Liggins — have been seldom-used reserves.
With Paul’s salary off the books, the Clippers believe they are in better position to sign Griffin to a five-year, $175-million extension when the free-agent signing period begins Friday night.
In Paul, the team now had the established superstar it craved, pairing him with young big men DeAndre Jordan and Griffin, who coined the term “Lob City” when informed of the deal.
The Clippers instantly became a credible threat, winning their second playoff series since the franchise moved to California in 1978. However, they were quickly snuffed out in the second round, being swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
Paul would go on to be the All-Star Game’s Most Valuable Player in 2013.
The team continued to pile up regular-season victories, winning 56 games the following year and 57 in Paul’s third season, both franchise records. But even the addition of Doc Rivers as coach couldn’t get the Clippers over what was becoming a familiar hurdle.
In the second round of the 2014 playoffs, the Clippers had a chance to take a 3-2 series lead over Oklahoma City, leading by 13 points late in the fourth quarter. But with pressure mounting, the Clippers wilted, with Paul unexpectedly in the center of it. Paul committed a pair of turnovers and a crucial foul in the final 20 seconds, then tearfully took responsibility for the loss after the game.
The Clippers were eliminated by the Thunder in Game 6.
The heartbreak got worse the following spring.
In Game 7 of the first round, Paul, despite a hamstring injury, hit what could be the considered the biggest shot in Clippers’ history, nailing a game-winner over Tim Duncan and the Spurs to get a victory in a tremendously tight series.
But after the Clippers went up 3-1 in Round 2, seemingly headed for a showdown with the rival Golden State Warriors, the team lost three-straight games to the Rockets, including another monumental collapse, this time blowing a 19-point second-half lead in Game 6.
Paul’s playoffs again were cut short the next season, with a broken hand knocking him out of a first-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers.
And while he was healthy against the Utah Jazz during the most recent playoffs, the Clippers again were hit hard by injuries, losing in seven games.
A demanding teammate, Paul often was polarizing inside the Clippers’ locker room because of his high expectations and on-court demeanor. Jordan nearly left the Clippers in free agency for Dallas, in part, because of fractures in his relationship with Paul. The two would say the friction was blown out of proportion, though the chatter always persisted.
Paul’s performance on the court was unquestioned, where he was the best player to wear a Clipper uniform.
During his six seasons with the organization, Paul averaged 18.8 points, 9.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.2 steals while committing only 2.3 turnovers per game. He was named to three All-NBA first teams, two All-NBA second teams and six All-Defensive first teams.
He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in assists, second in steals, fourth in free-throw percentage and sixth in points.