Almost two years ago to the day, I woke up on an air-mattress with my phone lighting up next to my head. Texts and e-mails were pouring in, unusual at 7am Eastern Time in the days following Thanksgiving. For anyone that's received a barrage of telecommunications at that point of the morning, there is, quite frequently, a conversation of terrifying consequence on the other line.
I couldn't have been more wrong. Friends and hoopheads from all over had let me know that the NBA Lockout was over. It was Christmas in November.
In the days that followed, my dormant Lakers fandom had sparked and sputtered like a dusty old car coming back to life. My mind raced with the thoughts of how the team--just 18 months removed from a Game 7 NBA Finals win over the Boston Celtics--would try and rebound from a tepid title defense and second round sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. Kobe Bryant was an elite player, Pau Gasol one of the best bigs in the game and Andrew Bynum primed for a breakout season. There was no reason why the Lakers couldn't win a title with some minor tweaks.
Minor tweaking wasn't what GM Mitch Kupchak and the Buss family had in mind.
On Thursday, December 8th, the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Hornets consummated a trade that no one saw coming. The Lakers had dismantled their three-time NBA Finalists, dealing the front court that had been on the floor when championship confetti had fallen from the rafters not once, but twice. In the agreed upon three-team deal, LA would send Gasol to the Houston Rockets and Lamar Odom, along with Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Luis Scola and a first-round pick would be sent to New Orleans. In return, NOLA would send Chris Paul to the Lakers. Additionally, the Show would end up saving nearly $40 million dollars in combined salary and luxury taxes for the upcoming season. It was an absolute heist, but one that was agreed upon by three general managers and two ownership groups.
The problem of course, was the Hornets' principal owners. Which was, at the time, the National Basketball Association.
Former reviled New Orleans proprietor George Shinn had sold the team back to the league in 2010, as no suitors were presenting deals palatable enough for such a transaction. Thus the league, comprised of the 29 other owners, bought the Hornets until a suitable owner could be found. In the interim, Commissioner David Stern would serve as "owner", and Jac Sperling serving as "governor" of the team. If this seems like a conflict of interest, it absolutely was. After all, how could a Commissioner, responsible for promoting the interests of 29 teams, have the absolute final say on one team's personnel matters? It was the lesser of two evils, I suppose: either David Stern had decision-making power and a conflict of interest, or the team could be sold to an unsuitable owner in line with league cancers like Shinn or Donald Sterling.
At the time that the decision was made for the league to own the team, then Lakers coach Phil Jackson criticized the move, citing that one day Stern would have to make a tough decision that seriously jeopardizes one or many team's ability to compete. It's scary just how spot-on Jackson was.
Just hours after the Hornets' alleged decision makers Sperling and GM Dell Demps had completed the Paul deal, the team's "owner"--as was his right--killed the transaction in what's lovingly referred to as "The Veto". Stern explained his actions later, essentially saying that this trade could not happen because of the now infamous term "basketball reasons". And he was absolutely correct: no good owner would have ever approved that trade. It was a horrendous deal for the Hornets who would have gotten just one draft pick, three useful but not game-changing veterans on big money deals and just one young player. More importantly than all of that, the trade would have kept the team in the 35-40 victory window--no man's land for any NBA team. I cannot emphasize this heavily enough: David Stern was absolutely within his rights to kill this deal and more importantly, as the head decision maker of the organization, was right to veto the trade because...just how freakin' bad it was.
But for the Lakers? It might have been Kupchak's finest deal ever, even greater than the Gasol trade that netted the team three Western Conference titles. Los Angeles would have gained the best point guard of his generation to pair with Kobe and a budding Andrew Bynum...or is as oft-rumored, potentially Dwight Howard in what could have been a forthcoming deal. CP3, who had longed to play in for a winning organization alongside another major star, could have just as easily signed a long-term deal with the Lakers as he did with the Clippers, leaving the team with the next great Lakers star for another half-decade, at least. However, the part of this deal that made it a true coup was the fact that by dealing Gasol and Odom--whose salaries added up to nearly $30 million--the team would have dropped below the luxury tax for the first time in years. Throw in the fact that the Lakers gave up zero draft picks, this trade was too good to be true. Which it was.
We all know the story from here: days later, the Clippers consummated a deal for Paul, landing the then four-time All-Star point guard in STAPLES Center, but in the little locker room down the hall. The Lakers fan base was as outraged as I've personally ever seen them, even those that didn't agree with the deal. At the time, I thought unless LA dealt Bynum for Howard, that it was a terrible deal for the team, but I was still outraged at the prospect of the deal being kiboshed at all (I would later come to regret publicly expressing such a sentiment).
However, as I said, this was Stern's deal to veto as was agreed upon by the 29 other owners when they all--including the great Dr. Jerry Buss--gave him the power to do so. With that, the trade, or perhaps the absence of the trade, has gone down as one of the most significant events in league history.
It's not rare for any trade to leave waves in its wake. Almost every deal, no matter how insignificant, has its after effects. After all, I'm sure a Bucks blogger out there could write 3,000 words on how the J.J. Redick for Tobias Harris trade has its own important ripples that have affected multiple franchises.
However, in the previous 20 years of NBA basketball, I've been hard-pressed to find any direct pact that has had so many profound ripple effects on so many teams in such a short period of time. With two years between now and The Veto, we can excuse ourselves from the snap judgments and lack of hindsight that a lack of perspective brings. At the risk of dredging up such acrimony at a time of relatively low discord amongst Lakers Nation, let's take a look at just how extensive The Veto's waves truly have been:
Los Angeles Lakers
With Chris Paul in the fold, the Lakers had a trajectory for the future, not the nebulous vacuum of direction that they are in now. From there, do(es)...
- The Lakers win titles 17? 18? 19? There's no telling whether or not they could have beaten the Miami Heat the past several seasons. But they would have had a shot. This ripple effect, moreso than the dozen or so I'll discuss, affects almost half the teams in the league.
- The Lakers make Kobe a $48.5 million dollar extension? Does Kobe not get hurt because he wasn't playing 40+ minutes for a month straight because Chris Paul is there beside him? Does he retire at the end of this season, not wanting to be CP3's subordinate? The possibilities are endless, but make no mistake: Paul's arrival would have changed Kobe's future.
- The Lakers deal for Dwight Howard by dangling Andrew Bynum? Or do the other teams in the league not want to participate in helping to create the next great NBA dynasty?
- Dwight Howard then even think about leaving the Lakers with another young, great player to shoulder the load-and criticism-in front of him? Or does he leave because he didn't want to play with CP3, an even heavier handed critic than Kobe?
- Mike Brown lose his job 5 games into the 2012-2013 season?
- Jim Buss's image change for the better? Or does all glory go to Kupchak?
- The front office trade for Steve Nash, dealing four draft picks in the process? Probably not. But without the trade exception they got from dealing Odom after The Veto, they might not have been able to complete the deal anyway.
It's harder to predict where the Clippers would have headed. After all, we are talking about nixing a trade that has thus churned out the two best seasons in franchise history. But you can bet that Blake Griffin wouldn't have been as happy to sign that extension, though I suspect that he eventually would have taken the money that no other team could have offered him. On top of that, do(es)...
- The team offer Eric Gordon that big money deal that he eventually got from the Hornets? If they would, is a DeAndre Jordan-Griffin-Gordon core taking the team anywhere?
- Doc Rivers even think about leaving the Celtics two seasons later to coach a CP3-less Clippers team?
GM Daryl Morey would have gotten the great big man that he'd been targeting for years, but instead of a 27-year-old defensive monster, it would have been a 31-year-old aging star. From there, do(es)...
- The Rockets have enough to deal for James Harden? Kevin Martin and his expiring $10 million dollar salary were a huge part of that pact and he would not have been there if The Veto hadn't gone through.
- Pau Gasol carry the team to a 50-win season along with Kyle Lowry? Statistically, Pau's 2011-2013 has been less than inspiring--but on a team full of three-point shooters and no one else to hog the low post as was the situation in Los Angeles, would Pau have been the 20/12 monster he'd been during the Lakers' title runs?
- Kyle Lowry ever get dealt to the Toronto Raptors if they were to contend for a top playoff spot? This would have robbed Houston of yet another asset used in the Harden deal.
New Orleans Hornicans
As stated earlier, the return for Chris Paul wasn't a good one for the Hornets. From there, do(es)...
- Anthony Davis go to NOLA with the first overall pick? Probably not. A team with Dragic, Martin, Scola and potentially Odom (he was rumored to have been immediately flipped to Dallas for their first rounder in 2012) might not have lost enough games to nab the team that top Draft selection. There's no telling where Davis would have gone instead, but some other NBA team out there would have a potentially multi-time All-Star on their squad.
- New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson still buy the team? The Hornets looked like an attractive option at the time he purchased the franchise, partially because they were clearly going in the direction for a high draft pick in a loaded draft. Without the promise of a legitimate blue chipper and the cap room that the Clippers trade provided, is Benson as eager to bail out the NBA? This, more than many of the other ripple effects, is definitely speculation at best. But it's worth noting.
James Harden got dealt less than a year after The Veto, with OKC GM Sam Presti deciding that he simply couldn't keep the Beard in addition to Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. But if The Veto hadn't gone down, from there do(es)...
- Harden get dealt at all? The odds are that he would, but at the time Presti stated that the team didn't just deal Harden because they felt they had to, but because they really liked the deal that Houston proposed to them. Without Martin and potentially the Toronto "guaranteed lottery pick", OKC might not have sent Harden to H-Town...or at all. So...
- ...if the Beard isn't dealt, what becomes of the 2012-2013 Thunder? Use your imaginations. The possibilities are endless and now I have made Thunder fans sad.
This is the hardest possible future (or past) to predict. The trade was, as is reported, the latest in an upsetting (to say the least) chain of events that unfolded for Lamar from 2010 onwards. I can't even begin to speculate how or if this would have changed Odom's life, but as has been reported, Lamar leaving the familiar infrastructure of Los Angeles and moving on to Dallas did not help matters at all. Again, I'm not saying that the proposed deal was the final straw or even compares to the other tragedies that have befallen him. But it's hard to not think that it had some role.
The ripples seem to stop there, for now anyway. The Veto has produced a butterfly effect that few other non-basketball moments can rival over the past twenty NBA seasons. While now a painful memory of what never was for Lakers fans, that fateful day in December changed the future of so many franchises that will be forever grateful for such a blatant conflict of league interests. Regardless of whatever judgment you cast upon David Stern's actions, there's no doubt that it was one of the most significant and fascinating decisions in NBA history.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino