Exactly three years ago, Chris Paul, a beloved player, was traded from the New Orleans Hornets to the Los Angeles Clippers, a franchise that had made the NBA playoffs once in 14 years. Three years later, the trade itself, plus the deal that was halted at the top level of the league, has greatly impacted three franchises, improving the fortunes of the Clippers, putting New Orleans in a slow-building mode and hobbling the Los Angeles Lakers.
With Paul, the Hornets had made the playoffs three times since he was drafted fourth overall in 2005. However, at the time of the trade, the team already had lost its strong nucleus of power forward David West, also an All-Star, and before then, center Tyson Chandler, as owner George Shinn had dire financial issues.
Asked about the impact of the trade on the Hornets, a franchise now in its second season as the Pelicans, New Orleans coach Monty Williams said, “We’re still in progress.”
“We’ve come a long way since then,” said Williams, in his fifth year with the team. “It was not a bad time. We were just in transition.
“It just takes a lot of work to lose a superstar, an All-Star like David West and Chris Paul. You’re not going to get back overnight. You’ve got to embrace the process, and that’s what we’ve done in the past four (seasons).”
The deal went down against the backdrop of controversy involving one of the greatest commissioners in sports history, David Stern, whose league was in the odd position of effectively owning the Pels at the time of the trade.
Asked about the impact of the Paul trade, New York Knicks coach Derek Fisher — the point guard on five Los Angeles Lakers’ championship teams — stared ahead for a minute before speaking: “There’s not enough tape in your tape recorder to talk about the impact of that trade,” Fisher said tersely. “But the Lakers are a proud franchise, and they will be back up again.”
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak declined to be interviewed for this story, with a team spokesman saying no good could come out of it. New Orleans general manager Dell Demps also did not want to be interviewed, as well as former Hornets president Hugh Weber, now with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.
On Dec. 14, 2011, with the start of the NBA’s regular season 11 days away after a players lockout by the league’s owners, Paul was traded to the Clippers. New Orleans received promising young guard Eric Gordon, serviceable center Chris Kaman, a ’tweener of a power forward in Al-Farouq Aminu and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ No. 1 draft pick, which the Clippers had obtained.
That came a week after Demps had swung a three-team deal among the Hornets, Lakers and Houston Rockets, with Paul going to the Lakers, and the Hornets getting solid veterans in versatile Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom, hard-nosed power forward Luis Scola, 6-foot-7 shooting guard Kevin Martin and developing point guard Goran Dragic. Houston would get 7-foot power forward Pau Gasol. And that’s where the controversy began.
That potential package may have made the Pelicans instantly competitive. However, Stern did not let the deal go through. He wanted a total rebuilding to correct the franchise’s ills and felt young players and draft picks were the way. Plus, a big sticking point to the labor issue centered around small-market teams being able to compete with large-market ones, instead of being de facto feeding grounds for them. And it was speculated Stern had been pressured by some owners not to let Paul go to the powerful Lakers.
Jac Sperling, a New Orleanian who had been brought back to the city to help turn around the Hornets, said the trade never happened.
“I don’t understand what all the controversy was about,” Sperling said last week when asked about the trade. “There was no (three-team) trade. There were only discussions.”
Events that took place afterward seem to indicate otherwise. Paul was in limbo during the week of the two trades and couldn’t practice with the Hornets. And so hurt was Odom with the Lakers that he never played for them again. Odom finished the year with the Dallas Mavericks and was on the Clippers the following season, but he rapidly declined as a player.
Gordon has had his struggles with injuries, playing in only nine of 66 games that season and half of the next one. He bounced back to play in 64 games in 2013-14, the most since his rookie year.
After that 2011-12 season, however, he signed a restricted free-agent contract with the Phoenix Suns and announced that was where his heart was. When the Hornets matched the four-year offer to keep the key acquisition in the Paul trade, that put him, and the team, in a difficult spot.
“What hurt was the perception of not wanting to be in New Orleans, not overly excited to play for the franchise,” said Avery Johnson, a New Orleanian who was the head coach of two teams after a long playing career. “And the performance on the court didn’t resemble a max contract-type of player. Obviously, there was some negative backlash because of that.”
The organization had wanted the deal involving Gordon because of the only reason Stern, Sperling, the NBA, et al were in the picture after buying the Hornets from Shinn.
A once-promising team had been dismantled, the franchise needed a viable long-term lease agreement, the relatively small fan base was more interested in not losing the team than inspired by the product on the court and the Hornets did not have the level of support from the business community it needed.
Vultures — in the form of prospective owners who would relocate the team to another city — were circling. New Orleans had lost its first NBA franchise, the Jazz, to Salt Lake City, Utah, and losing this one would end it’s relationship with the league.
With all of that taking place, Paul, at 26 and in the prime of his career, was not going to stay in that situation.
“From the beginning, the mission was to try to increase the chances of New Orleans keeping an NBA franchise,” Sperling said. “And that meant turning around the franchise financially, turning it around in the eyes of the fans, the business community, in the eyes of the governor … basically to make it more successful and more likeable that someone would want to buy it.
“We had to stabilize the team and create a long-term image that would be there forever under strong ownership.”
That owner became Saints owner Tom Benson, who Sperling said is the perfect owner.
Retaining Gordon and the four-year, $58 million contract, meant the team would be strapped from pursuing other players. It has taken time to build. To Sperling, though, building slowly with young talent is a proven way to go.
“It’s been proven that to go with young players and take your time is the way,” Sperling said.
Meanwhile, the Clippers, in the league’s second-biggest market, are title contenders. They were sold last summer for an astounding $2 billion dollars. Johnson said that’s the measure of Paul.
“Maybe they would have been sold for $800,000,” Johnson said. “We always talk about plus-minus in basketball. Paul, in that sale, was a plus-$1.2 billion.”
Paul, now 29 and a seven-time All-Star, six-time All-NBA player and six-time All-Defensive team member, is the fifth-highest paid player in the league, averaging $21,468,695 over his current five-year contract. Paul also has lucrative national endorsements.
Gordon said he doesn’t feel he could be the face of that franchise with all that comes with it.
“I just want to be a main component of a team being successful,” he said. “I was successful with the Clippers. I definitely want to be here.
“There’s been a lot of adjustments and stuff that has occurred, but as long as I’m a component to try and help a team, that’s fine.”
The season of the trade, the Pelicans finished 21-45, last in the Western Conference. However, they received the No. 1 overall pick, which was used to select Kentucky power forward Anthony Davis, who is the brightest young star in the league. Guard Austin Rivers was selected with Minnesota’s pick, the 10th overall.
Kaman moved on after the first season. Aminu signed last summer with Dallas.
“Anytime you lose a player like Chris Paul, it’s going to be detrimental to your team,” Jason Smith, who was the longest-tenured New Orleans player last season before signing with the Knicks over the summer. “But I think they took a lot of steps in the right direction with rebuilding. They’ve built it from the bottom up.”
The Hornets have not made the playoffs since Paul left, going from 21 wins to 27, then 34 last season, all last in the Southwest Division. The team has improved its talent each season, adding good pieces in forward Ryan Anderson, point guard Jrue Holiday, shooting guard Tyreke Evans and center Omer Asik.
“So many good things have happened since (the trade),” Williams said. “We have a new practice site, great ownership, great leadership. We’ve got a franchise player who is one of the best players in the NBA.
“We have guys who want to be in New Orleans. That’s a step in the right direction. And we’re starting to build our fan base to where it was before all that stuff happened.
“If you just look at the record, you would say (we struggled). But we’ve gotten better every year, and that’s all you can ask of a franchise.”
Sperling said the trade can be debated forever, but Stern achieved his goal.
“We did what we wanted to do,” Sperling said. “The team is still there with hope and promise and the perfect owner. The future is bright.”