The Clippers rent out movie theaters on the road, go to UCLA games when they're at home and celebrate every birthday with cupcakes on the practice court. (Rookies handle the singing.) When Hill was recovering from a bone bruise and didn't feel like part of the team, Paul invited him to his house in Bel Air for dinner. When Odom was working back into shape, Paul offered daily pep talks. And when sixth man Jamal Crawford's wife gave birth in February to a baby girl named London, players posed for a picture, with Paul and forward Caron Butler holding a sign that read: WELCOME TO THE CLIPPERS FAMILY LONDON! Soon enough, London will be attending Lob City Day Care, as the alley-oop-happy team refers to its kid-friendly locker room. Paul and his wife, Jada, have two children, three-year-old Chris and seven-month-old Camryn. After home games it's not uncommon to see Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan babysitting Lil Chris. The juxtaposition with the Lakers, sniping in the locker room and scrapping for the No. 8 seed, is jarring.
Paul has unearthed pride in the Clippers that lay dormant for decades. He invited every employee to his shoe release party at Greystone Manor in West Hollywood last year, allowing sales managers to mingle with Rihanna, and he helped defuse a dispute between the organization and its most loyal fan. "WE GOT YOU!!!" Paul tweeted at Clipper Darrell when the club was trying to force him to change his nickname. The relationship was repaired, and Clipper Darrell is as vociferous as ever in his custom red-and-blue suit. "Chris is reachable, he's touchable," says Clippers guard Willie Green. "When you call him, he answers his phone."
Paul is usually the one punching the numbers. When Green was a free agent last summer, Paul called and said, "Willie G, I need you here." Green came in a sign-and-trade. Then he called Hill and asked, "What are you thinking?" Hill also signed. During a pickup game at the Clippers' practice facility, Paul spotted forward Matt Barnes and said, "You're going to be tough with the Lakers next year." Barnes explained that he too was a free agent. "Then you're going to be a Clipper," Paul declared. Even the team's new p.r. director, Dennis Rogers, came from New Orleans and was courted by Paul. Los Angeles eventually promoted front-office fixture Gary Sacks to general manager last September, but for a while agents joked that Paul was the G.M.—in which case he should be up for Executive of the Year. Thanks to their new reserves, the Clippers have the most prolific bench in the NBA and also the most enthusiastic, responding to every dunk with an impromptu dance party.
If the Clippers are a sorority, as they sometimes seem to be, Paul is both rush chair and pledge trainer. While he's invariably giving—no one donates more courts to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans or invites more underprivileged teens to Staples Center—he can be raw and ruthless. "He's a pit bull," says Green, "with a little man's complex." When Paul played Pop Warner, he once displaced a boy's Adam's apple trying to recover an onside kick, and the game had to be stopped for 30 minutes while an ambulance was summoned. When Paul was briefly called up to the West Forsyth varsity as a 5-foot freshman for the Frank Spencer Holiday Classic, a 6'3" guard immediately tried to pressure him, and he reflexively swung the ball at the giant's chin. Even conversations with C.J., who told his brother he had no chance at a major-college scholarship, turned into brawls. "I'd be trying not to hurt him and he'd be trying to kill me," C.J. says. "He'd bite." Paul's shoe line with Nike includes a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde edition, to match his split personality. "He becomes a demon," says Odom. "A Tasmanian devil."
Paul often spends the first three quarters establishing everyone else, as he did in elementary school, when his dad allowed him to score only on offensive rebounds. Guard Chauncey Billups has to tell him, "It's time!" The Clippers are most effective when Paul goes Hyde. The metamorphosis usually starts with a turnover, a questionable call or a defender reaching toward his mouth. Paul talks the entire game. He tells Green to stand in the corner and stay there. He tells Jordan to body up on out-of-bounds plays. He tells Griffin to "Watch the slip!" He used to shun mouthpieces for fear his teammates wouldn't be able to hear him clearly. "But I kept getting hit in the lip," he says. "Every time it healed, I'd get this terrible canker sore and I couldn't eat."
He now wears a mouthpiece but still feels a surge of rage whenever an opponent brushes against his bottom lip. Suddenly, his expression turns to a snarl and his tone to a bark. He shoots more and passes less. His Southern accent emerges. In February at Indiana the Clippers let a 17-point fourth-quarter lead shrink to four with 2:45 left. Paul's mouth was fine, but the game was in jeopardy. Enraged, he scored six straight points and the Clips escaped. "Best point guard in the universe," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. Even late in the All-Star Game, Paul told Western Conference teammate James Harden, "Can't be cool right now. We gotta win." The West prevailed, and Paul was voted MVP.
Some players have told Paul, "You can't talk to me like that," after he eviscerates them for a sloppy screen or a weak box-out. He tries to tailor his message to the individual, but it's hard to sugarcoat in the fourth quarter. "I have to tell guys, 'Don't listen to the tone, listen to the message,'" Barnes says. "Because he's always right."
When Paul was on jayvee at West Forsyth, he went to varsity practices so he could learn the plays, and when he was on varsity after he signed with Wake Forest, he went to Demon Deacons practices so he could learn their plays. When he was drafted No. 4 by the Hornets, he requested a DVD of the Princeton offense the team ran and mastered it by training camp. "He has good quickness, not great quickness," says Dave Miller, a former Hornets assistant. "He has good speed, not great speed. He's a good shooter, not a great shooter. What makes him great is his mind."
There is always a debate over the NBA's premier point guard, and the names always change, from Steve Nash to Deron Williams, Derrick Rose to Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo to Tony Parker. But Paul remains fixed atop the list. Player Efficiency Rating is a widely accepted pace-adjusted metric, devised by Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations and former ESPN analytics expert John Hollinger, which takes into account a player's positive and negative accomplishments. The average PER is set to 15. Paul's career PER is 25.5, the highest in NBA history among point guards (Magic's was 24.1), and now in his eighth season he has led all point guards in the category for each of the past five years. He trailed only James in PER last season and was behind only James and Durant at week's end. In the first five games of March, Paul dished out 56 assists with just four turnovers, and he isn't exactly playing it safe. He tossed a 70-foot lob to Griffin and an off-balance lob to Jordan, which he dunked with such force that Pistons guard Brandon Knight wound up on his back and splashed across cyberspace. "I played against John Stockton," says Thunder point guard Derek Fisher. "That's what it's like playing against Chris."
Paul's first game with the Clippers was against the Lakers, appropriately enough, last preseason. He kept running the pick-and-roll with Jordan, but it wasn't working, and during a timeout he pulled the young center aside. He instructed Jordan to turn his body slightly, just a few degrees, when setting a screen. On the next possession they ran pick-and-roll again, and Jordan caught a lob for a dunk. "There are a lot of things he does that I never used to understand," Jordan says. "Now I'm like, O.K., that's why." Sometimes, a play requires that Jordan set a high screen for Paul, but he calls for Griffin instead. "What are you doing?" Jordan asks. He realizes later that Paul wanted to be isolated against Griffin's defender, who was not capable of stopping him.