Editor’s Note: This week is “What If?” Week at SB Nation, so we’ll be taking a look at various hypothetical scenarios involving the Lakers. Today, we think about what history would look like if the Lakers had completed their trade for Chris Paul.
Dec. 8, 2011 is a day that will live in infamy in the minds of any longtime fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. That was the day, for a few hours at least, that Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss had successfully managed to pair Kobe Bryant with Chris Paul (while, crucially, keeping young stud big man Andrew Bynum) in a trade that gave the Lakers both Bryant’s superstar successor, a path back to contention and the flexibility to acquire another star.
Within hours, that dream was dead, just one of an apparent multitude of bodies buried during the successful but often despotic reign of former NBA commissioner David Stern. Stern — in his role as
dictator manager of the at-the-time league-owned New Orleans Hornets — infamously vetoed the Lakers’, Hornets’ and Houston Rockets’ three-way trade for what he called “basketball reasons,” but it wasn’t long until word leaked that Cleveland Cavaliers owner and angry email enthusiast Dan Gilbert had sent Stern a message that allowing the Lakers to acquire Paul was “a travesty,” and imploring him to allow the league’s other owners to vote on (and presumably reject) the deal.
Whatever you think of the proposed terms of the three-way trade — with the Lakers getting Paul, Pau Gasol going to the Rockets, and New Orleans getting Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic and a 2012 Knicks first-round pick (via Houston) — the league being in a position to reject a trade, even in a capacity as owner, that was agreed to by all three teams created an unprecedented situation and the perception of a league conspiracy against the Lakers. Gilbert’s email made the fact that the other owners may have been jealous of L.A.’s ability to lure stars plain.
Lakers fans, justifiably, were apoplectic. One of my predecessors on this very blog argued that the season should potentially be cancelled in the aftermath of the veto. The Lakers that had been traded felt betrayed and unwanted, with Pau Gasol saying it “was difficult” to return to the team that had agreed to deal him, and Lamar Odom being so upset that he demanded (and was granted) a trade. We didn’t know it at the time, but this rejected deal would ultimately send the Lakers spiraling into their lengthiest rebuild period in franchise history, a swamp of basketball sadness they’ve only recently crawled out of.
But what if things didn’t happen that way? What if the Lakers’ trade for Paul had went through? How different would Lakers history look? Let’s dive in.
How it would have worked
Stern may have rejected the trade as it was constituted, but years later, he’s claimed that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have come around on it. In 2018, Stern threw fellow Lakers villain and king of leaving Magic Johnson on read, Dell Demps, under the bus, saying Demps never had the authority to approve a trade and had lied to Kupchak and Rockets executive Daryl Morey. Still, Stern said that didn’t mean he was unwilling to tweak the existing deal, saying that New Orleans was working on destinations to move Odom to for more picks when Kupchak, in Stern’s words, “panicked” and traded him to the Mavericks.
Whatever you think of Stern’s reliability as an orator here, this at least leaves open the possibility that the deal could have eventually gotten done. If we’re assuming it would have been for mostly the same package — Stern suggested the holdup was Houston putting Kyle Lowry in the deal, not anything from the Lakers — then that means that the Lakers would have stared the 2011-12 season with a core of Bryant, Paul and Bynum. That team could have done some damage, as Bryant was still very much in his prime, Paul was playing at a near-MVP level, and Bynum had his only All-Star appearance that season, the most productive of his career. It’s a safe bet that playing with Paul would have made him even better, and if the Lakers had nailed their role player signings, they would have been a real contender for the title.
The next summer, though, is when things get really interesting. We don’t have to head to an alternate history to know that the Lakers still had the assets left over from the proposed Paul trade to complete a deal for then-superstar center and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. This isn’t a photoshop-fueled, trade machine-enabled Lakers fan fever dream, either. They actually did pull off a trade for Howard the next summer, sending out Andrew Bynum, Christian Eyenga, Josh McRoberts and a 2017 second-round draft pick as part of a four-team deal that landed them Howard (along with Earl Clark and Chris Duhon).
Critically, as mentioned before, that deal did not include any of the pieces from the proposed Paul deal, meaning it still would have been possible to pair Howard, Paul and Bryant. Now, would the Magic have still done that deal if the Lakers had already acquired Paul and the league was rioting against them? Maybe not, or maybe one of the other teams holds out, but for the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to say it gets done.
What could have happened
Even knowing what we know now about Howard’s nagging health situation that year, this is still, on paper, a far better outcome for the Lakers. In this reality, let’s say they made it all the way to the 2012 Finals, losing to the Heat as LeBron James claimed his first title. That Heat team was on a mission, and we’ll let them have that one because of the story it sets up next.
The Lakers, looking to reload around Paul and Bryant in the aftermath of their finals defeat, bring Howard to Los Angeles the following offseason. This avoids Bynum’s injuries — he never played significant NBA minutes after his lone All-Star campaign — and also dodges the Lakers’ disastrous trade for Steve Nash (who could similarly never stay healthy in Los Angeles).
The next season, the Lakers are as motivated as they’ve been since losing in the 2008 Finals. Bryant has stolen one of the actual puppets of LeBron James from their Nike commercials and uses it to attempt voodoo rituals. Paul’s presence, while abrasive and taskmaster-esque at times, also bridges the gap between Bryant and Howard on the court, taking over the floor general duties and making sure that both players got enough touches to satisfy their egos, while also allowing Howard to more slowly work his way back from injury (given that in this universe, Nash doesn’t get hurt in game two, necessitating Howard putting his foot on the gas).
The Lakers roll, not to a 73-win pace like some were predicting when Paul, Howard and Bryant posed on the cover of Sports Illustrated under the legendary caption “THIS is NOT going to be FUN for the league,” but still coast their way to one of the top seeds in the West. Bryant avoids a late-season (and essentially prime-ending) Achilles injury because he’s not forced to play 90 minutes per game (approx.) with Paul also around, and the Lakers really hit their stride in the playoffs, easily dispatching most of their opponents through the sheer force of their healthy big three and how well their combination of shooting, passing, scoring and vertical spacing fits together.
In the Finals they beat a Heat team weary from three straight trips into June, giving Paul and Howard their first championships, Bryant his MJ-tying sixth, and the Lakers a 17th championship to match the Boston Celtics for most in NBA history. And with Bryant still healthy, and Paul and Howard just 27, the Lakers are set to contend for years to come, with Bryant staying on to continue dominating in spurts while slowly passing the superstar torch to Paul and Howard, who through chemistry and time eventually morph into one of the most potent duos in NBA history. The group wins two more titles together and then eventually pairs Paul and a declined Howard with LeBron James before circumventing the cap to trade for Anthony Davis. The Lakers skip their ugly rebuild, Mike Brown, Mitch Kupchak, Jim Buss and Chaz Osborne get statues in front of Staples Center, Magic Johnson is never there to give us this viral moment, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Is this a rose-tinted view of how things would have gone? Absolutely. Could things have gone very wrong at some point if Bryant got hurt anyway, or Howard never gelled with Paul and Bryant’s at-times abrasive approaches? Yes. Could we all use a little dose of positivity right now, so I’m going to sit here and think about the best-case scenario instead? Also yes.
Maybe things wouldn’t have gone that comically well, but even as good as the Lakers are now, it’s still hard to argue they wouldn’t have been better off in the intervening years (and potentially today) had that trade went through. Alas, it was not to be, but at least when we’re bored, or looking for something to debate about with our friends, we can always wonder “What If?”
What do you think? Is that how things would have gone? Do you still wish the veto had never happened? Let’s talk about all that and more in the comments below, and for more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @hmfaigen.