It was all but done. Chris Paul was going to the Lakers. For former commissioner David Stern—who died on Wednesday at age 77—that reality would provide arguably the most difficult, controversial and misunderstood challenge of his 30-year tenure at the league’s helm.
It was December 2011, just weeks after the league’s ugly five-month lockout had ended, and the NBA was scrambling to get its schedule hammered out and its teams were working to set their rosters. Paul had informed the New Orleans Hornets that he wanted to be traded and former GM Dell Demps thought he worked out a trade that would keep New Orleans competitive while also securing some pieces to bolster the outlook for the future.
Demps was to bring in sharpshooter Kevin Martin, versatile big man Luis Scola, 25-year-old point guard Goran Dragic (who had not yet gotten a chance to be a starter in the league) and the Knicks’ 2012 draft pick, all from Houston. They’d also get big man Lamar Odom from the Lakers.
The Rockets would get Pau Gasol, the Lakers’ 30-year-old All-Star center.
The Lakers would come away with the big prize, though: Paul, a four-time All-Star, who would be teamed in a star backcourt with Kobe Bryant. The Lakers also had designs on trading for Orlando center Dwight Howard, giving the team a potentially revamped Big Three after an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Mavericks in the conference semifinals in 2011 that had led to the departure of coach Phil Jackson.
While, in hindsight, the trade that Demps put together looks like a good one, at the time there was a universal meltdown, among fans, media and league executives, over the Lakers’ acquisition of Paul.
Demps would ultimately need the approval of his team’s owner to push the trade through. At the time, the league was acting as the steward of the Hornets, who had been purchased by the league to hasten the departure of cash-strapped former owner George Shinn. That meant the final decision was left to Stern. Considering the whirlwind of the previous weeks, which saw the settling of the lockout, Stern was a bit spent. The backlash against the Paul-to-the-Lakers deal was overwhelming.
As Stern later recalled in a Sports Illustrated story, “We just settled a lockout and you want me to approve a basketball trade?”
He nixed Demps’ deal and sent him back to the drawing board to find another trade. Days later, Paul was sent to the Clippers of a package built around oft-injured wing Eric Gordon.
David Stern’s One Regret About the Chris Paul Trade
There are two versions of why that happened.
In the first version, Stern was pressured by the rest of the owners who had stayed fairly united during the lockout in hopes of getting a better deal from players that would benefit small-market teams. Some owners were irate that the first major transaction after the destructive lockout would be one of the league’s biggest stars going to the Lakers.
Several news outlets got hold of an angry email to Stern from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who called the proposed trade “a travesty” and suggested it be put to a vote of the other 29 owners. Gilbert closed with, “When will we just change the name of 25 of the 30 teams to the Washington Generals?”
But Stern always maintained that the decision was his and his alone, that he was not pressured and that he did not feel Demps did enough to get back young players the Hornets would need to rebuild after Paul’s departure. Instead, Stern approved a deal that brought in Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a first-round pick. Aminu was 21 and Gordon was 22, though neither blossomed to reach their full potential.
In retrospect, Stern made the wrong call. Odom was a tragic flameout, but Scola averaged 15.5 points the next year and Martin averaged 17.1 points, and finished his career as one of the best 3-point shooters of his era (38.4 percent). Dragic, not Gordon, went on to become an All-Star. The Hornets might have been a playoff team with those three.
We never got to see what might have been with Bryant and Paul. The Lakers went into a tailspin shortly thereafter, missing the playoffs from 2014-19, the longest stretch in franchise history and going through five coaches in nine years before finally getting back on track this season. The failed trade always bothered Bryant.
“The NBA vetoed the trade,” Bryant told GQ in 2015. “But the Lakers pulled that … off, and no one would have thought it was even possible. The trade got vetoed, because they’d just staged the whole lockout to restrict the Lakers. [GM] Mitch [Kupchak] got penalized for being smart. But if we could do that …”
Stern never wavered on the notion that he did the right thing. He also bristled at the notion that the league had vetoed the trade, which he felt was a mischaracterization. As Stern saw it, he nixed the trade in his role as steward of the Hornets, not as commissioner. It was an organizational decision, not a league decision.
That was never well-communicated to the public, though. Even the NBA.com story the following day was headlined, “NBA Nixes Paul Trade.”
Either way, it was the toughest situation Stern faced, certainly in the latter part of his tenure with the league.
“I did it because I was protecting the then-Hornets,” he told SI. “To this day, everyone always asks me, ‘Well why did you keep Chris Paul from going to the Lakers?’ I didn’t keep him. I didn’t approve the trade. No team sells or trades a future Hall of Famer without the owner signing off, and I was the owner’s rep. But I wasn’t going to hand up Dell Demps.”
Stern later called Demps a, “lousy GM,” but conceded that part of the problem with how the transaction was perceived was his own fault. It’s an indelible part of his legacy, and though he never expressed regret for it, he did think he could have handled it better.
“I didn’t do a great job of explaining it at the time,” Stern said.