Two of the biggest What If in the 2010’s among NBA stories happen to be two trades: One that happened, as the Oklahoma City Thunder gave up James Harden to the Houston Rockets; and one that didn’t, when the league cancelled the trade sending Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets to the Los Angeles Lakers.
So what were the details? Chris Paul going to the Los Angeles Lakers, Pau Gasol went to the Houston Rockets, and Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Luis Scola and a first round pick would have gone to the then New Orleans Hornets. The NBA, who owned the team at the time, nullified the deal, with commissioner David Stern claiming New Orleans would be better off keeping Paul. The teams involved in the trade attempted to lobby the league to reverse its ruling and reconstruct the deal to no avail.
What happened instead? The Hornets sent Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers along with two future second round picks, getting Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and an unprotected first round pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves for 2012. Lamar Odom was so angry that he was included in a trade deal, so he demanded one and was traded to the Dallas Mavericks. From there? Bad season in Dallas who pretty much shut him down, followed by a bit of usefulness with the Clippers, and since then it’s been nothing but trouble for one of the more talented big men of the previous decade, playing a key part in two NBA championships.
The what ifs here? How would have Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul done together. Remember, the Lakers would have created a great backcourt, but besides Andrew Bynum, they had zero depth, and very little in the way of maneuverability. The Hornets would have had themselves a pretty solid team. Not playoff-good, but not too far from it. Maybe they would have never landed Anthony Davis. They drafted Austin Rivers, foolishly, with the other first round pick, and now he’s playing on the Clippers. I don’t think the Lakers win a championship, but they avoid their failed megateam attempt a year later, and don’t go into tanking mode, with Paul to build around, and maybe have Bryant asking for a paycut in order to help.
The Harden scenario is different, although just as interesting. When the Thunder lost to the Cavaliers in the 2012 NBA Finals, all of the talk was about how many championships this young group, with Kevin Durant, Harden, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, were going to win. But then the idea of the difficulty of keeping them all together on a team with owners not really happy about venturing into luxury tax territory was floated.
And then came the negotiations with Harden. Maybe the Thunder were never going to re-sign him, and maybe it was just a matter of a few millions. In any case, Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets, and he got the $80 million, five year extension he wanted. Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, along with two first round picks and a draft pick, went the other way. Harden, from one of the best bench players in the league, immediately turned into one of the best offensive players in the NBA. The Thunder never made the finals again, and lost Kevin Durant in free agency this summer.
What could have been? Hard to say. If the Thunder would have kept Harden, assuming they weren’t going to have four max players on the team, Ibaka would have left. The defense would have taken a hit, but would it have mattered with three players like Harden-Durant-Westbrook? Three players who can lead the NBA in scoring, given the chance, and more or less have? Maybe the lack of depth and defense destroys them, maybe the Thunder find someone instead of Ibaka, whose offensive peak has never been impressive, while his defensive one started to crumble over the last two years. Either way, both Harden and the Thunder haven’t won anything since, Durant is gone, and the Thunder might hit the reset button very soon, unless Westbrook agrees to an extension, which he isn’t at the time.