NEW ORLEANS -- Imagine a world in which Chris Paul and Dwight Howard are teammates on the Lakers. Consider an NBA in which Steve Nash is a Knick, and in which Goran Dragic is the hometown favorite at All-Star weekend -- not Anthony Davis.
All of it could've happened, and much more, if not for one of the most controversial decisions of David Stern's 30-year commissionership: vetoing, as the acting governor of the then-New Orleans Hornets, the trade that would've sent Paul to the Lakers after the 2011 lockout.
It's always fun to deconstruct NBA trades after the fact and ask, "What if?" Such as, what if the Knicks had kept their young assets and draft picks and signed Carmelo Anthony outright as a free agent in 2011 instead of trading for him? Would Anthony and Paul now be teammates in New York, marching toward home-court advantage in the East with a legitimate shot at dethroning the Heat? Quite possibly.
It's even more fun to deconstruct trades that almost happened but didn't. What if Howard hadn't waived his early-termination option in March 2012? In all likelihood, he would've been traded to the Nets and had his wish granted to team up with Deron Willams in Brooklyn.
The 2011 scenario involving Paul and his decision that it was time to move on from New Orleans -- the host city for this weekend's All-Star festivities -- gives us a rare opportunity to analyze both the trade that happened and the one that didn't. The reverberations for the four franchises directly involved and several others that were on the periphery are fascinating -- and are still echoing more than two years later.
Paul, returning to the city he once called home, still has fond memories of New Orleans. And despite his role in pushing for the trade, he returns as a conquering hero, not a pariah.
"If anyone knows me, they know how much I love the city and how much I miss the city," Paul said this week. "As I always say, it is not Bourbon Street, not the beignets, not the amazing restaurants. It is the people that make the city of New Orleans."
A lot of NBA trades are discussed and never happen. But the uniqueness of the circumstances surrounding Paul's eventual trade to the Clippers has so many layers: It involved a superstar escaping a small market, in direct contradiction to the supposed purpose of the 2011 lockout; an agreed-upon trade between the then-Hornets and the Lakers; the unforeseen and conflicted circumstance of the Hornets, at the time, being owned by the other 29 teams; and the unseemly outcome of the commissioner stepping in to block the original trade, under pressure from some of his most vocal constituents.
Under the terms of the original deal agreed upon by the Hornets and Lakers, LA would've gotten Paul in the same backcourt with a still-thriving Kobe Bryant, leaving Andrew Bynum (who had value at the time) still available as future trade bait for Howard. The Rockets would've gotten Pau Gasol, the finishing piece they'd been chasing for two years. The Hornets would've gotten Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and a first-round pick from the Rockets, plus Lamar Odom from the Lakers.
On the same day when owners had gathered in New York to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement following a five-month lockout that, we were told, was necessary to restore competitive balance among large- and small-market teams, Stern stepped in and unexpectedly nixed the trade -- exercising his authority as caretaker of the Hornets, not as commissioner. The official explanation from the league office was "basketball reasons." Stern ultimately decided that the Hornets needed younger players and better draft picks to fuel their post-Paul rebuilding.
Hornets GM Dell Demps and the team's league-appointed governor, Jac Sperling, were stunned -- and understandably so. In fact, one team executive on the periphery of the transaction said the league office was involved in negotiating the trade, fielding calls and making suggestions along the way. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, whose storied franchise has since spiraled at least temporarily out of championship contention, said earlier this season that he still hasn't forgiven Stern for that decision.
Upon closer inspection, Stern's veto touched not only these four franchises, but also tangentially altered the paths of at least six more -- the Suns, Bucks, Magic, Knicks, Celtics, Thunder and maybe others. The swath of Stern's unusual decree touched at least a third of the teams in the NBA.
For the Lakers, the fallout was swift, immediate and simple to quantify. Not only did they not get Paul, but the All-Star point guard ultimately went to the team that shares Staples Center with them. With Gasol's money off the books and Bynum still in purple-and-gold, Kupchak would've had more than enough tools to acquire Howard the following summer -- which he ultimately did anyway. But by pairing Howard with Paul instead of an aging Nash, would the Lakers have had a better chance of retaining Howard as a free agent in 2013? Presumably so, but we'll never know.
Nash, acquired by the Lakers in a July 2012 sign-and-trade with Phoenix, obviously would not have been sent to LA if Paul had landed in the backcourt with Bryant. In all likelihood, Nash would've been shipped to the Knicks, the other team that agent Bill Duffy had been pushing hard as a landing spot for his longtime client.
For the Rockets, who were infuriated by Stern's ruling, losing Gasol had short- and long-term implications. At least one of the assets used to later acquire James Harden -- Martin -- would not have been available for inclusion in that blockbuster deal in October 2012. In addition, to acquire Harden and later have room to sign Howard as a free agent, Houston would've needed to flip Gasol's contract for a first-round pick -- either for inclusion in the Harden deal, or in a separate transaction. Again, nobody knows how that would've played out for sure. We do know that the 2012 first-round pick acquired from New York and included in the doomed Lakers deal for Paul ended up becoming Royce White, who struggled with anxiety disorder and was traded to the 76ers, who released him three months later in October 2013.
The Thunder, for their part, probably still would've done the Harden deal -- but not for the same assets they received, and possibly not with the Rockets at all. Though Oklahoma City let Martin leave as a free agent last summer, his inclusion in the Harden deal was crucial at the time to account for Harden's lost bench production.
The most far-reaching implications were for New Orleans, which had to regroup after the original trade to the Lakers was nixed. Instead of several capable veterans who could've helped them contend in the short term, the Hornets (now Pelicans) received Minnesota's unprotected 2012 first-round pick, plus Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and Al-Farouq Aminu from the other LA team.
Kaman is now on the Lakers' bench. Gordon subsequently signed an offer sheet with Phoenix as a restricted free agent, and New Orleans kept him by matching it (though Gordon may yet attempt to force a trade ahead of his player option in 2015). Aminu has enjoyed only modest success as a single-digit scorer in the Pelicans' starting lineup. The coveted Minnesota pick ended up being not as attractive as anticipated. It became the 10th pick in the 2012 draft, and New Orleans selected Austin Rivers, who has been a disappointment.
The most significant by-product for New Orleans, of course, was the good fortune of winning the 2012 draft lottery and selecting Davis with its own No. 1 overall pick. The Hornets-Pelicans presumably would not have won the lottery had they been permitted to complete the original Lakers trade since their team would've been better in the short term.
By the way, isn't that called tanking?
The tentacles of this fiasco only expand from there. If the Clippers had not gotten Paul, would they have subsequently traded Eric Bledsoe to the Suns? Almost certainly not -- not to mention the fact that, without Paul in a Clippers uniform, the chances of Doc Rivers going from Boston to LA and orchestrating that trade would've been minimal. Also, not for nothing, one of the second-round picks used to complete the deal, which sent J.J. Redick from the Bucks to the Clippers in a sign-and-trade, was acquired from New Orleans in the Paul deal. Where Redick would've ended up if not for all of this is anyone's guess. My best guess on where Rivers would be right now is sizing up an approach shot on some breezy, tropical fairway.
Though Kupchak hasn't forgiven the former commissioner for meddling in his acquisition of one of the brightest stars in basketball, Bryant told CBSSports.com in a recent interview that he harbors no ill will toward Stern.
"It's business," Bryant said. "It's not like you disagree with somebody and you can't have a conversation. It's business. … It's definitely not personal."
But in citing "basketball reasons" for nixing the Lakers trade, the league got tangled up in its own tale of why it had a lockout in the first place. After the Lakers' trade was blocked, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban applauded the move, saying it illustrated the purpose of the work stoppage.
"There's a reason that we went through this lockout, and one of the reasons is to give small-market teams the ability to keep their stars and the ability to compete," Cuban said.
But less than a week later, Paul was sent to the other team in the NBA's second-largest market -- this, on the heels of Anthony forcing his way from Denver to New York under the previous CBA. The following summer, the Lakers landed Howard and Nash. And everyone asked, "We had a lockout for what?"
A nagging question that has never truly been answered is this: If the goal of the lockout was to help small-market teams keep their star players and have a better chance to compete, why didn't Stern call Paul's bluff? What would the image-conscious Paul have done if the Hornets had told him they weren't trading him -- to the Lakers, to the Clippers, or to anyone else? Would he really have walked away from the five-year, $107 million max deal he could've only received from New Orleans under those circumstances and taken less money to leave when he became a free agent in 2013?
In other words, the best rebuilding plan available to the Hornets at the time was to rebuild around Chris Paul – not without him.
There are at least two problems with this criticism of the deal and how it ultimately went down. First, losing Paul and getting no assets in return would've crippled the franchise. It was too big a risk to take, and that risk was exacerbated by new provisions in the CBA that removed all incentives for prospective free agents to sign extensions with their current teams. (The provision that permitted Anthony to get an extension as part of a trade was completely eliminated.) Veteran extensions can now encompass only a maximum of three years, including the time left on a player's contract -- so the Hornets had no hope of signing Paul to an extension. It was all or nothing, a high-stakes game of chicken made even more dangerous by the new rules the owners had pushed through.
Second, we must remember that Stern wasn't acting as commissioner. His mandate wasn't to do what was best for the league, or to uphold the virtues of the CBA that he and his eventual replacement, Adam Silver, had just negotiated. He was acting as the owner of the Hornets, and his mandate was to do what was best for them.
Three years later, we still don't know for sure if he did. And with 10 or more franchises touched by the fallout, it's clearer than ever that the new commissioner must never, ever find himself in the same predicament.