By Connor Pignatello
Chris Paul, one of the young stars of the league, had toiled year after year for the hopeless Hornets, and in his six years in New Orleans he had been rewarded with just one playoff series victory. Paul was one of the best players in the league, and during his time in New Orleans he won Rookie of the Year, made the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams three times each, and was selected to four All-Star games, starting in two of them. Despite Paul’s endless contributions on both sides of the court, Hornets ownership did not surround him with adequate talent, in free agency or the draft.
By 2010, the team was in such financial distress that the owner, George Shinn, was forced to sell the team back to the NBA for $300 million. After the sale, the NBA’s 30 owners seemed to run the team while looking for a local buyer for the franchise. All of this turmoil led teams to believe that Chris Paul was available, and the changes in ownership certainly did not motivate him to stay.
Anyway, Paul was tired of losing, and during the NBA lockout of 2011, he informed the Hornets that he would not sign a contract extension and instead planned to become a free agent in the coming summer.
The Hornets started fielding offers for their star man, and the Lakers, champions in 2009 and 2010, came calling for Paul, and agreed upon a trade that would rock the NBA. The proposed trade between the Hornets, Rockets, and Lakers would send Chris Paul to the Lakers, four-time All-Star Pau Gasol to the Rockets, and a large package to the Hornets. The Hornets would receive three stars in their primes: Kevin Martin, a 23 point-per-game scorer; Lamar Odom, the 2011 Sixth Man of the Year; and Luis Scola, who had gone from 2008 to 2010 without missing a game. They also would collect a young Goran Dragic — who went on to score 20 points per game this past season — and a 2012 first round pick.
Although the trade was not as fair as it could have been, the Hornets had absolutely no leverage, and rival executives believed that New Orleans did as well as it could.
However, NBA Commissioner David Stern and his pack of owners acted to stop the trade and prevent a ‘superteam’ in L.A., where Chris Paul would join five-time champion Kobe Bryant. Paul and Bryant had already played together on team USA during the 2008 Olympics and had become friends.
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who had written “The Letter”, a comic sans memo to Cavs fans in which he defamed Lebron James for leaving in free agency, wrote to David Stern in a now publicized email. Gilbert asked that the “29 owners of the Hornets” vote down the trade because “it would be a travesty to allow the Lakers to acquire Chris Paul in the apparent trade being discussed.”
In an ugly display of tyranny from David Stern, the league vetoed the trade for “basketball reasons”. This veto showed the lack of credibility that the NBA had attained, first by its 161-day lockout, and second, by rejecting such a high-profile trade.
The players who were to be traded were crestfallen. Paul did not show up to Hornets camp and instead explored his legal options with the NBA Players Association. Odom was also disheartened, saying “They [the Lakers] don’t want my services, for whatever reason. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
Although Stern insisted that the Hornets General Manager Dell Demps had autonomy over basketball decisions, his veto showed that he wanted to hand-pick Paul’s destination, a mindset that seemed accurate when Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers just five days later.
The package that the Hornets received for Paul was similar in value to the Laker’s package, but included younger players. The Hornets received Al-Farouq Aminu, a versatile 20 year old wing; Chris Kaman, an All-Star Center the previous year; Eric Gordon, a 22 year old shooting guard who seemed primed for stardom; and a 2012 first round pick.
The trade centered around Eric Gordon, who, at just 22 years old had averaged 22 points per game the previous season. Gordon seemed ready to make the leap and become the NBA’s next great shooting guard. However, Gordon faced severe injury problems during his five years in New Orleans and ended up playing just 56% of the games. Thankfully, Gordon had a career rejuvenation this year, staying healthy and taking home Sixth Man of the Year honors.
After the Paul trade the Hornets regressed significantly, their winning percentage dropped by over 200 points and their attendance fell. They did, however, gain the top pick in the 2012 draft, and drafted Anthony Davis, who has been a shining star, like Paul, despite not having much talent around him. New Orleans has not won a playoff game since Paul left, but they seem to be on an upward trajectory after trading for DeMarcus Cousins this past season.
David Stern’s veto robbed us of what could have been a very exciting team. A big three of Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, and Andrew Bynum had the potential to win a title, but David Stern decided to play God and reject the trade.
Vetoing a trade that would have helped all teams involved is not acceptable, and Stern has never revealed his true intent. The veto could have been motivated by Stern’s yearning for parity, his wish to make another team marketable by rewarding it with Chris Paul, or his desire to attract younger players to the Hornets so that someone would purchase the team.
We may never know why David Stern vetoed the trade, but I certainly know that it was the wrong decision.
All stats via Basketball Reference