LOS ANGELES -- "Basketball reasons."
It is a phrase that will forever live in infamy or ecstasy in Los Angeles depending on which team you support.
It is the clear fork in the road that has led to the current surreal state of basketball in Los Angeles, where the Clippers are 21 games over .500, while the Lakers are four games below .500 and out of the playoffs (if they were to start today).
Quite simply, the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers haven't been the same since NBA commissioner David Stern nixed the trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers prior to last season before signing off on the deal that sent him to the Clippers just six days later.
On Thursday, the next chapter of the Lakers-Clippers rivalry since Paul was traded, untraded and traded again to Los Angeles played out at Staples Center. It ended the same way most of them have since Paul was traded to L.A. as the Clippers beat the Lakers, 125-101.
It was the Clippers' third straight win over the Lakers this season and the first time the Clippers have beaten the Lakers three times in one season in 20 years. Since last season, the Clippers now are 4-2 against the Lakers and 7-2 if you count the preseason. The Clippers have actually maintained the lead in all three games this season for all but a minute, with the Lakers' biggest lead in those games being a single point. The Clippers were up by as many as 28 points Thursday.
At this point, it's beyond absurd to argue about which team in Los Angeles is better. One team looks primed for a run at the NBA Finals while the other is on the verge of missing the playoffs altogether for only the second time since 1994. Unless this is a history debate, the Clippers are easily the better team in L.A., and the disparity between the two couldn't be any wider than it is right now.
The sad state of affairs in Lakerland, especially after any loss to the Clippers, will always make Lakers fans yearn for Paul. They will crucify Stern for his actions, curse "basketball reasons" and say Lob City should have never been built.
As good as the basketball gods have been to the Lakers over their storied history, the truth is Paul always belonged on the Clippers.
Yes, Paul would have cured a lot of the Lakers' problems. He would have given them the best point guard in the NBA and a leader who would have cleaned up a lot of the garbage piling up in the Lakers' locker room that often overflows into the public eye. Kobe Bryant has as much respect for Paul as anyone in the league, and would have allowed Paul to be a leader in the locker room and deal with the diverse egos and personalities in a way he knows he can't. Paul would be an infinitely more talented version of Derek Fisher on a team that desperately could use a presence like that right now.
Don't look for Paul to wonder how he would fit on the Lakers or how life would be different if "basketball reasons" had never happened. As he stood in the Clippers' locker room Thursday night before boarding a private jet with Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe for NBA All-Star Weekend, he shook his head when he was asked whether he has ever thought about how life would be different if he were a Laker.
"Never," Paul said. "I can't. I'm in the moment and loving what I'm doing right now."
Some might think Paul is simply playing revisionist history, but he swears he always wanted to be a Clipper. Even while his trade to the Lakers was being worked out with a Clippers trade on the backburner, Paul said Thursday night, he always hoped the Clippers deal would happen instead of the Lakers deal.
"They were talking about the possibility of where I might be traded to," Paul said. "I really hoped and wanted to come here and try to build something and do things that have never been done here."
Paul compared it to his recruiting process in college when Skip Prosser was trying to get Paul to go to Wake Forest instead of more storied programs such as Duke and North Carolina.
"Wake Forest beat Duke after a big game, and I was a junior or senior in high school," Paul said. "And Skip Prosser came up to me and said, 'See, we're trying to build something.' We wanted Wake to be like the Dukes and North Carolinas. Obviously we have a long way to go but that had a lot to do with why I went to Wake."
When Paul arrived in Los Angeles, he couldn't find a single Clippers hat. He and his wife drove around the city, trying to find one hat to wear but continually came up empty. Fast-forward a year, and Paul was sent a picture of the Magic Johnson Sports store at LAX last week that was filled with more Clippers hats and shirts than Lakers merchandise.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't show the guys that picture of Magic's store at LAX," Paul said. "It's pretty cool to see that. It's all good and well, but at the end of the day, you have to win. It's all about the postseason. It means nothing if we don't do things in the postseason."
In other words, Paul's time in Los Angeles and with the Clippers will be judged solely by "basketball reasons."