A tortured three-team trade that would've sent Chris Paul to the Lakers fell apart Saturday night when the Lakers and Rockets were unable to satisfy criteria set forth by the NBA, which owns the Hornets, three people with knowledge of the situation told CBSSports.com.
The Lakers immediately shifted gears and agreed to trade Lamar Odom to Dallas for draft picks, a move that rival executives and a person briefed on the team's basketball strategies viewed as a precursor for a push to acquire Dwight Howard from Orlando.
Odom goes into a trade exception created when the Mavericks signed and traded center Tyson Chandler to the Knicks in a complicated, three-team deal, setting the stage for the Lakers to seriously engage the Magic in talks to acquire Howard, who on Saturday admitted that he'd requested to be traded.
CBSSports.com confirmed reports that Howard requested to be traded to the New Jersey Nets, but two people with direct knowledge of Howard's plans said Saturday that the All-Star center has long wanted to play in Los Angeles. Howard's affinity for the city is so strong that sources said the Lakers' co-tenants in Staples Center, the Clippers, should not be ruled out as a trade partner for Orlando.
The entire league will be trying to acquire Howard in the coming days now that his trade request is public and the Magic have acknowledged giving his agent, Dan Fegan, permission to discuss trade possibilities with the Lakers, Nets and Mavericks. But the Lakers are the only team capable of offering an All-Star 7-footer, Pau Gasol, and a potential All-Star 7-footer, Andrew Bynum -- while also being willing and able to take Hedo Turkoglu and his poisonous contract.
The Rockets, who were supposed to get Gasol in the various versions of the ill-fated, three-team Paul trade, were said to be disconsolate over the breakdown in the talks. League sources said Houston's plan had been to acquire Gasol and follow it up by acquiring free-agent big man Nene with a four-year, $60-$64 million offer.
As disappointed as the Rockets and Lakers were, the Hornets' coaching staff and front office were said to be in "collective shock," according to a person in touch with key members of the team. The breakdown of the Paul trade sent the Hornets scrambling for another suitor for the All-Star point guard, who has made it clear he wants to be traded or will leave New Orleans as an unrestricted free agent after the season.
The Hornets' coaching staff had been "ecstatic" when the initial deal was agreed to Thursday sending Odom to New Orleans from the Lakers and Luis Scola and Kevin Martin from the Rockets, among other pieces, until commissioner David Stern rejected it in his role as the final decision-maker for the owner-less Hornets for what the league described as "basketball reasons."
"It was like going from the highest of the highs to the lowest of the lows," the person in touch with the Hornets' decision-makers said. "The kind of pieces that they got, the kind of players they got and how they were going to use them, they were just really excited."
The key to the deal from the Hornets' perspective, was Scola. Hornets coach Monty Williams also had been looking forward to the opportunity to coach Odom, a supremely talented player he believed he had a chance to reach and coach to his full potential.
Other teams, including the Clippers, Warriors and Celtics, were putting other moves on hold until the Lakers' pursuit of Paul reached a fork in the road. But given that the NBA blocked the initial trade sending Paul to the Lakers Thursday, and set forth conditions as the Hornets' functioning ownership that the three teams couldn't meet, it's difficult to imagine executives jumping into another Paul soap opera not knowing what the parameters for a deal would be.
"Everyone is scared" to deal with the Hornets about Paul now, a person plugged into the discussions said early Sunday.
Still, one front office executive said that talks with the Warriors and Clippers about a Paul trade would now be reignited. Previous discussions stalled when the Clippers refused to include sharpshooter Eric Gordon in the deal, and the leverage New Orleans had to hold out for a better offer is now gone -- ironically, killed by the league's refusal to approve deals that the Hornets' basketball staff supported as a way to avoid losing Paul for nothing. In an ill-conceived effort to strengthen the assets New Orleans would receive for Paul, the league has left the woebegone franchise in the unthinkable predicament of getting stuck with the disgruntled superstar and having him make the franchise-crippling decision of leaving as a free agent without any compensation.
Among the most coveted assets the Clippers possess is Minnesota's unprotected 2012 first-round pick, which in a strong draft could be the piece that finally pushes a CP3 trade to its merciful conclusion. Under normal business conditions, the Clippers wouldn't have to offer such a valuable asset after other avenues fell through for the Hornets. But with the league office calling the shots, this is anything but business as usual.
Really, only one thing was certain early as the aftermath of the Paul saga circulated through front offices across the league. However it's resolved, the logical next step could be a courtroom when, as one team executive said, "The lawsuits start flying."
While some executives and agents were confused as to why the Lakers didn’t seriously engage the Magic in trade discussions that would’ve sent Bynum and Gasol to Orlando for Howard and Turkoglu in the first place, sources said the answer was simple: the Lakers want to try to position themselves to land both Paul and Howard.
“They got greedy,” one person briefed on the situation said.
Despite sources confirming that Howard had requested to be traded to the Nets – a team that has been on his list since at least February – two people with knowledge of his plans said he views L.A. as a better fit for his off-court aspirations. The conflicting signals from Howard are similar to what Magic executives have experienced over the past year as the All-NBA center has frequently changed his mind about whether he wants to stay in Orlando or not.
The Magic, attempting to avoid the scenario that saw them lose franchise center Shaquille O'Neal as a free agent in 1996 and get nothing in return, are adamant about exhausting trade possibilities with teams whether they are on Howard’s list of preferred destinations or not.
As high as the stakes are for Orlando, they were equally high for New Jersey, which traded Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and two first-round picks last season for point guard Deron Williams without any assurances that Williams would still be with the team when it moves to a new arena in Brooklyn for the 2012-13 season. If Howard lands with the Lakers, and New Jersey fails to land Nene, the Nets' efforts to surround Williams with enough talent to sign a long-term deal next summer would be on life support. Front office sources, however, believed that Nene's motivation for signing with Houston would've been to play alongside Gasol -- who is still, to his delight, a Laker for now but will now have to deal with speculation that Orlando will be his new home before long.
Talks to send Paul to the Lakers were revived Friday afternoon after Stern took the stunning step of killing the deal in its previous form. The goal was to tweak the deal in a way that allowed New Orleans to come away with younger players and more draft picks, the directive issued by the commissioner's office after a trade that would've sent the Hornets three bonafide starters, a solid backup, and a mid-first-round pick was deemed not good enough.
Stern must approve any transaction as monumental as a Paul trade not as commissioner, but as the final decision-maker for the Hornets in their absence of an owner since the league took over the franchise in 2010 from George Shinn. The deal consummated Thursday would've sent Paul to the Lakers, who would've Gasol to the Rockets and Odom to the Hornets. New Orleans also would've received Martin, Scola, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick from Houston -- a solid haul by Hornets GM Dell Demps under the circumstances in the eyes of many of his fellow executives.
Paul, among the biggest stars and most electrifying guards in the league, has an early-termination option after the season and can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. He already has declined a contract extension with New Orleans, and it is a foregone conclusion that he would leave as a free agent with his preferred destination being the Knicks.
New York, which last season added Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, decided not to wait for the Paul saga to play itself out and acquired Chandler in a sign-and-trade that gave the Knicks among the most formidable frontcourts in the NBA. It was through some creative cap maneuvering -- words perhaps never before associated with the franchise -- that the Knicks were able to jump ahead of the heavily favored Warriors and land Chandler. By transforming the deal into a sign-and-trade, Mavs owner Mark Cuban created the space to acquire Odom, one of the most skilled and versatile big men in the league who he has long coveted.
In another domino effect of this furious post-lockout player movement, the Warriors plan to sign Clippers restricted free agent DeAndre Jordan to a four-year, $40 million offer sheet Sunday after they clear the cap space to accommodate his first-year salary of about $9 million. The Warriors also had been engaged in trade talks with the Hornets for Paul, but were unwilling to include guard Stephen Curry in the discussions.