As tempting as it is to blame Jim Buss for the Los Angeles Lakers’ demise, the actual culprit is David Stern.
The franchise saw the writing on the wall during the 2011 winter, and made a move that sent chills to the rest of the league. Mitch Kupchak pulled the trigger on an epic trade with the then New Orleans Hornets.
The transaction had Chris Paul joining the Purple and Gold, while Lamar Odom was redirected to New Orleans and Pau Gasol went over to the Houston Rockets. The swap allowed the Lakers to start over without actually rebuilding.
Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner of the L.A. Times offered this observation of the Lakers: “The trade would have symbolized the Lakers' shift from finesse, precision and depth in the frontcourt to speed and athleticism in the backcourt.”
Indeed, the team had a nucleus of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Paul. That three-headed monster would have immediately restored the Lakers mystique and likely allowed the squad to sit atop the standings.
Sadly for the Los Angeles faithful, the NBA commissioner famously vetoed the trade for basketball reasons and forced Kupchak to look elsewhere to improve the roster. The league had purchased the Hornets because the previous owner could no longer cover the costs, which meant that Stern was its de facto owner.
In the aftermath of the rejected proposal, the Lakers eventually moved around some parts, and the result is the disaster the franchise is facing today.
Nonetheless, one can only wonder where the Lake Show would be had Stern allowed the transaction to pass.
What Could Have Been
In an alternate universe where David Stern allowed Chris Paul to join the Los Angeles Lakers, the team’s fortunes would have been vastly different. Paul’s addition initially causes a small alpha dog battle between he and Kobe Bryant.
Ultimately, Bryant agrees to cede ground because of Paul’s undisputed acumen as a floor general and leader. Armed with the best backcourt in the league, the 2011-12 team probably finishes with the third-best record in the Western Conference and meets up with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round.
Although the Thunder probably prevail, the Lakers take them to seven games and give their fans something to look forward to in the near future. With the best point guard in the game on board, players are lining up to join the Purple and Gold in the offseason on the cheap.
The Lakers get an opportunity to add talented pieces and compete for titles. What’s more, the front office probably still acquires Dwight Howard in a four-team trade where Andrew Bynum lands with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Howard is a shell of his former self because of back surgery, but he still gives Los Angeles some good interior play, which leads to a few wins. The Lakers are probably a good offensive unit despite the shortcomings of Mike Brown on this side of the ball and in addition, Kobe Bryant enjoys a functional working relationship with Howard.
Lest we forget, Bryant was ecstatic once he got word that Howard would be joining him in LakerLand. He posted this message to his Facebook page:
Well, it looks like Superman has found a home. I wish nothing but the best for Big Bynum. I hope he follows what was a great season last year with an even better one next year. I know LA is excited about the deal and rightfully so. The Lakers landed a piece that will hopefully carry the franchise long after I'm gone. I have spoken to Dwight Howard already and we are locked and loaded to bring back the title. Wow, what a summer Jimmy and Mitch have had so far. Unreal! I'm focused on our semifinal game vs Argentina but I had to pause for a few to send you my thoughts, in case you were curious..
Given that Howard and Paul have already enjoyed a previously relationship that stems from their time playing for team USA, both understand each other quite well and have no trouble incorporating their games with Bryant’s.
Howard comes in as the final big piece and accepts the pre-established pecking order set by his point guard.
With Paul running the show, Bryant and Howard both obtain their fair share of touches and enjoy the dynamic of playing together with the league’s premier floor general steering the ship. Brown does not get jettisoned given that his players perform well enough initially based on their collective talent.
With that said, it is still possible that the Lakers look at bringing back Phil Jackson because of his pedigree. Jackson always succeeded with talent and thus, one can safely assume there would be an intrigue.
In the end, L.A. probably passes on Jackson because of burned relationships. One of the reasons that prompted ownership to object at Jackson’s coaching tree is the idea of bringing back the Triangle Offense (Jim Buss was not a big fan).
The Lakers eventually distance themselves from Jackson and consequently, they probably keep Brown. Potentially though, the team can still contemplate dismissing Brown and bringing in Mike D’Antoni.
The Lakers finish with a top-four record in the West and make it into the Western Conference semifinals where they are eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs because of Howard’s physical ailments.
The Houston Rockets are not potential suitors for the services of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year because of the contracts of James Harden and Pau Gasol. Ultimately, Howard re-signs with the Purple and Gold and Paul follows suit (both were free agents during the 2013 offseason).
The Lakers surprisingly dodge the declines of Gasol and Lamar Odom. Also, it’s difficult to state whether or not Bryant ruptures his Achilles, but in the event that such is the case, Brown’s group is more than equipped to deal with the 2-guard’s absence.
Paul enjoys a career season while Howard slowly but surely rediscovers his form and terrorizes opponents with his back-to-the-basket game and defensive brilliance. The tandem of Brown and Howard allows L.A. to flourish defensively and stay within striking distance of the third seed while Bryant rehabilitates his ruptured tendon.
What It Actually Is
David Stern’s veto ultimately led the Los Angeles Lakers down a path of moves that all made sense individually, but failed when grouped together.
Management desperately wanted to acquire a top-flight point guard, and the failure to land Chris Paul forced Kupchak to look elsewhere. His search took him to the desert where he pulled off a deal that brought Steve Nash to L.A. from the Phoenix Suns.
Nash’s age was an impediment, but the hope was that his body and skills would hold up while the Lakers made a few runs at the title. This has yet to materialize itself. Since joining the organization, the Canadian has yet to appear in a full season’s worth of games because his body has simply not allowed it.
Furthermore, the Lakers brought in Dwight Howard to eventually take over for Kobe Bryant when he retires, but ownership erred in their coaching search and hired a man incapable of placating Howard.
Dave McMenamin of ESPNLA has the particulars:
According to sources with knowledge of the situation, part of the discussion between Howard and Kupchak centered around Howard's frustration with D'Antoni -- particularly how the center felt marginalized as the coach looked to Bryant and Steve Nash for leadership and suggestions and discounted Howard's voice.
The former Orlando Magic superstar departed during the offseason and joined a Houston Rockets team that possessed the needed cap room to sign him away from Los Angeles.
Howard’s defection opened up the door for Pau Gasol to play his natural position of center once again with the Lakers. The Spaniard struggled alongside Howard because he was relegated to the perimeter and therefore, the assumption was that Gasol would bounce back with the former dunk champion in Houston.
Instead, Gasol’s game has taken a huge dive. His two worst seasons to date have occurred under the watch of Mike D’Antoni and also, it would appear that Gasol’s commitment to L.A. has become a thing of the past.
Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding has the details:
Yes, it’s always dicey to question the legitimacy of a player’s health absence, but considering Gasol was able to hit the weight room at Lakers shootaround Sunday morning before still skipping the Lakers’ loss Sunday night, it’s pretty safe to say he’s not hospitalized with his throat closing shut on the far end of that infection spectrum.
That leaves the Lakers with essentially nothing in terms of assets and talent. Bryant’s body appears to be suffering the same fate as Nash’s, which in turn has given the Lakers’ projected starting backcourt the opportunity to show fans their best suits.
With their top-three players either sidelined or spiritually broken, the Lakers are stuck showcasing rotation players that will likely not be part of the team in the future.
Nash, Bryant and Robert Sacre are the only players with guaranteed contracts beyond this season. Thus, D’Antoni is highlighting athletes that are looking for hefty pay increases either from the Lakers themselves or other organizations.
Given that Los Angeles might be looking to cut costs going forward, it’s quite likely that Kupchak will not be breaking the bank to retain any of the Lakers’ free agents.
The Purple and Gold now stands at a crossroads with the 2014 summer approaching. In the event management can convince great free agents to make the switch to Hollywood, the Lakers will have bounced back from a dark period and once again fielded a competitive team.
Nonetheless, the club still will not be as good as the one that would be winning games for the Lakers this year and in subsequent seasons had Stern allowed the Lake Show to keep Paul.
The commissioner set back the franchise for years to come and has managed to avoid blame for the most part. Buss has been under fire for some questionable moves such as hiring D’Antoni, but in truth, his decisions have all been in reaction to Stern’s gavel stomp.