The thought of what could have been haunted Kobe Bryant for years.
Five years ago, then-NBA commissioner David Stern vetoed what would have been a history-altering trade to pair superstar point guard Chris Paul with Bryant in the Los Angeles Lakers’ back court. The trade would have positioned the Lakers to be title contenders for the foreseeable future.
Paul was entering a contract year in New Orleans just as the NBA wrapped up a 161-day lockout over labor negotiations. At that point, Dec. 8, 2011, the NBA owned the Hornets, with the 29 other team owners acting as principal shareholders. So, the league’s small-market owners begged for competitive balance.
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert sent Stern a letter in vehement objection to the trade, posing the decision should be split among remaining owners.
“It would be a travesty to allow the Lakers to acquire Chris Paul in the apparent trade being discussed,” Gilbert wrote, citing Los Angeles would save $40 million in the deal while acquiring the best player in the transaction without giving up any draft picks. “I know the vast majority of owners feel the same way that I do.”
In the end, Stern rejected the trade citing “basketball reasons.” The league commissioner, per Howard Beck of The New York Times, said the decision was made “free from the influence of other N.B.A. owners, that the team was better served with Chris (Paul) in a Hornets uniform than by the outcome of the terms of that trade.” But it’s hard to imagine letters from Gilbert and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban fell on deaf ears.
Six days later, the Hornets sent Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers. In return, New Orleans received Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Chris Kaman’s $14 million expiring contract, and the Timberwolves’ unprotected pick in 2012.
The move set the Hornets up with cap flexibility, a decent draft pick, and young talent, likely what Stern envisioned as a decent return for a franchise-altering player. What he couldn’t forecast, however, was how the sequence of events stemming from that trade influenced the lives and trajectories for all players and organizations involved — for better and for worse.
On the five-year anniversary of the nixed Lakers-Hornets trade, let’s look at the ripple effects of the mega-deal that never was.
The (Proposed) Trade
Hornets receive: F Lamar Odom (from Lakers), F Luis Scola (from Houston), G Kevin Martin (from Houston), G Goran Dragic (from Houston),
Houston receives: PF/C Pau Gasol (from Lakers)
Lakers receive: PG Chris Paul (from Hornets)
The (Actual) Trade
Hornets receive: C Chris Kaman, G Eric Gordon, F Al-Farouq Aminu, Timberwolves unprotected 2012 draft pick (Austin Rivers)
Clippers receive: PG Chris Paul
The Ripple Effect
Los Angeles Clippers
What could have been: The Clippers weren’t a thought in the original deal that could have sent Paul to the Lakers. Blake Griffin had just returned from a devastating, season-ending injury to win Rookie of the Year in 2011. The Clippers also had a young Eric Bledsoe, a thriving Gordon (22.3 points per game), and an emerging DeAndre Jordan. All they needed was the talent and leadership at point guard to take the next step.
The Clippers also could have retained Minnesota’s draft pick, No. 10 overall.
What was: In exchange for three rotation players, the Clippers landed a superstar point guard who changed the trajectory of the franchise forever. The Paul acquisition paved the way for Doc Rivers’ exodus from Boston to coach the Clippers (oddly in exchange for a future draft pick). No longer were they the other team in Los Angeles. The balance of power shifted as the Clippers and Lakers forged a true rivalry. And as the Lakers began to self-destruct, the Clippers evolved into the most exciting team Los Angeles had to offer.
Today: Despite a core of Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers have yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs. Injuries plagued the team during a promising 2016 playoffs run, but Los Angeles has bounced back ready to finally compete for a long-awaited title run. The West is still stacked at the top, including the Warriors, Spurs, and Rockets, but barring an unforeseen set of unfortunate circumstances, the Clippers seem ready to make the jump many have anticipated for years.
New Orleans Hornets
What could have been: In a sense, the Hornets dodged a bullet. A deal for Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic, and Kevin Martin was promising on paper at the time, but New Orleans would have been mired in mediocrity as a team good enough to win some games, but not bad enough to secure a top draft pick. The Hornets needed to get a return on their investment with Paul before he jetted town, leaving the franchise empty-handed. In hindsight, this may not have been the best offer available that year.
What was: Under new owner Tom Benson, the Hornets re-branded into the New Orleans Pelicans. The nixed CP3 trade resulted in the deal with the Clippers that produced Eric Gordon (missed 173 games in five seasons in New Orleans), Al-Farouq Aminu (a one-way defensive stopper at the time that left for nothing in free agency), and Chris Kaman (who spent a year producing at center before moving on to Dallas).
New Orleans ended up with the third-worst record in the league. They won the draft lottery and selected Anthony Davis in 2012. An amazing change of fortune for a franchise yet to reap the benefits of its talented power forward.
Today: After a playoff appearance two seasons ago, New Orleans has regressed. In part due to ravaging injuries, as well as unstable ownership and poor personnel decisions, the Pelicans strung together a 30-52 record with Alvin Gentry taking the reins as head coach last season. New Orleans is well below .500 this year, though Anthony Davis’ bright future cannot be denied. The only question now is whether the Pelicans will have to make the same decision with Davis as they did with Chris Paul five years ago.
What could have been: Yao Ming had only played five games the previous season before retiring due to injuries that included three fractures in his left foot. Pau Gasol was set to take the throne.
Gasol would have joined a Houston team already featuring a 24-year-old Kyle Lowry, a young Dragic, and a respected glue guy on the wing in Courtney Lee. The Rockets also made a run at pairing Gasol with Nene, who later signed with Denver, but loved the city of Houston.
What was: Without Yao, Houston finished just outside the playoffs in the shortened lockout season. Then, they traded Lowry to Toronto, saw Dragic leave in free agency and looked ready to rebuild. Ultimately, though, the nixed trade set the scene for a disgruntled Oklahoma City third wheel named James Harden to come to Houston and carve a path of his own.
As part of the deal, the Rockets sent Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin to the Thunder, as well as picks No. 12 (Steven Adams) and 26 (Andre Roberson) in the 2013 NBA draft, two players who start for the team today. The Thunder also received a second-rounder (Alex Abrines).
Today: The Rockets moved on from their Dwight Howard experiment and re-tooled around Harden. Houston hired Mike D’Antoni, who moved The Beard to the point guard position full-time. The Rockets also put a bevy of shooters (Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, how ironic) around their star guard, making it near impossible for opponents to defend the numerous options in Houston’s high-powered offense. Harden is, again, an MVP candidate, and the Rockets are thriving in the Western Conference.
Los Angeles Lakers
What could have been: A Kobe Bryant-Chris Paul back court tandem would have tormented Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in their deepest of slumbers. The Lakers still could have flipped Andrew Bynum and some assets for Dwight Howard, putting together a superteam that would have continued to compete for championships in Laker land. Paul, a supreme pick-and-roll maestro, likely would have played seasons worth of cat-and-mouse with Howard, while Bryant picked defenders apart en route to multiple championships.
The Lakers are one of the two most storied franchises in NBA history, with the Celtics being the other. A Chris Paul acquisition would have continued a legacy trailblazed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant himself, who retired on the heels of back-to-back seasons without playoff appearances. Had Paul’s trade to the Lakers gone through, Bryant would have — in all likelihood — retired with at least one more NBA championship, competing in deep playoff runs for the remainder of his career.
Instead, a surefire first ballot Hall of Famer finished his career in purple and gold with a combined 48 wins in his last two seasons. And while his legacy remained pristine with a 60-point exit, Bryant ultimately fell one title short of his idol’s mark of six rings.
What ended up happening: The Lakers imploded. They dealt Lamar Odom (with a conditional second-round pick for good measure) to Dallas for an $8.9 million trade exception and the Mavericks’ 2013 first-rounder (traded to Houston for Jordan Hill; then traded to OKC for James Harden; Thunder drafted Steven Adams). Mark Cuban called it “by far the worst” roster move he’s ever made.
Los Angeles traded for Steve Nash (three years, $27 million), who played just 65 games through two seasons before retiring ahead of the third year of his contract. The Lakers eventually traded Bynum for Howard, a disastrous experiment that resulted in Bryant conceding that he “didn’t appreciate (Shaquille O’Neal) until I played with Dwight.” Los Angeles hasn’t made the playoffs since the 2012-13 season and set multiple franchise records for futility in a season. Worse, they saw their long-cursed crosstown rivals grow into the premier franchise in Los Angeles.
Today: Things are finally starting to look up. After Kobe’s farewell tour that culminated with a 60-point season finale, the youthful Lakers are in the mix for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Those floundering seasons resulted in successful draft picks (D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance, Jr.) and a talented rookie wing (Brandon Ingram). And under ex-Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton, the Lakers’ future looks bright once again.
What could have been: How many championships could a trio of Kobe, CP3, and Dwight Howard won? The world may never know. Paul was set to bring the “Showtime” back to the Lakers. No two players had a deeper will to win than Bryant and Paul, and the two together would have unquestionably been perennial title contenders in Los Angeles.
CP3’s legacy in the history books could have been cemented as the heir to Bryant’s throne in Los Angeles. Moreover, Paul could have absorbed the postseason killer instinct that cemented Kobe’s legacy. At 31, Paul still has a lot of efficient basketball in him. And while the Lakers may not have become the promising young team they are today, Paul (and possibly Howard) could still have carried the torch long after Bryant retired.
What was: Instead of heading to the Lakers, CP3 reshaped the Clippers franchise wallowing in mediocrity. With two high-flyers in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, Paul’s passing precision and technical prowess propelled the Clippers to playoff contention. Los Angeles earned the moniker, “Lob City,” and Paul continued to improve with age.
Today: Chris Paul is still on the mission he’s sought to accomplish since entering the league: win an NBA title. Paul has yet to advance past the Western Conference semifinals victorious, a feat the Clippers could finally accomplish this year barring injury or a meltdown comparable to their blown 3-1 series lead against Houston. His status as a Hall of Fame point guard is unquestioned. His status as one of the all-time greats, however, hinges on his team’s ability to win in the playoffs.
What could have been: Had the Lakers opted to keep Lamar Odom, things may have panned out differently for the embattled forward. There even may have been an alternate ending had the original trade to New Orleans gone as planned.
Odom was the darling in a trade package sent to New Orleans that also included Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, and Dragic. With a few more quality acquisitions, that Hornets team could have morphed into a fringe playoff team — good enough to be competitive and exciting, if not good enough to compete for a title.
In the end, though, it was Odom’s departure from Los Angeles that caused his downward spiral. And no matter the destination, it’s possible his life after Lakers basketball could have remained constant.
What was: The trade rocked Odom harder than anyone could have anticipated. A lifelong Laker at heart, he felt betrayed by the organization.
RT @RealLamarOdom: When a team trades u and it doesn't go down? Now what?— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) December 9, 2011
After the botched first trade, the Lakers opted to move him anyway. Los Angeles dealt him to Dallas, where he was set to be the missing piece for another Mavericks title run.
But the opposite played out. Odom would go on to average 6.6 points in his 50 games in Dallas, never showing the skill set that earned him 2011 NBA Sixth Man of the Year honors. The Mavericks eventually sent him to the D-League and he struggled to adjust to life in Dallas.
Ironically, he’d end up back in Los Angeles, this time with the Clippers, for a final season. Then, things spun out of control. In October of 2015, Odom slipped into a coma after a drug overdose left him unconscious at a Nevada brothel. His life hasn’t been the same since.
Today: If you Google search “Lamar Odom,” you’ll find unflattering results regarding his love life. In an unlucky swing of events, Odom’s name devolved from superstar NBA player — the Draymond Green of his era — to rehabilitation project. The last we saw Odom publicly, he was congratulating Kobe Bryant after his season finale.
The New York Post’s Page Six reported Odom recently reunited with his family after his near-death experience a year ago. But in a December episode of The Lowe Post podcast, ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne, who broke the story on Odom’s frightful brothel night, revealed he may be battling his demons once again.
“Everything I’ve heard the last two or three months is that he is back doing all the stuff that got him into this in the first place,” she said. “I call people and say, ‘Have you heard from Lamar, do you know what’s going on?’ And they say, ‘Yeah, he’s battling the demons again and he’s back with the same old crew.’ It’s really sad.”