The NBA’s stunning decision to nix the Hornets’ December 2011 trade of Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers for “basketball reasons” brought heavy criticism on commissioner David Stern, who was calling the shots in New Orleans after the league took over the financially struggling franchise a year earlier.
Now, Stern is laying the blame for the failed deal on former Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak:
“(My decision) was only based on what was good for New Orleans, or what was not good for New Orleans,” Stern said on the “Nunyo and Company” podcast, via Silver Screen and Roll. “It had nothing to do with the Lakers at all. And in fact, in the course of the weekend, we thought we could redo the deal. We really thought that Houston would be ready to part with Kyle Lowry; and we had a trade lined up for Odom that would have gotten us a good first-round draft pick. Not we, but my basketball folks. But Mitch Kupchack at the time panicked, and moved Odom to Dallas. So the piece wasn’t even there for us to play with at the time. So that was it — just about what was good for the then New Orleans Hornets.”
There were reports at the time that a horde of angry NBA owners urged Stern to veto the three-team deal that would have sent Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to the Houston Rockets and a package of Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and a 2012 first-round draft pick to New Orleans.
The league denied that was the case, but an email uncovered by Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski from Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert to Stern revealed that to be true. “I cannot remember ever seeing a trade where a team got by far the best player in the trade and saved over $40 million in the process,” wrote Gilbert. He later added, “I just don’t see how we can allow this trade to happen.”
The deal was so close to happening that ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith broke the news to Odom on air, and the former Lakers forward was crying in the interview. Bryant and Paul had already begun discussing a game plan for leading the team to a championship. Lakers fans were puzzled as to why Stern would overrule the trade, seemingly for no other reason than a bunch of owners were not happy about a Lakers team coming off back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010 adding Paul to their backcourt.
Retired Lakers star Kobe Bryant lamented the missed opportunity for another title or two as recently as April 2016. “Things would’ve been very, very, very different around here,” Bryant told ESPN.com’s Baxter Holmes last year, “with two of the most competitive people the league has ever seen.”
A few days after nixing the deal, Stern approved Paul’s trade to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a 2012 first-round draft pick (Austin Rivers). In retrospect, the package New Orleans would have gotten from the Lakers and Rockets might have been the better deal, since Dragic went on to capture All-NBA honors in 2013-14. Then again, with Odom, Scola and Martin also in the fold, the Hornets might not have had as many Ping Pong balls in the draft, and Anthony Davis — the No. 1 overall pick in 2012 — may never have landed in New Orleans.
It’s one of the great what-ifs in NBA history. Would the Lakers, who traded for Dwight Howard the following summer, have been a contender with a Bryant-Paul backcourt for a handful of years? The now struggling Lakers are still paying for the nixed deal, having instead traded for Steve Nash in July 2012 and dealing a first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns that will likely fall in the lottery next year. The failed trade also eroded some of the trust Gasol and Odom had in the Lakers, fracturing a title team.
And what might Gasol and James Harden have accomplished together in Houston? The Spaniard’s game would have seemingly meshed well with the MVP candidate, and the Rockets might have given the Golden State Warriors a run in the 2015 Western Conference finals with him instead of Howard.
In the six years since, Lakers fans have always pointed the finger at Stern for robbing them of the ability to see those scenarios play out, but if the ex-commissioner is to be believed, they can now direct their ire at Kupchak, which only serves to further complicate the former Lakers GM’s legacy.
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