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Five NBA Trades That Almost Were

With the trade deadline approaching, we revisit the days when Chris Paul almost joined Kobe, Kobe almost went to Motown, and Danny Ainge almost gave up the farm for Justise Winslow

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday, general managers across the league will be on their phones, desperately trying to complete the moves that could elevate their clubs into contention or set them up for the future. The NBA trade deadline has already produced one blockbuster deal, but apart from that—and rumored swaps for DeAndre Jordan or Tyreke Evans—the next few days could be quieter than in seasons past.

A number of franchise-changing trades have been completed at the deadline. In 2004, the Pistons landed Rasheed Wallace just before the cutoff and rode his “ball don’t lie” attitude all the way to a championship. In 2011, the Knicks brought Carmelo Anthony back home, and, in 2015, the Celtics picked up Isaiah Thomas. But for every big trade, there are a dozen that are never completed. Over the past decade or so, there were a handful of would-be history-altering swaps that never quite made it to the commissioner’s desk (or in one case, never received his approval). As you ready yourself for an afternoon on NBA Twitter, here are a few trades that could have changed the landscape of the league.

Kobe to the Midwest

It’s difficult to separate the past two decades of Lakers basketball from Kobe Bryant. He won five championships, made 18 All-Star games, and garnered more accolades than most players could ever dream. But things weren’t always pleasant in Tinseltown. After he and Shaquille O’Neal parted ways following a 2004 NBA Finals meltdown, Bryant led the Lakers through three consecutive disappointing seasons, losing in the first round of the playoffs twice, and missing another altogether.

In 2007, rumors surfaced that Bryant requested a trade and that Chicago was his preferred destination. At the time, Kobe was the only player in the NBA with a no-trade clause, meaning he had the final say on his potential destination. Which made it all the more shocking that the future Hall of Famer was nearly dealt to the Detroit Pistons. In a conversation with Bill Simmons on the Grantland Basketball Hour in 2015, Bryant recalled that the Lakers had agreed to a trade that would send him to Detroit for a package that included Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and an assortment of draft picks.

The deal would’ve revitalized a Pistons roster that had seen Ben Wallace walk in free agency a year earlier. They would have featured a core of Bryant, Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, and Antonio McDyess that could have improved on Detroit’s six-game Eastern Conference finals exit against the Celtics. The Lakers, meanwhile, would have fielded Hamilton, Prince, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, and Derek Fisher, as they likely wouldn’t have had any incentive to flip their package of youngsters and picks for Pau Gasol later in the year. The same goes for the other trade the Lakers nearly made that season, which would have sent Bryant to the Bulls.

The Lakers reportedly asked Chicago for Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas, Ben Gordon, and Joakim Noah in return for Bryant, who was said to have demanded that Deng stay in Chicago. In the end, neither deal materialized. Bryant reportedly said no to the Detroit move after longtime owner Jerry Buss talked him into staying, and the Lakers and Bulls could never agree on the particulars. In the end, it worked out pretty well for Kobe. The Lakers made the next three NBA Finals, winning two, and Bryant closed the 2007-08 season as the league’s most valuable player.

Kevin Love for Klay

Let’s start with what we already know: The Golden State Warriors are the best team in basketball, and Klay Thompson is a big reason why. But in 2014, before the Dubs won their first title in decades, they almost sent one-half of the Splash Brothers to Minnesota for Kevin Love.

The Warriors reportedly offered the Timberwolves a package headlined by Thompson for Kevin Love and Kevin Martin. The haul would have set the Wolves up to compete for a playoff spot for the first time since the early 2000s, with Thompson as a franchise centerpiece. The Warriors, on the other hand, would have jettisoned multiple core pieces from a team that won 51 games for a player who wouldn’t exactly fit the system new head coach Steve Kerr was implementing. Still, the deal seemed set. Golden State owner Joe Lacob and GM Bob Myers were ready to accept the trade, and they would have if not for NBA oracle Jerry West. West was an adviser with the Warriors at the time and reportedly threatened to quit if the swap went through.

Turns out West’s instincts were right. The Warriors won 67 games that season en route to the NBA Finals, where they topped the Cavaliers, who picked up Love in a three-way deal centered on no. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins. Three years later, it’s safe to say all three teams benefited from the deal falling through. Golden State won two of the past three titles and seems destined to add a third, Cleveland hung its first championship banner in franchise history after Love’s lockdown defense on Steph Curry sealed a win in the 2016 NBA Finals, and Minnesota landed one-third of its new big three that looks set to challenge for league supremacy for years to come.

Chris Paul to the Lakers

For a few hours in December 2011, it seemed like the Lakers had successfully restarted their dynasty for the third time in just over a decade. They’d agreed to a three-team deal that would have brought Chris Paul at the peak of his abilities over from New Orleans, sent Pau Gasol to the Rockets, and sent Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic, and a first-round pick to the Hornets. By joining Paul with Bryant, the Lakers would have fielded the best backcourt in the NBA and paired them with Andrew Bynum, whose breakout year would leave pundits debating his place among the top centers in the league. The Rockets would have had finally landed the star they’d craved in Gasol, and with a core of Kyle Lowry and rookie Chandler Parsons, they’d be primed to compete in the West for the first time since the Yao/T-Mac era ended. The big winners, though, were the Hornets, who would have flipped a star who didn’t want to stay in New Orleans for four established NBA contributors and a first-round pick.

David Stern had other ideas. The then-commissioner vetoed the trade for “basketball reasons,” sending all parties involved scrambling. The Clippers eventually landed Paul by sending a far less lucrative package of Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, and a first-round pick to the Hornets, and the Lakers wound up trading for Dwight Howard and late-career Steve Nash the following year in a failed attempt to form their own big three.

Nash struggled with injuries throughout the year, and Bryant, Howard, and head coach Mike D’Antoni failed to mesh the way fans hoped they would. With the Lakers on the fringe of the playoff hunt, Bryant logged seven consecutive games of 42 minutes of playtime or more—six of which came with Nash out with injury—before rupturing his Achilles tendon against the Warriors. He played just 107 games over the next three seasons and never played in another playoff series. The Clippers, meanwhile, spent their time with Paul as the best team in the Staples Center and experienced their best stretch in franchise history.

Amar’e Stoudemire to Cleveland

As my Ringer colleague Danny Chau recalled last week, eight years ago (the first time a LeBron exodus seemed imminent) the Cleveland Cavaliers nearly landed perennial All-Star big man Amar’e Stoudemire from the Phoenix Suns in return for Zydrunas Ilgauskas, J.J. Hickson, a draft pick, and another player or two to match the salaries. The trade was so close to happening that Stoudemire himself told reporters there was a 50-50 chance.

The Seven Seconds or Less Suns were nearing the end of their road, and picking up a young asset like Hickson—who was reportedly valued so highly by the Cavs that they backed out of the deal—and an established veteran presence like Ilgauskas seemed like a good way to continue competing while also keeping an eye on tomorrow. For Cleveland, the trade was a no-brainer. Picking up another star to play alongside LeBron and recent addition Shaquille O’Neal could’ve propelled the Cavs past the Celtics in the second round, and likely into an NBA Finals matchup with the Lakers. Though Stoudemire and O’Neal struggled to share the floor in Phoenix the previous season, Amar’e claimed that he and the Big Shaqtus played great together and that he scored more and played better with O’Neal than he did without. Their reunion wasn’t to be. Instead, the Cavs dealt for Antawn Jamison, Amar’e went to the Knicks, and LeBron took his talents to South Beach.

Justise Winslow to Boston for a King’s Ransom

Here’s a bold take: Danny Ainge is very good at his job. He assembled a big three in the late 2000s. They combined with Rajon Rondo to make a big four that would win a championship. Then he flipped those aging Celtics stars for a bundle of picks and cuffed the Nets to an era of lifelessness. Add in a trade for Isaiah Thomas and his eventual send-off for Kyrie Irving, and it makes sense that Boston fans think Ainge can do no wrong.

The Celtics are currently sitting atop the Eastern Conference and have the third-best record in the NBA thanks to Ainge’s shrewd moves, but things would be different if his biggest gamble had actually gone through. Boston entered the 2015 NBA draft with two mid-to-late first-round picks and its focus locked on Duke forward Justise Winslow. Wings Jae Crowder and Evan Turner were fine, but neither seemed like the piece that would elevate the Celtics to contender status. After failing to trade for picks 4-8, Ainge reportedly offered the Charlotte Hornets—owners of the ninth pick—a king’s ransom: as many as six picks, including four potential first-rounders, for the privilege of drafting Winslow.

Charlotte declined the offer and picked Frank Kaminsky, and the Celtics picked up Terry Rozier at no. 16 and R.J. Hunter at no. 28. And while we may never know exactly which picks Boston offered, its package had to include at least two future first-rounders—picks that possibly turned into Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Or if they were further down the timeline, a pick that turned into Kyrie Irving. To his credit, after the draft Ainge told reporters that he wasn’t frustrated, and there was a time in the negotiations when he thought he’d gone too hard. Now, almost three years later, it’s a safe bet he’s overjoyed that the deal never went through.