LOS ANGELES -- Dwight Howard had a smile on his face as he walked back into Staples Center on Monday night for the first time since leaving the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that wanted him so badly that it plastered a sign outside the arena and billboards around town begging him to stay.
He shook his head as he was asked questions about his former team while he took off socks with a caricature of a dog on them and gave computer advice to reporters. In the locker room down the hall, Chris Paul changed into his uniform without a smile on his face and talked to no one as he took to the court before anyone else.
They're the NBA's version of "The Odd Couple," a good cop/bad cop tandem that could have dominated the league for the foreseeable future.
Two years ago, Paul and Howard were heavily pursued by the Lakers. It was a match made in basketball heaven but doomed for failure without Paul's domino falling first.
It was a series of moves that would have not only made the Lakers current championship favorites, but positioned them to contend for at least the next five seasons with this generation's version of Magic and Kareem.
And then "basketball reasons" happened, and, well, you know how that goes.
The Lakers technically pulled off both deals, but when the first deal for Paul fell through and eventually led to him landing with the Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers' subsequent deal for Howard was doomed to fail in the long run. They didn't know it at the time. No one did. That's the funny thing about hindsight: What seems so clear to us now was the furthest thing from our minds a year ago.
Who would have guessed that the Lakers' subsequent acquisition of Steve Nash, which seemed like an amazing consolation prize at the time, would have not only resulted in a one-legged point guard, but the ensuing terrible decision of pairing him up with his old Phoenix Suns coach, Mike D'Antoni?
As much as Los Angeles might have seemed like a perfect fit for Howard, what made this city work for him was Paul. Paul would have been that much-needed buffer between Howard and Kobe Bryant at the end of Bryant's career. Paul and Howard's parents remain close and would have provided the support system Howard never had in Los Angeles.
If Paul had been traded to the Lakers, Howard would have re-signed with the understanding that he and Paul would be doing what Paul and Blake Griffin are trying to do with the Clippers and what Howard and James Harden are trying to do with the Houston Rockets.
The truth is, as much as Paul likes Griffin and Howard likes Harden, Paul and Howard had always hoped to play together. Paul and Howard even talked about it this offseason as they entered free agency together, but they quickly realized that there was no viable option to join forces and be on a contending team that didn't have to strip every down every asset to pair the two. Their one shot at playing together was with the Lakers, and when that went up in smoke, so did their chance to being teammates.
The biggest benefactors of both dominoes falling in opposite directions, and perhaps for the first time in recent history not in the favor of the Lakers, are the Clippers and Rockets. While the Lakers are playing out this season with an eye toward next season and maybe beyond, the Clippers and Rockets are laying the foundation of what they think can be their respective championship teams this season.
If the Clippers' 137-118 win over the Rockets on Monday is a preview of things to come, the future of the Western Conference might look more like it did in the 1980s, when defense was something you talked about but didn't really play until the playoffs rolled around.
Back then, teams like the Lakers and Boston Celtics would reload as top players and coaches lined up to join them. Now, the paradigm has shifted after Doc Rivers bolted the Celtics to coach the Clippers, who have never made it past the second round of the playoffs. This while Howard became the first "franchise player" to walk away from the Lakers by joining Houston, a team that hasn't made it past the second round of the playoffs since 1997.
"I've never understood what someone doing something 15 years ago mattered," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "It doesn't affect these guys. Fifteen years ago, the Clippers did this. Well, 15 years ago, these guys were 9 [years old]. They don't care. So culture change is really what you got going on right now."
Both teams have a lot going on right now, including the ability to do something one franchise hasn't experienced in a long time and another has never experienced.
"We don't have that history. We have to forge our own," Rivers said of the Clippers. "That makes it more difficult, obviously, but if you can succeed, I think the feeling of success will be greater."