Four years ago, on Dec. 8, 2011, two words altered the course of NBA history: “Basketball reasons.”
That was the logic given by the NBA league office for the most controversial decision of then-NBA Commissioner David Stern’s 30-year tenure: Acting as the principal decision-maker of the league-owned New Orleans Hornets, Stern vetoed a three-team trade that would have sent then-Hornets star Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The nixed deal, which came immediately after a five-month lockout, directly affected at least half the league like a giant spider web, branching out and enveloping its surroundings. To this day, it remains a polarizing debate centered on competitive balance, small-market success, a superstar player’s power and free will, and whether the league overstepped its boundaries even if it had the power to do so.
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The proposed (and briefly agreed-upon deal): Paul to the Lakers; Pau Gasol to the Houston Rockets; and Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Luis Scola and a first-round draft pick (from Houston via New York) to the Hornets.
The first iteration of the deal was reported by various media outlets at approximately 2 p.m. ET that day. By that evening, the rumored players involved had been modified multiple times. And then 45 minutes after the deal was agreed upon by the teams involved, at roughly 9 p.m. ET, reports broke that Stern, acting on behalf of the Hornets, had stepped in, and the deal was off.
As the team’s owner — the NBA purchased the Hornets from owner George Shinn in 2010 — Stern technically had every right to make the decision. The issue was that the NBA had put Dell Demps in charge as general manager, with autonomy to trade Paul if he wished, as a sign that the league would stay out of the Hornets’ affairs — that was, until those affairs involved sending a superstar to its marquee franchise, which naturally upset the rest of the league’s owners after a lockout that’s primary issues focused on competitive balance and keeping stars in small markets.
Paul had made it clear he didn’t want to remain a Hornet past the 2011-12 season, preferring to play in New York or Los Angeles. To prevent the Hornets from losing their superstar for nothing of value in return, Demps agreed to the deal, which kept the Hornets competitive in the short term.
The timing was horrible. The league officially lifted the 161-day lockout on Dec. 8, so as Stern and the rest of the league’s owners were meeting in New York to ratify the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), reports were leaking that one of the teams the lockout hoped to keep in check — the all-mighty Lakers — was acquiring the best point guard in the league in his prime.
Paul was to be the gateway to the Lakers’ future, the torch-bearer after Kobe Bryant. The Lakers were also shedding massive amounts of cap space, and could potentially still trade Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard, forming a West Coast superteam to rival the Miami Heat’s Big 3. After years of treading mediocrity in the Western Conference, the Rockets were finally acquiring the go-to player they sorely lacked. And the Hornets could remain competitive in the short term before deciding whether to build around Dragic, or simply letting their assets leave, bottoming out for a season or two, and then rebuilding through the draft.
The other 27 owners were not okay with the deal, though. The Paul trade was in direct contradiction of the ethos of the lockout, and as the owner of the Hornets, Stern had the power to veto it and appease the rest of his colleagues. While the league office denied the other owners having any influence over Stern’s decision, several reports indicate that they did. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, in particular, was sternly opposed to the deal, writing a letter to Stern that was quickly leaked to the media.
A league spokesman issued a statement, saying, “League office declined to make the trade for basketball reasons.” The spin was that Stern, from an ownership perspective, wanted younger players and better draft picks for the Hornets. The concern was that a team led by Dragic, Odom and Martin, while solid, wouldn’t have much appeal to prospective buyers of the Hornets. A team with younger talent, and a potential stud in the draft, would, in theory, though.
Paul tweeted, “WoW.” A heartbroken Odom tweeted, “When a team trades u and it doesn’t go down? Now what?” Most of the confusion stemmed from Stern’s involvement, as many didn’t understand that the league owned the Hornets, and that Stern was acting as the team’s owner with its interests in mind, not as the commissioner stepping in to block an unfair trade. Pundits claimed the league could no longer trade Paul, as it would seem as if the NBA were dictating where it wanted the superstar to play.
The three teams tried renegotiating the deal, sending the Hornets more undisclosed players and picks, but it eventually fell apart, with the Lakers ultimately pulling out.
Then, less than a week later, on Dec. 14, 2011, the NBA shockingly decided to trade Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a first-round pick from Minnesota.
The deal satisfied the league’s internal mandate to require a better pick and more young talent. Eric Gordon was coming off a season in which he averaged 22.3 points per game, and looked like a future perennial All-Star candidate. Aminu had flashed potential as a rangy defensive stopper. Kaman was a nightly double-double threat, despite his age. The deal, on paper, was marginally better at least. The league had to trade Paul — he wasn’t going to be strong-armed into staying in New Orleans — and this deal made some sense.
It was not without its backlash, especially since the deal basically created another contender — and now another team to compete with in free agency — in the league’s second-biggest market. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has never forgiven Stern, and Bryant is still bitter about the non-deal. And though the trade seemed like a better fit in theory, it wasn’t that much better than the Hornets’ original haul to necessarily justify a veto and the ensuing controversy.
Four years later, it’s easy to see the ramifications of the non-deal and then the subsequent deal.
The Lakers lost out on a generational star in Paul, and then bounced back by acquiring Howard and Steve Nash in the 2012 offseason. The problem, of course, was that Nash was never himself after his final season in Phoenix, and Howard and Bryant (and Mike D’Antoni) couldn’t see eye-to-eye, so Howard bolted for Houston after his lone underwhelming season in L.A. Now, the Lakers are enduring the franchise’s worst three-year stretch in history, with no clear plan to return to contention and a confusing player-development plan.
Odom was sent to Dallas, where he struggled mightily, before re-joining the Clippers for a season and then retiring in 2013. Since then, he has battled with drug addiction and was hospitalized a couple months ago. Gasol played in Los Angeles for three more years, and then left for Chicago in 2014.
The Rockets surely benefited from the non-trade, as they were able to turn their war chest of assets into James Harden the next fall — using Kevin Martin’s contract, no less — and then Howard the next summer. Though they are struggling at 10-11 this season, Houston made the Western Conference finals last season, and will likely contend for the next few years.
Goran Dragic went back to Phoenix and broke out with the Suns before things ended on bad terms, and is now part of a loaded Heat team that’s now trying to contend with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers out East. Luis Scola played one more season with the Rockets before shifting into journeyman mode, playing with the Suns, Pacers and Raptors since then.
The Pelicans (then the Hornets) bottomed out in 2011-12, going 21-45 in the lockout-shortened season, and then lucked into winning the 2012 draft lottery, selecting Anthony Davis. Gordon never materialized as the star he was supposed to be because of injuries, Aminu left after inconsistent play, and Kaman has since bounced around with the Lakers and Trail Blazers. The draft pick the team acquired from the Clippers turned into Austin Rivers, who certainly didn’t live up to his draft potential, though he ended up being more valuable than the Rockets’ proposed pick (Royce White).
Dragic, Martin, Odom and Scola ended up being a better package than Gordon, Aminu, Kaman and Rivers, so those who support the original trade are validated in that regard. But the latter deal allowed the Pelicans to tank and draft Davis, which was an unintended and fortuitous consequence. Like Houston, New Orleans is having a down season, though that has more to do with injuries. Davis is arguably the most valuable asset in the league, though, so they indirectly came out of this trade as the arguable winner.
The Clippers built a contender — and a catchy moniker, Lob City — making the Western Conference semifinals in three of their four postseasons with Paul. The franchise has since acquired Doc Rivers as head coach and president of basketball operations, and shed Donald Sterling as one of the least competent owners in sports, bringing in the passionate Steve Ballmer.
The most fascinating part of the vetoed trade: the various “What ifs?” that have come from imagining if it had actually happened.
Do the Lakers still acquire Howard? How many more championships would the Lakers have right now, if any? Would Paul be the biggest star in the league? How differently would we view the end of Kobe’s career? Would Howard’s clashing with Bryant still force him to leave?
The Thunder still do the Harden trade, most likely, but with whom? Or are they not satisfied with the available trade packages and decide to keep him, forming a budding dynasty — or a heated rivalry with the Paul-Howard Lakers.
Would Nash have gone to New York or Toronto? If the Hornets are too good to get a top lottery pick, where does Anthony Davis end up? How different are the Clippers if Eric Bledsoe’s running the team instead of Paul? Does Rivers not come over from Boston? Does Boston continue to contend in 2013-14? Where does that leave Brooklyn?
Who knows? That’s the point. There have been few, if any, moves that have affected so many teams — and a commissioner’s legacy — this drastically.
Stern had every right to make the decision he made, it was just a question of morals and righteousness. Was it fair for the league to step in when it granted power to Demps, who was clearly fine with the deal? Should the league have let its owners have that much say over another franchise, even if they helped finance the purchase of it? Once the trade was rejected, should the league have not traded Paul, forcing him to pass up money and potentially tarnish his brand if he ultimately chose to leave New Orleans?
The questions are never-ending, and we’ll never know the answers. The decision to veto the Paul trade was unquestionably the most controversial moment in Stern’s lauded 30-year career, and arguably one of the most controversial decisions in American sports, period.
The trade that never was has largely shaped the modern NBA, and its long-lasting impact will continue to be a polarizing topic for years to come.
Jovan Buha covers the NBA for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jovanbuha.