Kevin Durant is a Golden State Warrior.
It’s an unprecedented move, one that has created a super team unlike anything the NBA has ever seen. The Warriors now have four of the top 15 players in the league on their team, something even the Miami Heat’s vilified LeBron James-led squads can’t match. Golden States’ vaunted Death Lineup will now feature an almost unfathomable combination of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Durant, and Draymond Green.
Scrap the Olympic team and just send the Warriors to Rio, there is no doubt they would win gold. Watching their development will be a major storyline all season long.
Of course, Durant’s departure to Golden State is devastating to Oklahoma City, but it also stings a bit for Lakers fans, if only because it quite possibly could have been them celebrating the arrival of the former MVP. It’s not far-fetched to envision a scenario where the Lakers spent this offseason courting, and possibly even landing Durant, rather than going all-out after Timofey Mozgov.
You see, somewhere out there lies a reality where the Lakers are still on top of the NBA mountain, contending for championships year in and year out. Kobe Bryant walked away from it all not with a 60 point scoring explosion but instead with a ring on his finger, one to equal Michael Jordan. As Bryant exited, Durant could have been swayed by everything Los Angeles could offer: an incredible history, warm weather, and above all else, championships.
It was so close to being possible, but that isn’t the world that we live in. Instead, ours has taken a very different path.
We all know when the timeline skewed, leading us into this alternate 2016 where the Lakers regularly miss the playoffs, and Biff Tannen presumably rules Hill Valley: December 8th, 2011.
That was the day that “basketball reasons” happened. Chris Paul was a Laker, and then he wasn’t.
It was 70 years to the day after FDR’s iconic “Date Which Will Live In Infamy” speech, and fittingly so for the Los Angeles Lakers because then-Commissioner David Stern’s actions were their own mini-Pearl Harbor. His unprovoked attack severely wounded the franchise, delivering a blow that the Lakers are still reeling from.
Back then, the league was just about to begin the 2011 season, which had been shortened due to a bitter lockout. Many league owners complained about the advantages of the big-market teams and demanded change. They were tired of being doormats to the Lakers and other marquee franchises and wanted the opportunity to win.
It was in this environment that the Lakers trade for Paul unfolded. He was to join Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles; Pau Gasol would become a Houston Rocket, and New Orleans would get Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, and a 1st round pick. It was an impressive offer for Paul, a player who was refusing to re-sign.
However, there were motives at play beyond just making a fair deal.
Stern never did communicate the thought process behind his crime, hiding behind the vague “basketball reasons” as his only explanation for why he unraveled the deal. Unfortunately, the Hornets were owned by the league at the time, so Stern was within his rights to meddle with their trades, even though he had promised not to.
Still, it was easy to see what had happened. With small-market owners crying for parity, Stern couldn’t have the first transaction under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement feature a star player going to the Lakers. That would signal more of the same, and that the league’s efforts had failed.
Instead, Stern vetoed the trade and sent Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers, who were the league’s perennial doormats. The message was clear: in the new NBA, any team, even the vile Donald Sterling’s mismanaged Clippers, can get a star and compete.
Ultimately, it all worked out for New Orleans, who landed Anthony Davis in the 2012 NBA Draft thanks to the losses they incurred as a result of accepting the Clippers’ trade, which was spearheaded by Eric Gordon. Most use Davis as proof that the Clippers’ deal was better for the Hornets, but he wasn’t part of the trade, though that hasn’t stopped speculation from conspiracy theorists.
The Rockets eventually used Martin in a deal that landed them James Harden, who in turn enabled them to later lure Dwight Howard away from Los Angeles.
For the Lakers, on the other hand, it has been one misstep after another. They burned a boatload of assets bringing in Howard and Steve Nash, only to see their dreams of building a championship team to rub in Stern’s face fall to pieces as Nash’s health waned and Howard turned heel. The team appeared to be cursed, as though Stern had hexed them with the inverse of whatever serendipitous spell Ferris Bueller was blessed with.
Nearly five years have passed, and the Lakers still haven’t recovered from the Paul fiasco.
Now, when super teams are formed, Lakers fans flock to social media in droves to ask why them? Why not us? Why was Los Angeles denied a team led by Paul and Bryant, while LeBron is allowed to super team his way to one Finals appearance after another? Why can Durant and the Warriors create a team with an unprecedented collection of talent, but the Lakers couldn’t?
Of course, the simple answer is that super teams formed by LeBron and now the Warriors were created via free agency, with players choosing where they wanted to play. And even so, the NBA itself isn’t in the business of disallowing trades. The Lakers’ trade for Paul happened to occur with a team owned by the league, giving Stern the ability to put on the owner hat and nix it, as owners have the right to. It was truly an unfortunate set of exceedingly rare circumstances.
That doesn’t diminish the frustration felt by fans, though. That world where the purple and gold had the makings of a potential dynasty was so close, that to have it all ripped away was tortuous, regardless of the legality of it.
There is also a hearty serving of hypocrisy now on display to add to the outrage of the Lakers’ faithful. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert penned an infamous letter to Stern after news of the Paul trade broke, calling it a “travesty” and demanding that the deal not go through. He complained that the Lakers’ luxury tax bill would be lowered by the trade, which meant they would be sending less money to non-tax teams like his via revenue sharing. He also bemoaned the strength of the Lakers and other top teams, asking sarcastically, “When will we just change the name of 25 of the 30 teams to the Washington Generals?”.
Gilbert had no such concerns when his team landed LeBron James and Kevin Love, who joined Kyrie Irving to create a squad with the talent to coast through the weak Eastern Conference to the NBA Finals year after year. In fact, Gilbert proudly hoisted an NBA title this past season, and certainly wasn’t worried about the 25 other teams that aren’t title contenders at that moment.
Likewise, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban also spoke out against the Paul trade. He argued, “There’s a reason that we went through this lockout, and one of the reasons is to give small-market teams the ability to keep their stars and the ability to compete.”
Yet, Cuban’s Mavericks made a deal with the Warriors shortly after news of Durant’s decision broke, absorbing the contract of Andrew Bogut. The trade gave Golden State enough cap space to sign away small-market Oklahoma City’s marquee player, but Cuban suddenly wasn’t concerned with teams retaining their stars, focusing instead on filling his own team’s hole at the center position.
Not surprisingly, it appears that how one feels about super teams is largely determined by whether or not their own team is the one being deified at the moment, or at least in Cuban’s case, benefiting from it.
Durant’s move has now caused rumblings that in the next round of Collective Bargaining negotiations in 2017 the NBA could consider a hard cap, or at least harsher penalties for exceeding it, as well as changes to max contracts, to prevent super teams from forming.
Some teams may feel justified in supporting such a move. After all, going Hulk Smash on super teams seems to be a natural instinct for those who have been injured by them. For the Lakers, though, that’s not the ideal scenario, despite how painful it may be at the moment while the Warriors and Cavs destroy all in their path.
Instead, it’s time to play the long game. The pendulum will swing back once again. The Lakers will always be prepared to go all out for stars, and it’s only a matter of time before their turn comes due. Should the low-level franchises cry for parity again, and the age of the super team go extinct, it would only serve to once again rob the Lakers of a chance to put together a special team.
After all, they do appear to be back on the right path. Los Angeles has a cadre of young talent with D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Brandon Ingram. They also have a fresh young coach in Luke Walton, and now have veterans in place to help glue everything together. They won’t win a lot next season, but something real and tangible is brewing.
The CBA installed in 2011 made it so that star players rarely become free agents until their late 20’s at the earliest, and they aren’t interested in spending their prime years waiting for a contender to be built up around them. It’s a change that has all but forced teams to build through the draft, which is something the Lakers finally appear to be adjusting to. This has prevented them from being a valid option for free agent stars, but that will change as the young Lakers grow. Soon enough, they will be attractive bait for a star looking for a team to contend with.
The Lakers won’t be able to collect as many Infinity Stone-level players as Golden State has, but that was never supposed to happen anyway. The salary cap and more-punitive luxury tax were intended to prevent this scenario from occurring, but an unprecedented spike in revenue due to the new TV deal created this anomaly where even loaded teams had cap space.
In other words, a player of Durant’s caliber being able to sign with an already all-time great team like the Warriors may never happen again.
Still, few expect Los Angeles to be down for too much longer, and by the time they fully resurface the landscape will look different-and hopefully less daunting-than it is today. It’s telling that as soon as Durant left Oklahoma City, rumors of Russell Westbrook’s eventual departure appeared, and all eyes turned immediately to the Lakers as a likely landing spot.
It’s only a matter of time.
The Paul deal left the Lakers agonizingly close to something special. Like Pearl Harbor did to the United States, it knocked them down but not out. The pendulum will swing back, and before long the Lakers will be the ones competing for championships once again.
Until then, Lakers fans need to try to let the frustrations of the past and envy of the present go. Enjoy the journey. It only makes the destination that much sweeter.