After rejuvenating Clippers, Paul charts new course with trade to Houston Rockets

Veteran point guard chooses to join James Harden in what could be first of many moves to form another Western Conference powerhouse

David Aldridge

You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such awful nightmares.

–Contact, 1997

He was supposed to end the laughing, and the contempt, and for a while, he did. The Clipper Curse didn’t consume Chris Paul and the team for which he played six seasons, after David Stern powered down the Lakers’ dreams of restoration and green-lighted the Clippers. But Paul couldn’t get them any further than Elton Brand and Sam Cassell had a decade earlier. They got past Donald Sterling, but they couldn’t get past blowing that 3-1 lead to the Rockets in 2015.

And so Paul, not having beaten the Rockets, is … joining them?

Someone — can’t remember who — got excoriated for doing just that about a year ago, I recall.

But Kevin Durant, this morning, may still be lighting $100s on fire and giving his dog the last of the Ace of Spades.

And Chris Paul is keeping the line moving.

Paul is the latest superstar to dictate the terms of where he wants to go, and with whom he wants to play. It’s James Harden today; it may well be Carmelo Anthony tomorrow — and it may be Paul and ‘Melo and LeBron next year, in a city near you, or in Houston, who the hell knows?

The where isn’t as important now as the how.

Paul had no interest in remaining in L.A. with the current setup of the roster — and, maybe, the front office. ESPN’s Michael Eaves — very plugged into the Clippers as a former studio host and sideline reporter—wrote Wednesday that Paul came to “despise” Doc Rivers for what Paul considered favorable treatment by Doc Rivers toward his son, Austin. (Naturally, Austin Rivers denied there was friction on Twitter later in the day.)

Whatever the reason, Paul picked Harden, the runner-up for MVP and fellow superstar, to be his running mate. Anthony could well join them soon if the Knicks grant what is still his request — a buyout, per a league source, of the remaining two years of his contract.

That request could be tabled if there’s some clarity from the Knicks about what direction they plan to go in after Phil Jackson’s sudden departure Wednesday; are they planning to get vets who can help them win now (obviously, ‘Melo’s preference), or engage in robust rebuilding?

By agreeing to an opt-in and trade, of course, rather than simply signing with Houston as a free agent, Paul also kept his Bird Rights — and thus, kept open the possibility of a max deal in Houston next summer. (Whether the Rockets will be any more sanguine about giving him $200 million or so next year at 33 than the Clippers weren’t at 32 will be of interest.)

Or, Paul could walk and join LeBron and Dwyane Wade and a bought-out Anthony somewhere next year as the NBA’s Space Cowboys — old (by NBA standards) coots who just want one last ride together. There has been so much murmuring in league circles that the quartet is determined to find a home en masse in ’18. It was supposed to be with the Clippers, but the presence of DeAndre Jordan’s still-big deal, along with the possibility of Blake Griffin staying in the 310/213/818 (y’all got too many area codes) if he re-signs, likely made that impossible.

Why James shies away from his role in the modern player dictating the terms of his employment — a sea change from how it used to be and something that looks impossible to slow down — is for him to explain. But just as Paul insisted Doc Rivers be the coach before he’d commit long-term to the Clippers in ’11, he negotiated the terms of his departure.

The Paul Years in L.A., on balance, were the most successful in franchise history — six straight postseasons, after four postseasons in the previous 27 seasons in town.

Those playoffs came after Sterling’s slurs, and Blake Griffin’s Punchout of Matias Testi, and Jordan’s Dalliance with Dallas, and all the hopes dashed, year after year.

There was, frequently, drama. Paul is that kind of player, as most of the great ones are — never satisfied, always wanting more. He and Jordan got out of kilter a couple of years ago (as I wrote then, and they denied), igniting Jordan’s verbal deal with the Mavericks before an 11th-hour intervention of teammates and coaches and others with whom he’d grown close in the City of Angels changed his mind. The relationship improved enough for both to have a solid if unspectacular bond, about the same as Paul had with Griffin.

It rankled some way up in the Clips’ organization that Paul always seemed closer, more attuned, with players on other teams around the league than his own teammates. The injuries were no one’s fault, but they occurred with regularity the last few years — a separated shoulder, a broken right hand, a torn ligament in his left thumb.

But Paul’s talents, toughness and leadership made the Clippers a legitimate contender for the first time since they moved to the west coast. And, in a city where style matters, he brought panache and a little glitter to what had been a toad of a franchise for the better part of three decades. They never really replaced the Lakers as the city’s darlings, but they made significant inroads, further deepened by the billionaire pockets of Steve Ballmer.

Griffin’s decision on whether to stay or not is its own thing, as he is his own man, and the haul of Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker and a 2018 first (there were additional, and numerous, unguaranteed players in the deal to make it work cap wise) will provide some short-term stability and a chance at small forward development with Dekker, Houston’s first-round pick two years ago.

The Clippers are, again, in a state of flux. But they are no longer a joke of a franchise. Whatever Chris Paul didn’t accomplish in L.A., he did at least that.

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.