Kobe Bryant was fortunate enough to have some pretty great teammates in his career. He started with Shaquille O’Neal, where he won three straight championships from 2000 to 2002. Then, the Lakers made a historic deal in acquiring Pau Gasol, which helped the Lakers make three more appearances in the NBA Finals with two championships of their own. With that said, the potentially best teammate he nearly had was vetoed by the NBA.
In 2011, the Lakers had completed a trade for Chris Paul. Both teams had agreed on the deal and even a press release was ready to be sent. The world caught wind of the trade and Lakers fans rejoiced. However, David Stern shot the trade down and sent the world into a frenzy, leaving Bryant without the chance to form the league’s best backcourt.
Here is the blockbuster trade that never happened and its details.
The Trade Details
Lakers Receive: Chris Paul
Rockets Receive: Pau Gasol
Hornets Receive: Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, a first-round pick
At the time, the trade was heralded as a major win for the Lakers. The team was able to retain Andrew Bynum at the center, who was being potentially dangled in a trade for Dwight Howard. Had the trade been completed, the Lakers could have had a big three of Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, and Howard. Despite the Lakers not being his first choice, Paul would have been fine with the trade and signed a contract extension.
“While Paul's first choice is to join buddies Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire on the New York Knicks, he would sign a long-term contract to stay with the Lakers, according to a source with knowledge of Paul's thinking,” wrote ESPN’s Chris Broussard. “And Howard's fondness for Los Angeles is well-known, leaving no doubt that he would commit to the Lakers long-term.”
The Lakers would have given up a competitive sign advantage in dealing with both Gasol and Lamar Odom. That was the main reason the Rockets wanted to acquire Gasol because they were lacking in size at the time. As for New Orleans, it allowed the team to rebuild around a legitimate scorer in Kevin Martin. With Luis Scola and Emeka Okafor, the Hornets would have had a tough frontcourt defensively.
David Stern Vetoed The Trade
On December 8, 2011, the NBA had just ended a 161-day lockout. Later that afternoon, the Lakers had completed the trade for Paul. At the time, the Hornets did not have an owner, so the NBA acted as interim owner of the team, which meant that commissioner David Stern could approve and decline all moves. The veto set off a six-day span that changed the trajectories of both the Lakers and the Clippers, who were the winners of the Chris Paul sweepstakes in the end. David Stern later explained to Sports Illustrated in 2018 that he didn’t want to approve the trade because of the influence the lockout had.
"I didn't do a great job of explaining it at the time. There was a trade that [New Orleans GM] Dell Demps wanted us to approve and I said heck no, but he had told [Rockets GM] Daryl Morey and [then Lakers GM] Mitch Kupchak he had the authority to do it and he didn't. I said no. We just settled a lockout and you want me to approve a basketball trade?"
Former head coach Phil Jackson, among other former players and executives, expressed disappointment in the deal. Jackson said that the veto caused a conflict among the league and it also set frustration within the team.
“[Vetoed trades] “happen fairly often but usually it’s due to a technicality in the trade,” wrote Andrew Greif of the Los Angeles Times. “Something’s off, the money’s off, the cap number’s off, medical records have passed or there’s been some impropriety in terms of disclosure, right, and they’ll veto the trade; it happens. But in this case, it’s a perfectly good three-way trade. But because the league was the owner of the Hornets, it just begged a lot of questions and wonderment why and how the league can be in a position to do that. I think people viewed it as a conflict.”
With that said, Lakers President Jeanie Buss told Greif that she understood the move. A lot of the fans were upset with the league, claiming the NBA was against the Lakers. Instead, it was Stern looking out for the Hornets because the trade would have kept the Lakers at the top of the food chain. After all, the team had made the NBA Finals each season from 2008 to 2010, winning two titles in 2009 and 2010.
Lakers Projected Lineup If Trade Happened
PG: Chris Paul
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Matt Barnes
PF: Metta World Peace
C: Andrew Bynum
Assuming that the Lakers were not able to pull off the trade for Dwight Howard, this is what the trade would have looked like to the depth chart. However, let’s just assume that the Lakers were able to pull off the trade for Howard. You would be looking at a top defensive team in the league with Paul, Bryant, and Howard all on the same roster.
Pending what would have been given up, Metta World Peace would have to play either forward position, but he was a very underrated defender as well. You would have the best offensive and defensive backcourt in the league with four starters playing top defensive minutes.
Rockets Projected Lineup If Trade Happened
PG: Kyle Lowry
SG: Courtney Lee
SF: Chandler Parsons
PF: Paul Gasol
C: Samuel Dalembert
At the time, Kyle Lowry was coming off his best offensive season in his career at 13.5 points per game. However, the team had a lot of optimism for his role as point guard after his 6.7 assists. Courtney Lee was coming off a season that saw him average 40% from three-point range, while Chandler Parsons was entering his rookie season.
Dalembert was an established veteran center at this point and Gasol would have completed a playoff-contending roster. The team would have been competitive, but not a championship contender. With that said, the Rockets acquired James Harden one year later and you could have been able to build with Harden and Gasol as the main contributors for the teams in the 2010s.
Hornets (Pelicans) Projected Lineup If Trade Happened
PG: Goran Dragic
SG: Kevin Martin
SF: Trevor Ariza
PF: Luis Scola
C: Emeka Okafor
With Paul leaving the team, it would have left the Hornets scrambling. Martin would have been the team’s main building block. At the time, he was coming off a season where he averaged 23.5 points per game. The addition of Dragic would have been an underrated pickup as he slowly grew into a viable point guard in the league.
Luis Scola and Emeka Okafor would have been a tough defensive frontcourt, while Trevor Ariza was a solid defensive player in his own right. In the end, the Hornets would have been a competitive team, but likely would have contended for the seven, eight, or nine seed in the conference.
Ultimately, the deal with the Lakers broke down and Paul was traded to the Clippers in a trade that was centered around Eric Gordon, who led the team in points per game with 20.6 that season. With that said, the Hornets finished 21-45 and landed the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. That is where the team selected Anthony Davis and the rest is history there. Meanwhile, Gordon played with the Pelicans until 2016, where he joined the Rockets and has played ever since.
As for Paul, he joined the Clippers and helped the other team in Los Angeles rise to fame. The Clippers had a No. 1 overall pick of their own in Blake Griffin, as well as a strong center in DeAndre Jordan. Paul formed a big three with Griffin and Jordan, which featured some strong competitive teams in the 2010s. The creation of “Lob City,” which featured Paul setting up Griffin and Jordan or monstrous dunks became a nationwide phenomenon.
Paul was unable to carry the Clippers to the heights that many thought he could do. The team never made the Conference Finals, including blowing a 3-1 lead to the Rockets in 2015 in the semis. Those same Rockets benefited from the deal falling through. Houston used Martin to help land James Harden, who became a superstar, MVP, and led the Rockets to two appearances in the Conference Finals, despite never winning an NBA championship.
As for the Lakers, Gasol stayed with the team for three more seasons, but the Lakers won just one playoff series combined. The Lakers did eventually acquire Howard in a trade with the Magic, but the marriage lasted only one year. The 2012-2013 season featured a lot of drama and reports that Bryant and Howard could not coexist with their personalities. Howard would eventually be acquired by the Rockets, where he would play with Harden from 2013 to 2016.
The trade draws a lot of criticism from members all around the world. Had Paul joined the Lakers, it might have changed the landscape of the team for when Howard eventually joined the Lakers. Not to mention, the window between 2011-2012 to 2014-2015 would have been open. Bryant was reaching the end of his career but produced some solid individual seasons at this time. With the Thunder, Spurs, and Warriors making runs to the NBA Finals this year, one would think that this big three could have equally made a run as well. Instead, we will never know what the league’s potential backcourt could have done.