We are months removed from a months-long NBA layoff, facing months more without basketball. Almost a year and a half will pass between free-agency periods. In the coming weeks, we will spend ample time imagining what now lies ahead for the league’s 30 teams. But we’ve earned our fun, so join us as we first reimagine some of this century’s pivotal moments in a series we’re going to call Alternate NBA Endings.
It was a shocking development at the time. Former NBA commissioner David Stern vetoed a three-team trade that would have paired Chris Paul with Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers in December 2011.
The league purchased the New Orleans Hornets from George Shinn in 2010, so Stern held authority over the organization’s personnel decisions, even if he previously left them to then-general manager Dell Demps. And the commissioner was coming under fire from non-Lakers members of the NBA’s board of governors.
“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,” Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote in a scathing email to Stern. “And it doesn’t appear that they would give up any draft picks, which might allow to later make a trade for Dwight Howard. ... I just don’t see how we can allow this trade to happen. I know the vast majority of owners feel the same way I do. When will we just change the name of 25 of the 30 teams to the Washington Generals?”
In return for Paul, the Lakers had agreed to send reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom to the Hornets and All-Star big man Pau Gasol to the Houston Rockets. New Orleans also would have received Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and the New York Knicks’ 2012 first-round pick from Houston.
Four days after his nixed trade, Stern approved the deal that sent Paul and two second-round picks to the L.A. Clippers for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and the 2012 first-round pick that New Orleans had previously acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves (and eventually became Austin Rivers).
“But Dell Demps is a lousy general manager and none of those players are currently with the team anymore,” Stern told Sports Illustrated in October 2018 of his “basketball reasons” for rejecting the trade.
So, Paul joined Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on the Lob City Clippers, and the rest is snakebitten history. But what if Stern had never vetoed the deal that might have given Bryant one last shot at a title?
Kobe Bryant’s alternate ending
In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Andrew Bynum joined Bryant on the All-Star team, and their Lakers finished 41-25, entering the playoffs as the Western Conference’s No. 3 seed. Together with Gasol, Metta World Peace and starting point guard Ramon Sessions, the Lakers lost to the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder in a five-game conference semifinals series. OKC lost the Finals in five games to the Miami Heat.
Could Bryant, Paul and Bynum have formed the foundation of a team that might have challenged Kevin Durant’s Thunder in the second round, Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals and LeBron James’ Heat for the title? If you were to ask me, the odds would have been against the Lakers running that gambit.
The following year would have been Bryant’s best shot to match Michael Jordan’s six rings. The Lakers still owned all the pieces that were eventually traded for Howard in August 2012. They presumably still make that deal, sending Bynum to the Philadelphia 76ers and a package of Christian Eyenga, Josh McRoberts and a top-three protected 2017 first-round pick (that became two second-rounders) to the Orlando Magic.
With Paul on the roster, the Lakers would not have had the exception to absorb Steve Nash’s contract in a July 2012 sign-and-trade deal. They also would have had no need for Nash. That means the Phoenix Suns never get the future picks that amounted to little beyond the 2018 first-round pick used on Mikal Bridges.
In theory, Bryant, Paul and Howard were talented enough to compete for a championship. Both Bryant and Paul believed they would have won a title together. That is less clear in practice. Howard was coming off an April 2012 back surgery that hindered his performance throughout the 2012-13 season, and Bryant suffered his career-altering Achilles injury carrying the Lakers to the finish line of a seventh seed in the 2013 playoffs. You could argue Paul’s presence eases the load on his co-stars and they achieve nirvana together in 2013.
There is a chance Howard stays in Los Angeles if they find their groove as a trio, and they continue to vie for championships together in the mid-2010s. There is also a chance that Bryant and Paul butt heads, as they both did with teammates during that time, and their collective intensity still drives Howard to leave.
James Harden’s alternate ending
Howard, of course, left the Lakers to join James Harden in Houston in 2013. But there is a real chance Harden never would have landed on the Rockets had Martin already been included in a trade for Paul.
Oklahoma City dealt Harden to Houston in October 2012 for Martin, Jeremy Lamb, a pair of first-round picks and a 2013 second-rounder. Could Rockets GM Daryl Morey have convinced Thunder counterpart Sam Presti to trade Harden if Martin — then a 17 points-per-game scorer — was not available? Possibly.
That opens an alternative universe into a world where Harden, Howard and Gasol are playing together at an All-Star level in the 2015 Western Conference finals opposite the nascent Golden State Warriors dynasty.
There is also that timeline where Bryant and Paul prevent the Thunder from reaching the 2012 Finals. Would Presti have then convinced OKC ownership that it was necessary to re-sign Harden to stay competitive in the West? Or do the Thunder trade Harden to another suitor? Alternative returns have reportedly ranged from Klay Thompson or Bradley Beal to Jonas Valanciunas to Kendrick Perkins or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
The possibilities are endless. Imagine Harden alongside Stephen Curry or on any of the 50-win Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics teams of the past eight years. Thompson or Beal with Durant and Russell Westbrook could have won a title in OKC. As it were, Thompson’s Game 6 effort for the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference finals ended Durant’s Thunder tenure, altering the NBA landscape for years to come.
Chris Paul’s alternate ending
At the very least, Lob City is never a thing. Presumably, the Clips still would have been a playoff team with Griffin, Jordan and the pieces they traded for Paul, but they never would have been a contender. We can hope Donald Sterling still would have paid the price of his racism, but the Clippers may never have been legitimized to the point that both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George wanted to join the franchise last year.
The 2017-18 Rockets, who won 65 games and pushed the Warriors to the limit in the conference finals, most likely are not a thing, either. The odds of Paul, Harden and Gordon all landing in Houston are too long.
So, what becomes of Paul, arguably the greatest point guard of his generation? A title in L.A. could have made him a Laker for the remainder of his career. Even as Bryant aged into retirement, Paul might have had enough pull to bring other big names, most notably friends LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony.
The Lakers are not consistently drafting at the top of the lottery if Paul stays put. That means no Julius Randle, no D’Angelo Russell, no Brandon Ingram and no Lonzo Ball. All of them land elsewhere, altering the draft order from 2014-17 and raising a question of whether Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are in Boston.
If his first two seasons with the Lakers did not go according to plan, Paul could have looked elsewhere in 2013, when in reality he was an unrestricted free agent and signed a five-year extension with the Clippers. He could have gone to the Rockets that summer. The Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks also pursued.
Outside of LeBron joining Paul on the Lakers when both were in their prime, none of these aforementioned scenarios gets Paul any closer to a ring in the past seven years than he got with the Clippers and Rockets. The alternate window for Paul winning a title really would have been with those injury-plagued 2013 Lakers.
Anthony Davis’ alternate ending
In the aftermath of Paul’s departure, New Orleans saw Gordon suffer a season-ending injury nine years into his Hornets career. They won 21 games that first season and landed the No. 1 pick in 2012: Anthony Davis.
With Odom, Martin, Scola and Dragic on the roster instead, New Orleans probably wins a handful more games. Odom was a shell of himself after leaving L.A., but the other three were starters on a Houston team that won the majority of its games in 2011-12. Those Hornets also featured a number of capable contributors, including Trevor Ariza, Jarrett Jack, Marco Belinelli, Carl Landry and Greivis Vasquez.
So, who wins the Davis sweepstakes instead? New Orleans had the fourth-most Ping Pong balls in 2012. Four more wins that season drops their chances at the No. 1 pick from 13.7 percent to 1 percent. The seven-win Charlotte Bobcats had the best odds in that lottery at 25 percent, followed by the Washington Wizards (19.9 percent) and Cleveland (13.8 percent). The Sacramento Kings would have replaced the Hornets in fourth, rather than their 7.6 percent odds that delivered Thomas Robinson with the fifth pick.
The Wizards would have been interesting. They won the John Wall lottery two years earlier, and his healthy pairing with Davis would have had the potential to do serious damage in the East. But Cleveland would have been the most interesting landing spot for Davis. The Cavaliers won the Kyrie Irving lottery in 2011. They also won the lottery in 2013 and 2014, but may not have had the chance with Irving and Davis at the top of the billing. The Cavs would, however, still have been in position to lure LeBron back to Cleveland.
Imagine pairing Davis and James five years before they won a title together in Los Angeles — on a team that beat the 73-win Warriors to win a ring without Davis in 2016. That is the foundation of a Cleveland sports dynasty, an alternate ending so bizarre we should probably stop imagining the ramifications here.
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