The Lakers wonder to this day.
What if …?
What if the NBA hadn’t canceled a trade that would have sent Chris Paul to them?
There are no such recriminations on the other side of the Staples Center corridor.
Paul made his latest return to the building Wednesday night, almost two entire seasons after orchestrating a trade that sent him from the Clippers to the Houston Rockets.
With Paul scoring 29 points, the championship-contending Rockets blew out the Clippers 135-103. He was vintage Paul, collecting seven assists and sinking a shot that covered three-quarters of the length of the court with time expiring in the third quarter.
He could return here again in a couple of weeks, as the Clippers and Rockets could potentially meet in the first round of the playoffs.
And yet, no animus.
Paul was booed when he shot free throws, but the chorus of disapproval was noticeably unenthusiastic.
There are no regrets here. There is no second-guessing.
“Obviously, where we’re at, it’s a pretty good place,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said.
The atmosphere at Staples Center is festive when the Clippers play these days. The players are likable. The future inspires hope.
Paul joining the Clippers marked the start of the greatest period in their previously miserable history. His departure was another kind of gift to the franchise, even if the Clippers didn’t know about it at the time.
“He was important to our team,” Rivers said. “He was important to the whole franchise. So you lose a player like that, you have to evaluate who you are, where you want to go, what you want to be.”
When the Clippers sent Paul to the Rockets, they knew they had to adapt.
They had to become smarter.
They had to become bolder.
They had to become the progressive franchise they are now.
Recalling the franchise-altering exit, Rivers estimated there were only 40 players of Paul’s caliber in the NBA. Rivers corrected himself.
“Probably not 40,” he said.
The coach’s point remained the same: “When a guy like that leaves, you definitely have to evaluate where you want to go.”
If Paul had agreed to a new contract after the 2016-17 season, chances are he would still be here. Maybe Blake Griffin would be here too. If not, DeAndre Jordan would be.
The franchise’s reverence for the three players would have made it difficult for the Clippers to break up the group. Paul spared the team from having to make the decision.
They traded Griffin the next season. Jordan signed with the Dallas Mavericks as a free agent in the offseason that followed.
In reality, that group had already exhausted its chances. The “Lob City” Clippers had two real chances to win a championship — in 2013-14, when they lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals, and in 2014-15, when they were eliminated by the Rockets at the same stage.
Dealing Paul was in it of itself bountiful.
In Patrick Beverley, they acquired a player whose defensive efforts helped them reach the playoffs this season. They received a first-round draft pick from the Rockets, which they traded for Danilo Gallinari.
More important, they landed two affordable players who were not only key players on the team this season, but are also expected to be part of their future: Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell.
And if Paul had remained with the Clippers, he could have signed with them the four-year, $160-million contract he signed with the Rockets. Paul will be paid $44 million in the final season of his contract; he will be 37 when his deal expires.
That’s worth it for the Rockets, who are in win-now mode, looking to capitalize on the partnership between Paul and 29-year-old James Harden.
The Clippers might be playing for now, but what they are really doing is building for later. They are starting a 20-year-old in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and a couple of 22-year-olds in Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac.
Without the burden of any oversized contract, the Clippers have the freedom to pursue the free agents or trade targets of their choice.
“We’ve made a pretty good adjustment,” Rivers said.