Plenty of blame can be distributed for the Lakers' sluggish playoff collapse against the Thunder, but the majority of it should go to NBA commissioner David Stern.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell receives loads of criticism, most of it justifiable, from players, fans and media for his authoritarian leadership style, but Stern is the commissioner who has dramatically altered the competitive balance of the league he runs.
By nixing the Lakers-Hornets trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers, Stern absolutely crippled the Lakers. Hurt feelings from the vetoed deal put Lamar Odom, who the Lakers had agreed to trade to the Hornets, in an awkward limbo. Odom refused to show up for practice the next day, telling the Los Angeles Times "You don't want to go to no place you're not wanted. I'll try to give them what they want as much as possible."
The Lakers couldn't mend Odom's hurt feelings and ended up having to trade 2011's Sixth Man of the Year to the Dallas Mavericks. As the award's name would suggest, the depth Odom provided was a huge boost to Los Angeles in the 2010-11 season. The absence of such depth ended up being a huge reason the Lake Show's curtains closed prematurely this season. Vetoing the Paul trade left the Lakers without either Paul or Odom.
Missing out on Paul and losing Odom quickened the closing of Kobe Bryant's window for another championship, dimming the superstar's legacy in comparison to Michael Jordan. With the Lakers out of the playoffs and facing huge questions about the possibility of blowing up their roster, odds are against the Black Mamba getting another championship ring to match Jordan's record of the highest number of titles in the salary cap era.
Whether it's a fair assessment or not, championships are a huge part of discussing the all-time greats in any sport. Jordan's six rings and the seemingly unattainable nature of matching his total of titles are a huge part of his legacy. With six or more NBA titles, Bryant could have been discussed as possibly even better than Jordan. Bryant's five championships are a huge accomplishment in and of themselves, but his failure to win another ring would cement the legendary nature of Jordan's six by highlighting just how hard it is to win six championships.
With Paul, Bryant would have had a legitimate chance at winning a sixth championship, and maybe even more. A point guard like Paul would've been a huge help for the Lakers in their transition from Phil Jackson's triangle offense to a traditional offense under Mike Brown. Additionally, Paul's presence would have made Los Angeles a much more attractive trade destination for Magic center Dwight Howard, who refused the Magic's offer to trade him to the Lakers earlier in the season.
Paying for Bryant, Paul and Howard would have been expensive, but Mitch Kupchack is known for being a shrewd general manager with the capability to pull off the front-office wizardry necessary to fit three such superstars under the salary cap. A dynamic duo of Bryant and Paul could have propelled the Lakers to frontrunner status in the NBA. A trio of Bryant, Paul and Howard could have been flat-out dominant.
It would have been an even bigger union of stars than Miami's "Big Three." and would have had more instant success because the Lakers' players' styles of play would have meshed much more smoothly than that of the Heat. With more weapons on the court, the Lakers wouldn't have had a season-long desperate reliance on Bryant's ability to put the team on his back in each game. Howard 's presence in the post and Paul's ability to run the offense would have helped compensate for the depth issues that would have been caused by clearing cap space for all three players.
In such a scenario, a sixth and possibly seventh or eighth ring for Bryant is a legitimate possibly, and the Lakers' transition to the post-Bryant era would have been much less difficult. Now even a sixth ring for the Lakers legend is unlikely thanks to Stern's interference.
By vetoing the Paul trade, Stern chose to drastically alter the narrative arc of the twilight years of Bryant's career. Instead of the pursuit and perhaps even surpassing of Jordan's benchmark of rings, the story of Bryant's latter years now focuses on whether he can even remain the king of his city.
An intra-Los Angeles rivalry between the Clippers -- the team that landed Paul after Stern's veto -- and the Lakers is great for the NBA. The passing-of-the-torch story created by Blake Griffin's heralded arrival to the Clippers had started to fade, but Paul's arrival gave Griffin a huge firepower upgrade in the battle for supremacy in the City of Angels.
The NBA's veto of the Paul-to-the Lakers trade and his subsequent arrival with the Clippers preserved the sacrosanct nature of Jordan's number of titles and reduced Bryant's role in the NBA to that of an old star fading into the background behind the shining light of a newer, supposedly brighter set of stars in Griffin and Paul.
It's a great story for the NBA to sell while protecting Jordan's legacy. But I'm not buying anything so blatantly manufactured by the commissioner.