Clips' transformation all but complete

Clippers owner Donald Sterling might be considered frugal, but should he get his coach, he will have paid around $225 million over the past year for the services of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and Doc Rivers. ESPN.com Illustration

LOS ANGELES -- When the Los Angeles Clippers traded for Chris Paul a year and a half ago, the perception of arguably the most-maligned franchise in sports history began to change.

On Sunday night, after the Clippers agreed in principle to a deal with the Boston Celtics for head coach Doc Rivers, their perception changed forever.

Every joke about the Clippers being cheap, second-rate and unable to keep or attract top talent instantly became as outdated as a pay phone outside an Apple store.

The Clippers went from unwilling to pay a coach a reasonable salary to acquiring the highest-paid coach in the NBA.

They went from being in the mix to re-sign Paul to all but locking him up to a five-year, $107.3 million contract, which he is now expected to sign next month.

The Clippers are no longer simply changing their culture and becoming more respectable. Their metamorphosis from laughingstock to championship contender is complete. They will not only be one of the favorites to win the title next season; they've set the groundwork to be contenders for the foreseeable future.

This is just the first of many dominoes that will fall into place for the Clippers this offseason.

It's still uncertain whether those dominoes will include Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, whom the Clippers would also like to acquire to keep with Rivers, saving them from being part of Boston's rebuilding plan. The Clippers had wanted to trade DeAndre Jordan to Boston for Garnett, in addition to the Rivers deal, but NBA commissioner David Stern said such a deal in conjunction with the Rivers deal was against the league's collective bargaining agreement.

That doesn't mean the sides won't at least try making a deal again. But the fact that Garnett was willing to waive his "no trade" clause to play for the Clippers is another significant sign of change for the previously star-crossed franchise.

Players used to demand "no trade" clauses in their contracts to protect themselves from being traded to a team like the Clippers. Now Garnett is willing to waive that clause -- something he had said he would never do -- to leave the Celtics and end his Hall of Fame career with the Clippers. Let that sink in for a moment.

The Clippers franchise that then-point guard Rivers played for during the 1991-92 season is unrecognizable from the one he'll be joining now. Clippers owner Donald Sterling might be considered frugal, but should he indeed get his coach, he will have paid around $225 million over the past year to lock up the services of Paul, Blake Griffin and Rivers.

No matter how this eventually plays out and how much the Clippers end up resembling the Celtics, the headliner in this deal and what makes this such a franchise-altering move is Rivers.

The Clippers go from Vinny Del Negro, who has only five years of coaching experience and was largely in over his head in L.A., to Rivers, who is one of the longest-tenured and most-respected coaches in the NBA. Among active coaches, he's second only to Gregg Popovich in both departments.

Rivers is the kind of coach that Paul and Griffin, who have never advanced past the second round of the playoffs, have been yearning for. He's a coach who has won an NBA title and can show Paul and Griffin what it takes to be champions. He's a coach with a voice that commands the respect of everyone in the locker room and won't be seen as a puppet for any player. He's a coach who can mold a talented roster into a championship team, just as Phil Jackson did with the Lakers, Popovich did with the Spurs and, well, Rivers did with the Celtics.

The Clippers were also interested in Byron Scott, Brian Shaw and Lionel Hollins during their coaching search and were expected to decide between one of them if the Rivers deal fell through. They all have respectable résumés and will be good coaches for other teams, but none of them is Rivers; he was always the coach the Clippers wanted.

Rivers is one of the key pieces to what the Clippers believe will be a championship team.

When Jackson came to Los Angeles in 1999 to coach a Lakers team that had simply hit a ceiling under Del Harris and Kurt Rambis, he was amazed at how open the players were to everything he told them. They were like sponges who simply wanted to get to where he had been.

"I think those guys would have laid down and let me run on top of them or something when I first got there," Jackson said recently. "They were very, very receptive."

The same will be the case when Rivers stands in front of the Clippers at his very first practice in Los Angeles. There won't be any more second-guessing plays or bickering over playing time like there was with Del Negro.

For the first time in franchise history, the Clippers have long-term stability. Griffin signed a five-year deal last summer. Paul will sign a five-year deal this summer. And Rivers will be here for at least the next three seasons.

The culture change is complete. The perception has been forever altered. The Clippers are officially here for the long haul.