Step Back Special: Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and David Stern’s legacy

Image: Bloomberg / Andrew D. Bernstein / Rocky Widner / Getty

Of all the NBA’s great ‘what ifs’ from the past decade or so, the vetoed Chris Paul trade remains the most intriguing, not to mention the most controversial.

Paul, who was in the midst of a contract year with the New Orleans Hornets at the time, had been the subject of trade rumours throughout a five-month lockout that had delayed the start of the 2011-12 NBA season. Then, just a day before the league was set to return to action, Commissioner David Stern nixed a blockbuster three-team trade that would have made Paul and Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers teammates.

In full, it would have sent Paul to the Lakers, Goran Dragic, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, and the New York Knicks’ 2012 first-round pick (that became Royce White) to the Hornets, and Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom to the Houston Rockets.

But Stern ran the Hornets at the time, having convinced the NBA Board of Governors, which comprised the other teams’ owners, to collectively purchase the franchise from its owner, George Shinn, who was struggling financially. This meant that Stern, who led the collective, had final say on whether the deal could be passed or not. And as Howard Beck pointed out in The New York Times: “Until now, league officials had granted autonomy to the Hornets’ front office to make personnel decisions it deemed appropriate. This was the first time the league has stepped in.”

It was a monumental decision that sent shockwaves around the NBA. Not least because, as Beck pointed out, “Stern was said to be acting on behalf of some of the other owners, who were upset to see the Hornets send Paul – a premier point guard – to the Lakers, who have won five championships since 2000”. It was also claimed that the league was concerned that the Hornets’ resale value would decrease dramatically without Paul on the roster.

Leading the charge was Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who reportedly wrote to Stern: “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. And it doesn’t appear that they would give up any draft picks, which might allow to later make a trade for Dwight Howard.”

This argument aligned with the NBA’s new labor agreement, which was supposed to make small-market teams (such as the Hornets) more competitive while promoting competitive balance across the league, prompting Stern, or the ‘League Office’ as it were, to veto the trade for “basketball reasons” – because the trade undermined that sentiment.

Ironically, the package the Hornets would have landed in the Lakers deal was probably better than the one they got when Paul was sent to the Los Angeles Clippers shortly afterwards. That move resulted in Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2012 first-round pick (which became Austin Rivers) going to New Orleans, while the Clips got Paul and two second-round picks.

Tony Mafred wrote in Business Insider a few years later: “With the power of hindsight, it’s clear the Lakers’ offer that the NBA vetoed was better. Goran Dragic is one of the best point guards in the NBA, and he’s about to get a max contract next summer. Martin and Scola are also better than any role player New Orleans got from the Clippers.”

Shortly afterwards, the Hornets became the Pelicans, won the 2012 NBA Draft Lottery and selected Anthony Davis first overall, before squandering his early years in the league and eventually trading him to (that’s right) the Lakers. In the interim, Kobe played out the final years of his career, initially, on an ageing roster, before injuries limited his role on a tanking one. Had the Hornets deal gone through, he may, with Paul playing alongside him, have had a genuine shot at that coveted sixth ring. Instead, he ended up squabbling with Dwight Howard before retiring on a Lakers team that won a franchise-worst 17 games. Things didn’t work out much better for Paul, who made a ton of money in LA without ever quite fulfilling his potential there.

Speaking to ESPN in 2017, Stern said he felt the trade could have been reworked but that talks fell through when Kupchak traded Odom days after the original deal was vetoed: “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 Kupchak 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.”

While he expressed no regrets about the decision in any of the interviews he did in the years preceding his death in January (claiming that he didn’t veto anything in the video above), it continues to complicate the legacy of a Commissioner who should ultimately still be remembered for doing more good than bad during his time in the role.