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.
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."
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."
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.
Both are deliberate drivers but swift decision-makers. By training camp, Paul understood Houston's offense so thoroughly that D'Antoni, who took over the Rockets in 2016, stopped a workout and led the team to the grease board. "You already know our actions," D'Antoni, told Paul. "Draw something up." Ever since his first encounter with Nash, Paul has studied D'Antoni on the sideline, admiring a coach who never appeared to halt his point guard and call a play. When D’Antoni was an assistant in Philadelphia, he offered Paul an early scouting report on injured giant Joel Embiid, and when D’Antoni’s son was admitted to Duke, Paul provided the kid with some unsolicited college counseling. “You can’t go there,” Paul said. Michael D’Antoni graduated from Wake and is now working toward an advanced degree there.
D'Antoni rejects the notion that the Rockets sped up Paul's pace. "Nudged him up," is the phrase the coach prefers, and let him fly. Houston averages 43.3 three-point attempts—the Nets, with 34.0, rank second—and Paul, who entered the league without much of a J, is jacking a career-high 7.1 threes per game. "Don't look for a better shot," D'Antoni tells him. "This is the best shot you get. Trust it. If that means you shoot five threes in a row, shoot five threes in a row."
Houston has the second-best record in the West, trailing only you-know-who, and the Rockets are 18–2 with Paul and Harden in the lineup. When Paul missed three weeks early in the season with a bruised left knee, he deconstructed D'Antoni's system on the bench and in the huddle, out loud. "I've never heard anybody analyze the game that way," Anderson says. "So in this situation you should set a step-up screen here. He was visualizing exactly how he fit." When Paul returned, Anderson noticed something else strange. "Whenever he hit me, I felt like I couldn't miss. He lines up the laces for you every time. It's always right there." Well, not always. Redick played four years with Paul in L.A. "He probably threw five bad passes," J.J. estimates.
The Rockets are growing accustomed to Paul's fastidious tendencies. During a walk-through this month before a game against the Trail Blazers he asked players to run the same pick-and-roll coverage four times so he could memorize the full rotation. "Maybe guys get mad under their breath because it's tedious work and they're tired of doing it over and over again," says Mike James, the former Hornet who is now a player development intern in Houston. "But how can you not respect the source?"
Chris Paul sits in an empty bar on the second floor of the Peninsula hotel in Chicago, nibbling a lobster roll and watching a Little League video. He misses baseball. He used to coach part time at West Los Angeles Little League, pitching batting practice to his son the morning after night games and hitting fungoes while wearing a cast when he broke his right hand. "The only thing that's different from your dad," he told the young Dodgers two years ago, "is that my work's on TV." That season ended after a Dodger overran second base and was tagged out late in a playoff game. Paul left his spot in the third base coaching box and kept an arm around the boy's shoulders until the tears dried. No one saw except a smattering of parents in the bleachers.
"This is an abnormal life," Paul says—friendships with Jay-Z and Bob Iger, a new pair of Jordan Brand CP3s every game. He searches for ways to balance it: 500-piece puzzles with eight-year-old Chris II, phone calls with five-year-old Camryn, soccer games and ballet recitals and fake snow in the front yard at Christmas. In L.A. he drove Little Chris to car pool at 6:40 a.m., dropping him off on Ventura Boulevard, before continuing south to the Clippers' facility. Fatherhood is his favorite subject, particularly in regard to sports. "I never know if I'm being too hard on them, or not hard enough," he laments. "When we get in the car, I talk about the game. 'What do you think is the toughest thing for you right now? What do you think you need to work on?' But I never want the resentment, you thinking I pushed too hard, and then getting to a place where you don't love it anymore." Paul let Little Chris join an AAU basketball team in Houston and then yanked him out, fearing he was too young.
On the day last spring that Paul informed agents Leon Rose and Steven Heumann he intended to consider other free-agent destinations, CAA Sports co–head Howie Nuchow invited him to his office. Paul is a client but also a confidant, and Nuchow wondered if his friend was overreacting to another postseason disappointment. "You have one shot at life, one shot to do right by your family," Nuchow said. "You love your life in L.A., your friends, your environment. Your kids are happy in their schools. I know that wouldn't matter to everybody, but you're different. If you leave, you're messing with a formula that's working." Nuchow wasn't trying to re-recruit Paul for the hometown team. He was simply reminding him of essentials beyond the arena.
"I do feel a deep responsibility to my family," Paul says, "and they were settled. They were good. But I also feel a responsibility to the grind, and if basketball isn't right, then everything else isn't right." His older brother, C.J., says, "He didn't want to be 'angry dad.'" After the deal—which Paul facilitated by opting in to the final year of his contract—he snuck a peek at his son's text-only cellphone. A buddy had asked how he felt about leaving L.A. "My dad said he had to," Little Chris replied.
Acclimation is ongoing. Paul reflexively turns on the TV at 4 p.m., expecting the East Coast tip-offs. Flights are shorter in the middle of the country, but up-and-back trips are more common, which can cut down on extended homestands. Paul took Little Chris to Indiana in November and D'Antoni let him sit in on meetings.
Paul insists he will never coach because of the travel, but he roams the sideline every summer for his AAU entry at the Peach Jam. He can recite the top 10 players in the class of 2020, and if they happen to be on Team CP3, he probably keeps their picture in his phone. Here’s Grant Williams at Tennessee, Wendell Carter at Duke, Collin Sexton at Alabama,” he says, displaying photos. At his annual guard camp in Winston-Salem, N.C., Paul once taught a teenaged Jeff Teague how to rack up steals. "If a guy is dribbling with his right hand, I mess with his right arm," Paul instructed. "What does he do? Switch the ball to his left hand. Then I take it."
Harden is 28, four years younger than Paul, and they come across as freshman and senior. When Harden strained his hamstring, one of the few injuries he's sustained, Paul warned him, "It can be dark. It can be lonely." They are only in the honeymoon phase of the superstar marriage and who knows how their union will look after a couple of series with the Warriors. "I still go nuts at times," Paul admits. "That's just the way I am." But so far concerns about contrasting personalities and overlapping skill sets appear unfounded. The Rockets cannot match Hall of Famers with Golden State, but they believe their breakneck system can bridge the gap, assuming they incinerate the nets. The way to topple the champs, they maintain, is with 125 points and a few timely stops. Houston put up 116 against the Warriors last Saturday, clinching the season series, 2–1.
Teams involved in physical altercations tend to rationalize them as bonding exercises. When Paul jawed on the floor with Griffin on MLK Day, he was actually defending D'Antoni over a prior run-in, and when Ariza scuffled with Griffin he was really defending Paul. Such is life in a locker room when the locker room is unified. But this was not a trust fall. In the days after the game players spent much time on the phone, debriefing each other. Some Rockets chatted amiably with some Clippers. Paul called Rivers but did not hear back. The NBA issued two-game suspensions for Ariza and Houston guard Gerald Green, clearing Paul and Harden.
The rematch is on Feb. 28, when the eyes of the league will be trained on Staples Center, but the Rockets will circle far more important dates in the months ahead. Come April, Paul will pull his Mo Pete and fire his shot, 10 years in the making and 400 miles down the bayou.