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The Chris Paul Trade: The Darkest Timeline

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Matt Heller imagines what might have been had "Basketball Reasons" never entered the vernacular and Chris Paul had wound up with the Lakers. Brace yourself.

First, let me apologize. That picture--nay, that visual atrocity posing as a picture--should have been accompanied by some type of graphic content warning for Clipper fans. You know, something like this...

I can't really justify its creation, except to say that if you accidentally ingest bleach or laundry detergent or the ice cream/olive oil/bad Funny or Die video reduction the Currys are apparently sending out with their Christmas cards, you can pull this image up and begin purging pretty effortlessly. (No offense, Steph, but you should probably leave the funny to Blake).

This has been the most emotionally draining Clips Nation piece I've ever written, and not just because I've had to dig through old box scores with Ike Diogu and Ryan Gomes attempting multiple field goals. Wondering what would have happened if, three years ago this month, the greatest commissioner in the history of sports and repeated Nobel Peace Prize snub David Stern had not gift wrapped Chris Paul to us can send you to some dark, dark places as a Clippers fan.

When Connor first sent those pictures to my inbox, the instant nausea was gradually replaced by the overwhelming feeling that I had glimpsed something I was never meant to see. It wasn't like catching your girlfriend in bed with another man. It was like catching your girlfriend in the Lincoln bedroom with President Zombie Hitler while "The Tonight Show with Carlos Mencia" played in the background (musical guest: Radiohead featuring new co-frontman Justin Bieber).

First, the requisite backstory. Relaying the legend of how Chris Paul became a Clipper is an annual holiday tradition, repeated in thousands of Clipper households across Southern California. (If you just want to read the alternate timeline, skip ahead to the next section).

The Archangel Stern and the Miracle on Figueroa Street

"Papa?" a ten-year-old Clipper fan, draped head to toe in the Blake jersey he so desperately wanted from Santa, will ask his father. "Why do the Clippers always play today on Christmas, but other teams don't?"

"Oh, son," the Dad replies with a broadening grin. "It didn't use to be that way."

"It didn't?" says the son, genuinely confused.

The father straightens up in his chair.

"It's important you know this, son. The reason we play today on Christmas is because, three years ago, there was a miracle. A genuine miracle."

"Like Blake hitting that three against Phoenix?" the son asks.

"Even bigger," the Dad replies. "In 2011, the Pelicans used to be the Hornets, and the Hornets used to be the Bobcats. I know it's confusing, but no one outside 40-year-old white guys who own Larry Johnson jerseys really care. Anyway, the Hornets were bankrupt--they didn't have any money, and the league took them over. And they sucked. Almost Lakers-level suck."

"Wow," says the son. "That's pretty bad."

"And Chris Paul--yes, our Chris Paul--he played for New Orleans. He loved that city, but he wanted to play for a competitive team. So he asked for a trade."

"Like Carmelo did with Denver?" asks the son.

"No no no. Carmelo DEMANDED a trade," says the father. "Chris Paul asked for one. The difference is Chris Paul invited Chris Broussard to hang out one night at Club Liv, so ESPN was ok with it. Also the Nuggets were good."

"I don't get it," says the son.

"Don't think about it," says the father. "Anyway, the Lakers--that's right, the horribly dysfunctional Lakers--they try to trade for Chris Paul. And it's a pretty good deal, and the Hornets say yes. So Chris Paul starts packing his bags, and Laker fans start dusting off their flags again, and the rest of the NBA gets really depressed and starts hating the Rockets for collaborating."

"Whoa," says the son. "Chris Paul was going to be a Laker?"

"Yeup, sure looked like it," says the father. "Then the miracle happened. Under the ethically unassailable argument that the Hornets' bankruptcy had granted him legal status as the 'omnipotent, infallible, all-powerful wizard-king of basketball', our guardian angel David Stern nixed the deal. He just vetoed it."

"Whoaaa," says the son. "He can do that?"

"Don't think about it," says the father. "So this deal that would have sent our beloved Christopher to toil in purgatory for a laughing stock franchise that rarely enters the NBA consciousness except to be openly derided by fans of actually competitive teams--it's dead. Laker fans are furious. A few days later, insisting that any deal involving the world's best point guard (the moniker was true then) HAD to include Al-Farouq Aminu, the archangel Stern brokered a deal with us! And we got Chris Paul!"

"Whoaaaaaaa," says the son. "Was our trade better than the Lakers'?"

"Don't think about it," says the father. "And the rest is history. Lob city, 50-win seasons, the playoffs, an obnoxious number of  All-State commercials. And we get to play on Christmas, when the best NBA teams get to play. And the Lakers."

Every Clipper fan remembers exactly where he was when news of the Chris trade morphed from unsubstantiated rumor to unsubstantiated Marc Stein tweet to "Sources: CP3 to Clippers" ESPN.com headline. It's our moon landing.

The Darkest Timeline

So why plumb the recesses of the abyss for an alternate history? Why dare to ask the unspeakable question? Because I'll be damned if Bill Simmons is going to write our counterfactual timeline for us where the Lakers are in the finals. (Philip Roth, maybe, but not Simmons).

In the spirit of the holidays, I'm going to do this It's a Wonderful Life style. That is, instead of progressing chronologically, I'll chronicle the impact a Chris Paul to the Lakers trade would have had on the people he's affected the most. We'll start deep in the future.

January 20, 2032: Vincent Joseph "Vinny" Del Negro Sworn in as 48th President of the United States

Chris Paul joining the Lakers in 2011 means less pressure and expectations on then Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro. Without Chris texting Doc Rivers during 20 second timeouts in the 2013 Memphis playoff series, Del Negro parlays one playoff appearance as an 8 seed (more on that later) into a meteoric rise within the organization. Within two years, he is promoted to general manager. Within three, he is senior president of business operations, merchandising, marketing, and assistant manager at the Panda Express outside the "Premier" level at Staples.

At a charity event organized by still-owner Donald Sterling, powerful representatives of the oil, defense, agricultural, and banking industries meet Del Negro for the first time. They instantly see the perfect political candidate--a people-pleasing man who could be easily manipulated by special interests without remotely suspecting he was being manipulated by special interests. He is convinced to run in a safe Southern California congressional district, and wins handily. His handlers quickly escalate him up through the congressional leadership, until he is a logical vice presidential and then presidential nominee. Running on a campaign of "Liberty, freedom, and liberty" (he came up with the slogan), Del Negro narrowly wins, abetted by a tidal wave of independent campaign expenditures. The Clippers replace Del Negro with general manager Mark Jackson and head coach Derek Fisher.

August 12, 2018: Blake Griffin's Last Dunk

Without Chris to help shoulder the offensive load and Doc to blackmail the refs, Blake's body takes an inhumane in-game pounding. Still, with the help of starting point guard Eric Bledsoe and Eric Gordon's remaining functional body parts, Blake leads the team to an 8 seed in 2012, the first and only playoff appearance of his professional career.  Blake averages 20 and 10 against Oklahoma City (on the plus side, no Chris Paul means Blake keeps trying to rebound after his sophomore season).

The Thunder sweep the Clippers. MRI's after the series reveal Blake was playing with two severe ACL sprains, a broken foot, and three stab wounds inflicted by Serge Ibaka.

Buoyed by the team's playoff appearance and guarantees from VDN that he will re-sign emerging star Bledsoe, Blake re-signs with the Clippers in 2012. But without the financially savvy Chris Paul to mentor him, Blake makes a series of foolish money decisions attempting to leverage his comedic chops. After the studio pulls it's financial backing, Blake agrees to self-finance "Shazam II: Dunk Your Wish!!!", which he writes, directs, and stars in. The movie is a flop. Blake attempts a Hollywood comeback in a Jaws remake, but that also bombs at the box office.

By the 2015-2016 season, Blake is broke, physically deteriorating, and a shell of the player he once was. Between Blake's multiple surgeries and the medically-induced coma Gordon has slipped into, the Clippers' health care costs become untenable. VDN cuts Blake at the end of the year.

With nowhere to turn, Blake agrees to serve out the remainder of his Kia endorsement deal at a used car dealership in Torrance. After test-driving a new Sorrenta, you can pay $5 to watch Blake Griffin dunk over any car you choose.

Three years into the gig, a Laker fan asks Blake to dunk over the stretch Hummer he just drove onto the lot.

Blake initially refuses, saying his knees just can't take it anymore. But Kia management forces him. Blake summons the remaining vertical he has left, barely clearing the roof of the Hummer to make the dunk. But on his downward trajectory, he becomes tangled in the Hummer's Laker flags, lands awkwardly, and re-injures his knees.

It will be the last time Blake Griffin dunks a basketball.

July 3, 2017: State Farm Goes Bankrupt After Kobe Endorsement Deal Backfires

Insurance giant State Farm files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after it's multi-year endorsement deal with Lakers guard Kobe Bryant fails to attract the right type of customer. The "self-insure, assists are for pussies" campaign Bryant spearheads leaves many wondering if he was the right choice for the firm as opposed to, say, a pass-first point guard.

February 19, 2015: DJ Traded to Golden State

Without Chris there to designate DJ as his favored lob target, and without Doc there to coach him up, DJ never sniffs league leaderboards in rebounding or blocked shots. Instead, with VDN at the helm, DJ repeatedly leads the league in fewest minutes/greatest athletic potential ratio.

In his walk year, the organization begins aggressively shopping their underutilized center ahead of the trade deadline. The Clippers ultimately send DJ to the Golden State Warriors, no longer a serious divisional rival the team would never trade with but simply the class of the West. In return, the Clippers receive David Lee and the film rights to Mark Jackson's new self-help book, "Hand Down, Man Down, Chin Up: Finding Yourself After Losing Your Job to a Clearly Superior Candidate." Yes, even in this alternate reality, the 2014-2015 Warriors are coached by Steve Kerr and are unbeatable. With DJ under Kerr's tutelage, the Warriors easily make the NBA finals.

Blake and DJ are devastated by news of the trade. They promise to text and keep in touch, but time and distance wear on their friendship. Blake ultimately cancels filming of "Step Brothers 2", in which they were slated to co-star.

April 28, 2013: Another Lakers Superteam Disappoints

Following the Chris Paul acquisition, a year later Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak sets about assembling another Lakers super team, landing Dwight Howard from Orlando in the summer of 2012. Expectations are high for what the media are calling the "New Big 3", or what Kobe coyly nicknames, "Me and Two Other People".

But despite the All-Star talent, the team is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Blame immediately shifts to Paul, who despite playing through multiple injuries and leading all point guards in PER, is criticized by Laker fans for not rebounding Kobe's misses as the necessary rate.

The team flames out in the first round of the playoffs against San Antonio. Dwight flees Los Angeles, but Paul, having signed an extension immediately after the trade in 2011, is forced to play out the remainder of his contract as a Laker. He never reaches the second round of the playoffs.

February 15, 2012: Lob City for a Day

At the 2012 All-Star Game in Orlando, Chris and Blake are both starters for the Western Conference. After the opening tip, Paul dribbles into the frontcourt, accepts a pick from Blake, and immediately rewards him with a high-floating lob that Blake slams home.

The natural chemistry between Griffin and Paul is evident to everyone watching. Paul finishes with 20 assists, Griffin with 30 points. Both are named All-Star co-MVP's.

After the game, Paul runs into Griffin in a hallway outside the locker room.

"Man that was fun," Paul says to Griffin.

"Yeah man, really fun," replies Griffin. "You throw great lobs, man. That was lob city tonight."

"Lob city, I like that," says Paul. "I guess I'm more in 'stand there and run iso ball like it's 2002' city right now."

"Hey man, at least Kobe's playing," says Griffin. "They just ordered Eric Gordon that mouth-controlled wheelchair Stephen Hawking has."

Both pause for a second.

"You ever think what it would have been like if you came to the Clippers instead of the Lakers?" asks Griffin. "I heard it almost happened."

"Yeah, I wonder sometimes," says Paul. "Pick and roll with me and you would be pretty devastating. Although honestly I think I would just use you more as a decoy to collapse the defense and throw the lob to DJ or find JJ in the corner."

"Who's JJ?" asks Griffin, confused.

"Oh, I dunno," says Paul, who looks like he's just seen a ghost. "That just came out."

"Weird, I was picturing JJ Redick before you completed the sentence," says Griffin. "Alright, I gotta catch a plane to Memphis, we're playing the Grizzlies day after tomorrow."

"Ah man, that sucks," says Paul. "I hate those fucking guys."

"Right? They are the worst."

As always, a huge thank you to Connor, who endured the horror of creating those "throw up in you mouth" images I requested (don't blame him). Del Negro-Carroll, 2032.