Every Wednesday, Pick and Popovich will dive down the rabbit hole and explore a different NBA “What if.” The only rule is that the scenario must come from a place that is somewhat realistic and grounded in at least somewhat believable rumor or hearsay. Otherwise, anything goes.
The league office is split. Small-market owners are outraged. But commissioner David Stern is resolute. Chris Paul, of the league-owned Hornets, has been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.
It takes time for Paul to figure out exactly how he meshes with Kobe Bryant. The Lakers open the 2011-12 season a pedestrian 13-10, and the midseason acquisition of Dwight Howard complicates things further. When the Lakers are bounced in the first round of the playoffs, management wastes no time in dispatching under qualified coach Mike Brown and, at the urging of Jeanie Buss, rehiring retired legend Phil Jackson.
Jackson’s return to the bench earns the Lakers a five-year commitment from Howard, and once a similar extension is agreed upon for Paul, Los Angeles sets about building the rest of their roster around their three stars. Ring-chasing veteran Grant Hill jumps on board as a wing. The midlevel exception yields power forward Kris Humphries. League pundits give the Lakers a reasonable chance to win the West.
And for awhile, it seems as though it just might happen. The Paul/Bryant ball-handling issues are settled as Kobe spends his offseason refining his three-point shot and accepting playing off of the ball. He turns into a deadly marksman off of the Paul/Howard pick-and-roll, and carries the offense for stretches as well. Their primary issue becomes depth. Though Bryant, Paul and Howard all stay reasonably healthy, nobody else on the team represents a significant threat to score. The offense dies when any of the big three rest, and with Kobe’s career clock ticking after a second-round exit against San Antonio, the Lakers are forced to take drastic measures in putting their team over the top.
They hand over an absolutely enormous sum—unprotected first round picks in 2016, 2018 and 2020 along with the right to swap picks in 2019—to Boston in exchange for what they hope are the last two pieces of their puzzle: Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Aged or not, the Lakers suddenly have five Hall of Famers in their starting lineup. They round out the bench with veterans like Elton Brand and Jermaine O’Neal, along with a high-upside signing in Nick Young, and enter the 2013-14 season as the Western Conference favorite.
The third season yields a third disappointment. The Lakers are simply too old to keep up with the younger contenders out west. They earn the conference’s No. 5 seed and manage to get by the upstart Trailblazers, but once again can’t keep up with San Antonio’s team-wide brilliance. Things continue to devolve from there. Los Angeles sneaks into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed the following season, but are quickly dispatched in the first round by, you guessed it, the Spurs. Pierce leaves to follow former coach Doc Rivers to Houston, Garnett retires, and with few ways to improve their team the Lakers are faced with the grim prospect of handing over several future draft picks to the hated Celtics.