LOS ANGELES - Chris Paul returned to a Los Angeles basketball court on Saturday afternoon.
Not that you’d know it by the lack of media attention when he arrived.
Reporters were sparse inside the UCLA gym where his Houston team practiced, in part because the Clippers team that he left behind last summer was on the road and the Lakers team that the Rockets face on Sunday was handling the front end of its back-to-back set in Denver.
But also, one can surmise, because it’s not a true return.
As reunion games go, this is as strange as it gets for Paul because, well, it’s not actually a reunion. Yet because the Lakers play inside the same Staples Center where Paul tried for all those years to turn the Clippers into a legitimate title contender, and because a return to the city itself sparks so many fond memories no matter the opponent, there will be emotion here when the time for tipoff arrives. He’s just not sure which ones they will be.
“I don’t know (how I'll feel inside Staples),” said Paul, whose Rockets are spending five days and four nights here in all leading into a Thursday game at Utah. “I just – I don’t know … It’s cool being back, though. I tell you that much. To get to see a lot of familiar faces, and a lot of familiar areas, it’s good to be back.”
Paul, who used the leverage of his possible free agency to orchestrate the trade to Houston in late June, has long since explained his rationale for leaving, with his reasons ranging from the strong desire to play with James Harden to the feeling that the Clippers core had run its course. But the timing of him being back in town makes for the toughest of contrasts.
While injuries have decimated the Clippers (8-13) and will likely force a roster rebuild, the Rockets (17-4) have won 12 of their last 13 games and six consecutive since Paul's return from a knee injury that cost him nearly a month. What’s more, Paul has been serving as a sounding board of sorts for the Clippers star most likely to be on the move: center DeAndre Jordan.
Did we mention that Jordan is a Houston native who is expected to be a free agent this summer (player option worth $24.1 million for next season)? Relevant context, indeed.
“I talk to DJ just about every day,” Paul told USA TODAY Sports. “(About) everything. Life, hoop, everything. But I talk to him just about every day. Seriously … I always wish (the Clippers) the best, but for me – DeAndre, I talk to DJ literally about every day. And Jasen Powell, who’s the head trainer, I talk to him almost every day too.”
But back to Jordan for a minute …
Throughout these past few years in which the Clippers locker room was as scrutinized as any, the alleged friction between Jordan and Paul was routinely cited as a prime reason for their chemistry problems. When Jordan decided to sign with the Dallas Mavericks in free agency three summers ago – only to change his mind when Paul and so many other Clippers descended on his Houston house in that surreal, 11th-hour recruiting effort – the dynamic with Paul was in the spotlight like never before.
“Me and his relationship goes far beyond basketball,” Paul explained. “We’ve been like that for a while, yeah. Everybody (can) write whatever they want to write, man. I know everybody makes a story, you know what I mean?”
Translation: Anyone who wondered if Paul’s presence in Houston might serve as an obstacle to Jordan having interest in playing for the Rockets has their answer.
“One thing about the big fella, is he’s always going to play hard, always going to try to lead, always going to try to help those guys compete and win games,” Paul added.
As for an actual reunion game, the kind where all these subplots will likely be explored by a media contingent larger than the pair of reporters on hand on Saturday, the Rockets host the Clippers on Dec. 22 and play them in Los Angeles for the first time on Jan. 15.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick