Six years ago, on a Wednesday in December, New Orleans traded 26 year old Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers. It was a seminal moment in Clippers franchise history, the acquistion of a top-10 talent to help reverse the curse of a franchise that was pathetic and catastrophic with a ridiculously ignorant (and racist) owner.
Chris Paul was a gift from the heavens. He legitimized the Clippers and thrust them into contender status, a six year run that ended when Paul jumped ship to Houston. The trade was a blockbuster at the time but as all trades go the true analysis of it cannot be felt until years later. So much changed for everyone involved, including careers. Especially careers.
The trade pushed Lamar Odom into drug addiction, Eric Gordon into New Orleans depression, the Hornets into the #1 pick and Anthony Davis, the Mavericks into a nightmarish Lamar Odom horror show, Chris Kaman and Al-Farouq Aminu into irrelevancy. But who won? Has anyone thrived in the aftermath?
Chris Paul: His Clippers reign was tremendous. 18.8 points. 2.2 steals. 9.9 assists. 47.5%. 37.8% from three. (Numbers near identical to his New Orleans Hornets numbers). Five 50-win seasons. He took the Clippers where they never had been before. No, he didn’t make a dent in the Los Angeles market. Lakers fans didn’t cross over, even when the Lakers were (are) hopeless. But he elevated the Clippers brand and once Sterling was booted from the league, he was the straw that stirred everything. The leader. The friend. The critic. The priest.
Paired with Doc Rivers, the Clippers were considered to be the next championship thing when they beat the Warriors in the first round of the 2014 playoffs in seven games. Since that moment, the Warriors have won 47 playoff games and the Clippers have won 12. Paul, as great as he is, was never able to elevate the Clippers by the sheer force of his will and his tough love alienated teammates. He pulled the Clippers up but he didn’t get the job done. Six seasons of Paul brilliance and no Western Conference appearance is a failure.
Eric Gordon: Traded to New Orleans after he was told by then GM Neil Olshey he wouldn’t be traded, began an up and down five years in the Big Easy. 15.3 points. 3.3 assists. 42.0%. 39.0% from three. Gordon tried to get out of a rebuilding franchise by signing an offer sheet with the Phoenix Suns in 2012 but the Hornets didn’t bite. Gordon was unhappy but tried to play it off until he could get out of town, then he escaped to Houston.
When he was in L.A., he was mentored by Kobe Bryant and Chauncey Billups and was thought to be an up and coming two guard, an All-Star. He was Rookie of the Month. He had a 40 point game his first year and three 30 point games. But he never rose to the elite tier of best shooting guard though he was Sixth Man of the Year in 2017.
Lamar Odom: He never recovered from hearing his name mentioned in trade talks to acquire Chris Paul. He was devastated that the Lakers saw him as expendable. He loved them so much, perhaps too much, forgetting the business angle. The Lakers traded him to the Mavericks for a bag of chips (trade exception) because he asked to be traded, and then it really went downhill for Odom. 6.6 points. 4.2 rebounds. 35.2%. 25.2% from three. He didn’t want to be in Dallas.
The Mavericks though, unaware of Odom’s fragile psyche, were excited to pick up trade flotsam but about two weeks in, it was clear that Odom would rather have open heart surgery without anesthesia than play in Dallas. He was sad on the court, sad off the court.
When the Lakers trade for Chris Paul fell through, the other pieces in the trade who had to return to their old teams survived the up and down rollercoaster: Pau Gasol, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin. Only Odom was too aggrieved to stay put. The depression sent him spiraling and he was out of the league two years later. His drug abuse spiraled.
Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu: They were put in the trade to make it work. Kaman had very productive years for the Clippers before the trade, 11 points, 8 rebounds. He was only in New Orleans a year and put up great numbers, 13 points 7 rebounds. Then he went to Dallas, 10 points, 5 rebounds and with the Lakers he also had double-digit scoring.
Al-Farouq Aminu was coming off a rookie year with the Clippers and his numbers were rookie like: 5 points, 3 rebounds. The problem with Aminu was what was he? Was he a small forward or a power forward? He didn’t have the scoring talent of a small forward but he wasn’t explosive enough for a power forward. His career has been as a journeyman but he remained in New Orleans for three seasons (6.9 points. 6.3 rebounds. 45.7%) and has been in Portland for three seasons (9.6 points. 6.7 rebounds. 41.1%).
Were there winners?
It depends on the definition of winning and what the end goal is. The Clippers never made it to the Western Conference Finals. But they increased attendance. The six years of Chris Paul, capacity at Clippers games was 100%. Before Chris Paul, it was 85%. Now that Chris Paul is gone, the Staples Center is 89% full for Clippers games. He made an impact on who is in the seats and the product. Without Chris, there would be no Doc Rivers and definitely not a deep pockets owner who thinks outside the box like Steve Ballmer. Chris Paul changed the culture and the expectations. But is that winning?
All that changing of culture meant zip in the playoffs. The business side won. The basketball side, not so much.
The Hornets/Pelicans who got rid of their lottery pick Chris Paul for young players, in that year’s draft, got the #1 pick and Anthony Davis, a cornerstone player who was an Olympic champion before he played one lick of NBA ball. He was an All-Star, voted in by the fans his second season. The Hornets/Pelicans failed up when they made the trade. But did they win?
Since making the Chris Paul trade, the Hornets have been to the playoffs once. They have had one winning season (2014-15). They have won 172 games and lost 299. They got a stud in Anthony Davis and he did change the Pelicans bottom line.
With Chris Paul running things, the Hornets/Pelicans were in the playoffs three times. They won 50 games in 2007-08. They had three winning seasons. Their record with Paul was 265-227. 4 out of 5 Chris Paul years, attendance was 91%.
Four out of five Anthony Davis years, attendance was 96%. (Attendance this year is 94.8%.) Davis is selling tickets. The Pelicans have a player to build around while the Clippers had a six year marriage before the amicable divorce. The Clippers must start over without benefit of a #1 pick.
- The basketball side of the Pelicans equation the jury is still out, despite Davis. The Pelicans are a .500 team, a hellish place to be stuck in. Not bad enough for the lottery. Not good enough to win in the playoffs.
- As befitting their atrocious luck, or curse, the Clippers are back to where they were before Paul. Subtraction by subtraction means zero. In 2011, the Clippers had Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin. Now they just have Blake Griffin and a bunch of parts.
It wasn’t a gamble in 2011 to put everything in the Chris Paul bucket. All gamblers know you have that hand where you push all your chips in. It made all the sense in the world to buy Chris Paul. It just didn’t work for the Clippers, despite three All-Stars and a great coach and a big market. It’s not happiness for the Pelicans either, who were the Chris Paul sellers. They are still trying to figure out how to build a contender.