Over the past decade in the NBA, there have been several landmark transactions that will be remembered for years to come.
But only one deal is remembered for the fact that it didn’t happen: the decision by then-NBA Commissioner David Stern to veto the three-team trade that would’ve sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers. That decision, which came five years ago Thursday — along with Stern approving a trade that sent Paul to the Clippers about a week later — is one that still sends ripple effects throughout the NBA.
Here is a rundown of a few of them:
1. The balance of power in Los Angeles
The most obvious long-term ramifications from the Chris Paul trade are in Los Angeles, where the Clippers had — until this moment — been the permanent also-ran behind the 17-time champion Lakers. But by getting Paul, the Clippers immediately went from a team that had won more than half their games twice in 27 seasons in Los Angeles to posting the five best winning percentages in franchise history in Paul’s five seasons with the team. After Paul’s first season in Los Angeles, Doc Rivers chose to leave the Boston Celtics to coach the Clippers — a decision he likely wouldn’t have been as willing to if the Clippers hadn’t looked like an immediate championship contender. And, without Paul, they wouldn’t have been.
All of that’s why, despite the Clippers failing to make it past the second round in those five years with Paul playing alongside Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers would undoubtedly make the same deal 100 times out of 100. There is no substitute for the amount of respect and stature the arrival of Paul has given to a team that had been an NBA doormat.
The Lakers, meanwhile, have never recovered. While it was expected that Dwight Howard would be traded to Los Angeles by the Orlando Magic in exchange for Andrew Bynum after Paul arrived, instead the Lakers wound up not getting him until the following offseason. Then, without Paul in the mix, Howard and Bryant fought each other the entire season. And trading for Steve Nash to be the point guard was a complete disaster after he got hurt, Bryant wound up tearing his Achilles’ and Howard went to the Houston Rockets in free agency.
Yes, they have recovered to use draft picks on young talent in Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. in recent seasons, but none are sure bets to be all-stars — let alone the kind of franchise-changing superstar Paul has been throughout his career. It’s still not clear when the Lakers will get another player like that, and the franchise’s once-sterling reputation as a guaranteed winner and star magnet has taken a brutal pounding.
2. Where would James Harden have wound up?
The sneaky thing about this trade is Houston would’ve moved its chips to the center of the table to get Pau Gasol, shipping a first-round pick, Goran Dragic, Kevin Martin and Luis Scola to New Orleans to get the all-star center General Manager Daryl Morey craved, and where he would’ve paired with Kyle Lowry to give the Rockets an excellent inside-out combination. Instead, failing to get Gasol meant the Rockets wound up biding their time, collecting assets and, after missing the playoffs in 2012, stunned the basketball world that fall by trading most of those assets to the Oklahoma City Thunder for James Harden.
So if Houston gets Gasol, and doesn’t have Kevin Martin to send to Oklahoma City, would they have had enough ancillary pieces left to get Harden? That seems unlikely. So where would The Beard have gone? Would the Thunder have circled back to the Washington Wizards and pushed harder on a trade for Bradley Beal — one the Wizards initially rebuffed? Or, without another obvious fallback option available at the time, would the Thunder have simply hung onto Harden and given it another shot after making it to the NBA Finals in 2012.
We obviously know the ramifications of trading Harden now, with the combination of that move and a series of others — plus some untimely injuries, bad luck and close calls in the playoffs — preventing the Thunder from ever reaching the Finals again before Kevin Durant chose to leave this summer to play with the Golden State Warriors.
3. Will history repeat itself in New Orleans?
The irony of Stern’s decision to veto the trade is that the one New Orleans wound up securing isn’t clearly better — and may even be worse. The best player in either trade since then has been Dragic, who would’ve been a worthy heir to Paul’s throne as the franchise’s point guard. Meanwhile, the pieces New Orleans got in the deal have all had more success elsewhere.
Eric Gordon was the prize piece of the deal, and looked like an all-star shooting guard at the time. But Gordon was never healthy in New Orleans, and is only thriving now that he’s in Houston after signing with the Rockets this summer. Al-Farouq Aminu was allowed to leave and has since flourished elsewhere, while New Orleans would take Austin Rivers with the No. 10 pick in the 2012 NBA draft with the pick they received from the Clippers, but later traded him away. Rivers has since forged a career as a rotation player with, ironically, the Clippers.
Clearly the biggest benefit to moving on from Paul was winding up with the top pick in the 2012 NBA draft, which New Orleans used to select budding superstar Anthony Davis.
But a series of poor management decisions since then, along with what appears to be mostly absentee ownership, has left the franchise adrift despite his prodigious talent, and many around the league are already wondering when Davis — who is under contract through at least 2020 — may try to force his hand and leave.
4. What else would be different?
Obviously the futures for all of the original teams involved would have changed, but there’s little doubt the ripples would’ve moved far beyond those teams who were immediately involved. The impact of Harden not going to Houston would’ve potentially been felt by the Thunder, which could’ve changed any number of things, but they also include other teams.
Let’s say Paul goes to the Lakers, and then Howard joins him there. That means there is no four-team trade the following summer to send Howard to the Lakers, which also meant there is no trade sending Andre Iguodala from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Denver Nuggets. Perhaps that also means Philadelphia simply hangs onto Iguodala and the solid core it had, and keeps him with the franchise. By not going to Denver, perhaps Iguodala never considers the Golden State Warriors and doesn’t help them become the NBA’s most dominant team.
By getting Gasol, it would seem more likely the Rockets would’ve made the playoffs, and that Morey wouldn’t have been willing to ship Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for a first-round pick. Without Lowry going to Toronto, the Raptors don’t achieve their highest level of success in the franchise’s 20-plus years in the league. If Rivers had elected to stay in Boston, perhaps Brad Stevens never comes to the NBA to coach the Celtics, and instead continues to pile up victories at Butler or potentially moves on to a marquee college job.
In short, Stern’s decision to veto the Paul trade to the Lakers was a momentous one — and one the NBA is clearly still feeling the effects of five years later.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Doc Rivers could have stayed in Dallas before going to Los Angeles, it was Boston.