- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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At around 1 o'clock on the afternoon of Dec. 8, 2011 Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak thought he had a deal.
The three-team deal would send Paul to the Lakers in exchange for the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year, Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic and a 2012 first-round pick from the Houston Rockets, who would end up with the Lakers' four-time All-Star forward Pau Gasol.
The Lakers' ownership was onboard. The Houston Rockets were onboard and excited to begin their rebuilding process after the retirement of center Yao Ming. The basketball people running the league-owned Hornets seemed to be equally eager to get the trade to the finish line.
At the same time the league's 30 team owners were meeting in New York to formally vote on the new collective bargaining agreement, the Lakers, Rockets and Hornets were putting the finishing touches on a trade that would rock the NBA.
Within an hour of those final calls between the three teams, news of the trade would reach virtually every Twitter feed, email address and website that covers the league. The reaction to the deal was swift and dramatic.
Why did it have to be the Lakers? Wasn't this one of the things the owners had staged their lockout to prevent? Another star forcing his way to another star-studded town. Another small-market team left to rebuild with whatever it could get in return.
None of that was the concern of Kupchak, Demps or Rockets GM Daryl Morey. But there was a problem. A big problem. NBA commissioner David Stern -- serving as de facto owner of the Hornets -- had a different idea of what was in the best interest of the New Orleans franchise.
In a move that will affect each of the franchises for years to come, Stern rejected the trade. Seven days later he signed off on a seperate trade that instead brought Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Kupchak still finds it hard to talk about. He generally does things quietly, without disturbing anyone. He's still not interested in commenting on the specifics of the trade.
"It was a disappointing experience," Kupchak said Sunday night before the Lakers fell to 10-8 on the season with a loss to the Indiana Pacers. "It's the first time I've ever been through something like that. But we moved on and that's where we are today."
Much has already been said about the seven days in December that changed the landscape of basketball in this town. In almost every measurable way, the Lakers have owned their intra-city rivals for as long as they both have called Los Angeles home. The Lakers' dominance isn't a debate here so much as it is a reality; as much a part of the civic order of things as late-arriving crowds and $18 appetizers at any decent restaurant in the fashionable parts of town.
But things are different now. The best point guard to play in Los Angeles since Magic Johnson wears a Clippers uniform.
A definitive history of those seven days is impossible to reconstruct just six weeks later. Too much cannot be said, yet. Too little is definitive.
What follows is an account of that week based on extensive views with numerous team officials, agents, players and other league sources who were deeply involved in the trade that was and the trade that wasn't. Most requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Others declined to comment, or offered only brief thoughts.
The picture they paint is fascinating and full of intrigue, and the questions that surround Stern's decision still linger.
In the end, Paul probably said it best after the trade to the Lakers was rejected when he tweeted simply: "WoW."
The Lakers and Rockets clearly thought the trade had been agreed upon by all parties on the afternoon of Dec. 8. So did Paul and his representatives, who had been given permission by Demps to help facilitate trades with other teams.
When you get to the point where someone says, 'Lakers, do we have a deal? Houston, do we have a deal? New Orleans, do we have a deal?' and all three teams say 'Yes.' That's a done deal. That's the way trades in this business have been done for the last 50 years.
”-- Source with knowledge
of the discussions
"When you get to the point where someone says, 'Lakers, do we have a deal? Houston, do we have a deal? New Orleans, do we have a deal?' and all three teams say 'Yes.' That's a done deal," one source said. "That's the way trades in this business have been done for the last 50 years."
But another source insists that there was never a formal agreement on the trade because the trade as it was being discussed in the final stages didn't yet work financially under the salary cap. Sources say the Lakers still had to absorb approximately $3 million more in salary to make the deal work and there were still elements being discussed.
Later, Stern would suggest that the people who leaked details of the trade to the media were trying to pressure Demps and the league to take the deal.
Still another source insists that at least two versions of the deal had been agreed on, and "either way there was a deal."
Six weeks later, it's difficult to determine whether this was just a serious misunderstanding between the Hornets and Lakers and Rockets, or whether the sides are now spinning self-serving tales.
Whatever the case, multiple sources confirm that the Hornets' league-appointed trustee, Jac Sperling, approached Stern near the conclusion of the NBA Board of Governors meeting a little before 6 p.m. in New York and told him the three teams were "close" on a deal and that only his final approval was needed to seal it. Roughly an hour later, Stern canceled the deal, vaguely citing "basketball reasons."
Clippers president Andy Roeser was sent to New York that Thursday to accomplish two tasks: Vote on the new CBA, and approach Sperling to make one last run at acquiring Paul.
The Clippers, sources said, had been told the night before that New Orleans was probably "going to go in another direction." But since a deal still hadn't been made, the Clippers were going to keep trying.
They'd been positioning themselves to make a deal like this for 18 months; essentially since the day they drafted Blake Griffin No. 1 overall in June of 2009.
GM Neil Olshey had first discussed a deal for Paul with Demps in May at the pre-draft camp in Chicago. The two revisited it in earnest when they bumped into each other in Las Vegas at a college tournament on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Olshey's pitch was simple: No other team in the league had amassed as much young talent, draft picks and veterans on short-term contracts as the Clippers.
For Demps, it was a matter of balancing seemingly competing objectives. The Hornets were a playoff team in 2010-11 but they were also for sale in 2011. Should he think of the team's present or its future? The Clippers' package might set the Hornets up well for the future, but it probably wouldn't be the best deal for the team's chances of returning to the playoffs this season, which wouldn't cast the best light on the team, its coaching staff or Demps to the new owners. The Lakers' package might make the team competitive right away but it would come with contract commitments that could encumber the team's finances down the road. It would also be difficult to swallow for the local fans who stepped up to grow New Orleans' season-ticket base to a healthy 10,000 after fears early last season that attendance wouldn't be high enough to keep the Hornets' lease in effect.
The Lakers' package, by contrast, might have kept the team competitive in the short term, but also came with long-term contract commitments that could potentially turn off prospective buyers.
Demps told the Clippers that he saw their package as a set of assets. Players he could either keep, or turn into other players he'd want to keep.
Demps asked for as many of those assets as he could. All of them, actually.
Olshey balked at the initial asking price of budding young stars Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan, the unprotected first-round pick from Minnesota, second-year players Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe and former All-Star center Chris Kaman, who was in the last year of his contract.
Without assurances that Paul would re-sign with the Clippers after this season, Olshey just couldn't mortgage the team's future. The Clippers' counter-offer was modest: Aminu, Kaman and a future first-round pick.
Sensing he might fall out of the running if he didn't sweeten his offer, Olshey asked for and received permission to speak directly to Paul in the hopes of gauging how serious his est in staying on with the team would be.
On Tuesday, Dec. 6, they talked for two hours. Olshey was blown away by Paul's knowledge of the team, desire to play alongside Griffin, and understanding of the steps that lay ahead.
Soon after he hung up the phone, Olshey let Demps know the Clippers would part with more of their assets. By this point, though, Demps had begun to lean toward the Lakers' deal, or a deal with the Celtics, each of which was offering more accomplished, veteran players.
On Wednesday night, the Clippers and several other teams pursuing Paul began to sense Demps was heading in another direction and worried he wasn't selling their deals as hard to his bosses. The only play left was for Roeser to take the case directly to Sperling and make sure the league knew exactly what the Clippers' offer was before Paul was traded elsewhere.
Once Roeser spoke with Sperling, the Clippers' fears were confirmed. The Hornets were going in another direction.
Then everything changed. What comes next is uncomfortable for everyone. The league has repeatedly insisted Stern killed the deal of his own volition. That he made his decision long before Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert sent an angry e-mail blasting the trade. That Stern only learned of the true framework of the deal at the end of the Board of Governors meeting at 6 p.m. in New York and could not have been influenced by other owners.
In a subsequent view with reporters in Cleveland, Gilbert said he sent the email after Stern had already killed the deal, but before he bothered to check for updates on the net.
But if word had gotten around the league Wednesday night that the Hornets were close to consummating a deal, clearly there was opportunity for them to have a say in the matter on Thursday.
Whether Stern was influenced by the competing team owners, or was just doing what he believed was in the best interests of the Hornets no matter the political fallout, might not even matter.
To observers and some involved in the proposed trade, it didn't look right. The timing was too suspect. The motives too gray.
The Lakers and Rockets were furious. The rest of the league was stunned.
Had the deal been killed because it was the Lakers who would be getting Paul? Or did it just need to be tweaked a bit? How could Demps seemingly have had an objective for the trade so different than Stern's?
Stern associates note that the commissioner has always been willing to take criticism when he believes he is right. He sits out no battles of will or principle.
The league spent Friday simultaneously trying to do damage control and figure out what to do with Paul.
Demps was still the point man, but his authority to make the deal was severely undercut. Agents doing business with New Orleans on other matters describe a state of confusion.
Who was running the franchise? Was Demps authorized to make other deals? Were NBA vice executives Stu Jackson and Joel Litvin in charge? Was everything at Stern's discretion?
It is at this point that the role of Paul's agent, Leon Rose, became doubly important. His loyalty was to his client. His objective was simple: To make sure a deal got done by tirelessly acting as a liaison for all the parties involved.
Paul put on a brave face as he reported to the Hornets' training camp on Friday. He already hadn't been sleeping well for weeks. This only made his head spin faster. He'd come so close to being a Laker, it was hard to bury the picture of himself in purple and gold. Now he was back in limbo.
While the Lakers and Rockets tried to reconstitute their deal with the Hornets, Rose made sure the Clippers and other suitors, including Golden State and Boston, didn't lose interest.
"That's just a byproduct of representing Chris and trying to achieve what he wanted," Rose said. "Just being persistent and trying to achieve the goal he was trying to achieve."
It didn't take long for the Lakers and Rockets to go from furious to livid. Both consulted in-house lawyers. Yet it was immediately clear to both teams that there were no legal options to pursue, since the first trade never advanced past the state of "verbally agreed." There was no way to prove anything nefarious or unethical. It just felt wrong, and it felt worse the longer both teams tried to revive the trade.
Paul and Rose also explored their legal options through the players' association. They too decided not to pursue them at that time.
By Saturday afternoon, the trade hadn't just fallen apart, it was causing collateral damage. The Rockets players involved in the deal were upset, the Hornets were essentially frozen until the situation was resolved, and Gasol and Odom were also devastated by the news.
Both reached out to former Lakers coach Phil Jackson for support. Gasol and Jackson have a friendship beyond basketball. Odom considers him more of a mentor. "That's my teacher," Odom explained. "When you win together, you're bonded forever."
Odom wouldn't share what Jackson told him. But he was still so upset by the proposed trade, he told Kupchak he didn't think he could play for the Lakers anymore. Before doing so, Kupchak spoke with Litvin to ask if trading Odom would damage the deal. He was given assurances the deal could still be done with or without Odom and that a future first-round pick would actually be preferable.
Later Saturday, Kupchak resubmitted an offer to the Hornets featuring Gasol, the first-round pick from the Mavericks the team received for Odom, and another player. It took until Monday for him to get an answer on that proposal, according to a team source.
"It was very frustrating," the source said. "The league may not have known what it wanted to do at that point. But we were starting to feel like it already knew there was no way Chris Paul was going to end up with the Lakers."
Although it was actually unrelated, the Clippers saw the Odom trade as a sign that the original deal was probably being reconstituted. They were in constant communication with Rose, but didn't feel like they were making much progress with Demps.
On Saturday evening, Olshey finally needed a break. He hadn't slept more than a few hours in one night since the lockout ended right after Thanksgiving. His ears felt permanently warm from the heat of his cell phone.
Knowing how crazy his life was, his wife had already made separate plans for the night and hired a babysitter for their two children. So Olshey decided to step out and go to a movie by himself.
"I just had to get out,'' he said. "So I went to the Manhattan Beach Village and bought a ticket for that Justin Timberlake movie, 'In Time.' The one with the bracelets where if you run out of time you die."
Not five minutes into the movie, Olshey's cell phone started blowing up again. It was Rose calling to encourage him not to give up on the deal. For the next two and a half hours he stood in the parking lot outside the theater and made calls to see if he could revive the Clippers deal.
The following day, Sunday around 5 p.m. PT, Demps called to present a formal offer to the Clippers.
Olshey, Roeser, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro and director of player personnel Gary Sacks headed to the team's practice facility to evaluate the deal. They recommended to owner Donald Sterling that the team accept the trade.
But somewhere along the line, there had been a miscommunication. The Clippers thought the Hornets were asking for Gordon, Aminu, Kaman and the Minnesota pick. The Hornets thought they were asking for all of those players, second-year guard Eric Bledsoe and the Clippers 2014 first-round pick.
The Clippers stepped back and said they needed to re-evaluate. Both sides resolved to talk again early the following morning.
Nobody slept much that night or the next day. But three key things happened on Monday that would prove pivotal to the final deal. First, in a nervy show of resolve, the Clippers passed on New Orleans' offer.
Later in the day, they put in a surprise waiver claim on point guard Chauncey Billups and matched the four-year, $43 million offer sheet that free-agent center DeAndre Jordan had signed with Golden State.
The moves may have felt unrelated, but they provided just enough leverage to convince New Orleans that the Clippers were prepared to walk away and go into the season with the team they had.
If there was a trade to be made, the time was now.
On Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 14, the Clippers acquired Paul and two future second-round picks for Gordon, Kaman, Aminu and Minnesota's unprotected first-round draft pick they'd acquired in a 2005 trade for Marko Jaric.
Timing meant everything. An hour here or there and it all could've gone differently, depending on whose version of events you believe.
What if news of the first trade between the Lakers, Hornets and Rockets had broken a few hours later, after all the owners were on their flights home from New York and Stern had turned in for the night?
Would he have done the same thing in the morning? Would he have stopped the trade earlier in the process, before two of the teams involved felt they had a done deal?
Things could've happened differently at the end of the week, too. Olshey said he considered postponing the trade call on Wednesday afternoon until all of the players involved in the trade had returned from a community service activity.
If he'd waited those few hours, would word of the deal have leaked? Could other teams or agents of the players involved have scuttled the deal?
"I really hated that all the players were on buses when they heard about the deal," Olshey said. "But it was just too risky to wait once we knew we had the deal. The only thing we could do was wait in the lobby and be the first person Eric or Farouq or Chris talked to when they got off the buses."
In the end the Clippers were just in time while the Lakers ran out of it.
It has never happened that way in this town. This is a strange time for everybody, even for those that came out on the right side of the seven days.
The normal order of things has been upset. There will probably never be an answer or explanation that feels satisfying, though the consequences are real and indisputable.
"There were a million ways this thing could've broken, but almost every one of them broke our way," Roeser said. "Is that because we were lucky? Or we planned well? Or we were smart? I don't know. Maybe all of those things."
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com. Senior writer Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for ESPN.com., contributed to this report.