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After Lob City Letdown, Chris Paul Seizes Second Shot at Superstar Marriage

The dustup that marred the return of Chris Paul to L.A. was one more reminder of the dysfunction that hounded the Lob City–Era Clippers. But the Point God has a new home, a new running buddy and a group of teammates who feel like a family.

Two nights before the 2008 playoffs the New Orleans Hornets gathered in a ballroom at Harrah's, a hotel and casino on the edge of the French Quarter, to toast 56 wins and conceive 16 more. It felt like a rehearsal dinner, players flanked by wives or girlfriends, everybody encouraged to stand and speak. Point guard Chris Paul took his college sweetheart from Wake Forest, Jada Crawley, and even she shared a few words. But the most enduring speech was delivered by small forward Morris Peterson, who had come to New Orleans after seven forgettable seasons in Toronto. "Cherish this team, this opportunity," Peterson said. "You may think it's always going to be this way, and you're always going to have a shot. But I've been around the NBA a long time, and you don't always have a shot. Things happen in this league. Injuries happen. Trades happen. You don't know if you'll ever be in this position again."

Paul, then 22 and in his third season with the team, eyed Peterson as if the vet had ordered too many Sazeracs. Man, listen, Paul thought, I'm going to win MVP in two weeks and then I'm going to win it again. I'm going to have a shot at this every year. He was the successor to Steve Nash, a mantle that consumed him since he was a rookie, stewing all night before an early-season showdown against the Suns. He wanted that game desperately, but coach Byron Scott subbed him out for his usual rest at the start of the fourth quarter while Mike D'Antoni rode Nash, and a 14-point lead vanished in what felt like seven seconds. Paul fumed, but 22 months later the Hornets were surging and the Suns fading, following the career arcs of their incandescent point guards. I'm Steve now, Paul told himself, and only the most manic Deron Williams devotee could argue.

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Paul adored those 2008 Hornets, the rollicking team dinners at his condo downtown and the heated game nights at Tyson Chandler's house in the suburbs. They traveled in packs a dozen deep, like on one Saturday night in Toronto, when they rolled into a popular club called Muzik. At midnight, early by T Dot standards, small forward Bonzi Wells noticed Paul paying the bill and calling the cars. "O.K.," Wells sighed, "I guess it's time to leave." The Hornets solemnly filed out of the club, then throttled the Raptors the next day for their 50th win. They hung together and scrapped together. Before practices, backup point guard Mike James would tell Paul, "I'm going at your neck!" Afterward, he'd leave muttering, "Little s---." Paul mastered the pick-and-roll with power forward David West, cash from 17 feet, but he could not persuade the sweet-shooting big man to step out to the three-point line. "Peezy," West cooed, "that's fool's gold."

It was a strange but sublime period in New Orleans, the city recovering from Hurricane Katrina and the franchise mulling whether to build or bolt. The Hornets practiced at the Alario Center in Jefferson Parish, but they would get booted for gun conventions and bird shows. A proposed training facility turned into a bank when funding lagged. "One time the front office told us we were moving to Kansas City," Paul recalls. "Another time, San Diego." They were informed they could not stay without reaching an attendance threshold. "No way we hit it," thought forward Ryan Bowen. But the 2008 Hornets earned the second seed in the Western Conference, pummeled the Mavericks in the first round and jumped out to a 2–0 lead on the Spurs. After Game 2, Paul glanced at the San Antonio bench and was met by a sickening image. "Nobody was fazed," he says. The Spurs won in seven. Kobe Bryant edged Paul for MVP. Mo Pete's words lingered.

Injuries happened. Trades happened. Ten years passed. The Hornets became the Pelicans, and the Bobcats became the Hornets. Paul became the players association president, the State Farm pitchman, the Point God. Jada became his wife. Weary of instability in New Orleans, they swung a move to Los Angeles and raised two children, Chris II and Camryn.

In six seasons with the Clippers, Paul always made the playoffs, always had a shot. But something was missing. The Clips did not roll a dozen deep. Group dinners were rare, and movie-night attendance waned. Says former Clippers forward Luc Mbah a Moute, "Guys just did their own thing." The Clippers were older than the Hornets and L.A. more sprawling than New Orleans. "Some of it could have had to do with me," says Paul. "You make time for what you want to make time for. But I do think the off-court stuff matters." Before Golden State faced the resurgent Clips two years ago, coach Steve Kerr told his Dubs, "They don't really love each other."

Paul comes from a close family and craves the kinship of a team. After the Hornets drafted him with the fourth pick in 2005, he grew homesick for Wake Forest's cafeteria and study hall, until point guard Speedy Claxton and his daughter started inviting him over after practice. But there is another, more pragmatic reason Paul yearns to keep running mates close: He is a demanding leader, and when you drop the hammer, it helps to also bring the glue. "If a guy is having real conversations with you, and then he comes at you during a game, you know it's not personal," Paul explains. "You know, if he goes nuts, it's just because he's trying to win."

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Paul refers to many of the 2008 Hornets as "VCR friends," because they can pause communication for six months and pick up where they left off. He made some VCR friends with the Clippers. "There were moments Chris and I hated each other," recalls guard J.J. Redick, now with the 76ers, "but there wasn't one time I had to go to him after a game and say, 'Yo, man, we're cool, right?' I knew we were always cool." Lob City—presided over by Paul, power forward Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan—was a viable NBA municipality. But Paul sensed, from his bayou days, it could be more. Last April, in the 81st game of the season, L.A. obliterated the Rockets. During a dead ball, Houston star James Harden turned to Paul. "So," Harden said, "what are you going to do?"

The return of the gilded free agent to the city he spurned has become a modern NBA tradition, marked by boo-birds, video montages and awkward ovations. On special occasions you see cupcake shirts. What you don't expect to see, not normally, is the departed headliner perched in full uniform behind two bodyguards at the mouth of his former locker room as a new teammate threatens to fight an old one. Such was the postgame scene on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Staples Center, with Rockets forward Trevor Ariza seeking out Clippers guard Austin Rivers. Memes spread of Paul coordinating a military-grade ambush through secret Staples Center hallways, a depiction that was wildly entertaining but wholly inaccurate. According to numerous Rockets sources, Paul was tailing Ariza, along with Harden and their bodyguards, in an effort to restrain him. No punches were thrown, but in the bedlam, one truth was exposed. The Lob City Clippers really didn't love one another, and as much as injuries capsized them, so did disharmony.

Two days after the ruckus, Paul sounded apologetic over the phone from Houston, even though he didn't instigate. "I'm supposed to be the friend who doesn't let anything happen," he said, the friend who calls the cars at midnight. He is attempting to re-create a slice of New Orleans in Houston, with the camaraderie and the edge. Ariza was a fellow Hornet. Forward P.J. Tucker was a childhood foe. On the night in June when the Rockets acquired Paul from the Clippers for a grab bag that included guards Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley, general manager Daryl Morey FaceTimed his newest Hall of Fame ballhandler at 3 a.m. "What do you think about Luc," Morey asked. A free agent, Mbah a Moute could solidify Houston's wing defense, but he could also help Paul apply lessons learned in L.A. "This is our chance," Paul told Mbah a Moute, after hanging up with Morey, "to build what we've been talking about."

There would be pickup games at UCLA and Loyola Marymount, a bachelor party and a Caribbean retreat, a Kendrick Lamar concert and an Astros playoff game. "I didn't even get booed," Paul laughs, in contrast to his Dodger Stadium visits, surrounded by Lakers loyalists. The Rockets scheduled bowling nights, and on the road, college-football-watch parties. After Christmas, players took their wives to Boston, and for New Year's, Jada threw a bash, as the Hornets used to do. "You need the relationships if you want to be great," says Mbah a Moute, who signed with the Rockets in July. "Otherwise, somebody gets caught in the heat of the moment and says something someone else doesn't like. But if you go to dinner after, and talk it out, you can squash it." Paul and Griffin were productive coworkers, but the NBA is not Microsoft, and a lot of glittery partnerships have withered without a personal touch. "I'm not telling you every night in Houston we're sitting around a campfire," Paul says. "I'm just telling you the biggest thing I've learned in this league is the importance of communication."

He recalls a morning commute on Interstate 405 in L.A., when he scrolled through a few dozen unanswered texts. "You know how we all get these messages and we don't respond, and then we see the people who sent them and say, 'Oh, sorry, I didn't get your message.' No. You got it. You got the message. You chose not to respond. I got so tired of avoiding stuff. That's what we're doing. We're avoiding. And I can't do it anymore. I can't have the pink elephant in the room. If somebody is asking for tickets, and I don't have them, I've got to say it. It's the same with relationships. If we have issues, let's get them out there. Let's talk about them. We might disagree. But we won't be doing all this stuff." He punctuates with a convincing side-eye. It is an expression Harden and Dwight Howard would probably recognize. Two years ago the Rockets also had college-football-watch parties, only nobody showed. NBA elites often go separate ways. "I've talked to James about all this," Paul says. "We can't do it."

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Paul and Harden, both survivors of superstar marriages that either crumbled or expired, spoke last spring about ways to help each other. Harden could demonstrate the benefits of a modern offense; Paul could share defensive expertise. By taking turns with the ball, they'd sacrifice stats but potentially extend seasons and careers. "They broke down situations," says Irv Roland, a trusted Rockets player development coach who has trained Harden since he was 19 and Paul since he was 20. "'I'll get the ball inbounds, you take off and I'll kick ahead to you. Will you be O.K. with that?'"

They tested themselves in pickup games, the first at a high school gym in Las Vegas against Houston's summer league squad. Flanked by Ariza and stretch forward Ryan Anderson, Harden and Paul fell behind the jayvee by 25 through three quarters. "Then they locked in on D and got guys shots," Roland recounts. "They went on a crazy run and came all the way back." They played about three pickup games a week in L.A., Paul and Harden always on the same side. The morning after Ariza's wedding in Orange County, when most guests were still groggy, Paul and Harden drove back north and hit the Drew League.

After a decade spent probing crowded lanes and unfurling elbow jumpers, with great success, Paul found himself on courts that seemed to be twice as wide. Griffin and Jordan form a classic 4–5 combo, forcing opponents to pack the paint. The Rockets station snipers such as Anderson and guard Eric Gordon 35 feet from the basket and defenders follow, stalking them as far as center court. "We laugh about that all the time in film," Anderson says. When Paul and Harden bound around the initial high screen from center Clint Capela, they are essentially playing one-on-one because nobody dares leave a shooter.