The No-Trade that Changed Lakers' History

Lakers history changed in December of 2011 when the NBA vetoed a trade that would have sent superstar Chris Paul to the Lakers. Chris Paul went to the Clippers, where he turned them into a respectable team for one of the only times in their history. The Lakers on the other hand floundered by leaving Kobe in control of the franchise. However, this no-trade may be karma-style justice for another no-trade in Lakers history. In 1982, Donald Sterling nixed another trade that would have completely changed Lakers history, and that's probably a good thing.

In the 1982 draft, the Lakers held a guaranteed top-two pick. Something the Lakers used to excel at was getting future picks that turned out to be valuable. Case in point, Magic Johnson was a future pick from the New Orleans Jazz! And, as luck would have it, the 1982 draft's top prospect was Ralph Sampson, who was expected to be the next star big of the NBA. And oh boy, did Jerry Buss want Ralph Sampson. There was one problem, the Lakers and Clippers were both eligible for the number one pick, and the Clippers would certainly pick Ralph Sampson if they got it. So Jerry Buss decided to take fate into his hands. He had dinner with Donald Sterling and started making progressively more and morel ludicrous offers to guarantee getting Ralph Sampson.

According to the amazing book "Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s" by Jeff Pearlman

Buss offered $ 6 million for the guarantee of the pick. Sterling declined. Buss offered $ 6 million plus (should he have it) the number two pick in the upcoming draft. Sterling declined. Buss offered $ 6 million plus the number two pick in the upcoming draft and the team’s first-round pick in 1984. Sterling declined again. Buss suggested that he could, somehow, land the Clippers Moses Malone from Houston. Sterling was moderately intrigued, but he also wanted two Laker players— Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper. Buss said he’d have to think about it.

Six million dollars?? For reference, in 1982, the average NBA player salary was $218,000! That means Sterling offered almost 10% of the league payroll for the rights to one player! Of course, Sterling didn't even consider that. But let's consider if one of the other trades happened.

Losing Michael Cooper could have been bad. He earned over 50 wins from the 1982-1983 season through the 1987-1988 season. He also had star seasons in 83,84, and 86. Norm Nixon turned into Byron Scott, who turned into a productive player in the 1986-1987 and 1987-1988 seasons. Had Sterling blinked earlier, though, the Lakers would "only" have been out their pick and would have had Ralph Sampson. And that would have changed everything.

The most significant difference in any of the trades would have been the lack of James Worthy. Worthy turned into an incredibly productive player. He was above average as a rookie and stacked up almost fifty wins from 1982-1983 through 1987-1988. He earned the Finals MVP in the 1987 playoffs. He was a vital part of the Lakers dynasty. And if the Lakers had grabbed Ralph Sampson, he'd never have played a game for them.

And if the Lakers had grabbed Ralph Sampson a bigger thing would have happened. The Lakers had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but he was already past his prime in 1982. He wasn't getting any younger, and the Lakers were looking to find a replacement. Additionally, his personality notoriously clashed with others, so he wasn't super popular among Lakers. It's likely Ralph Sampson would have resulted in Kareem's departure. As-is, he re-signed in 1983 with the Lakers. Kareem played above average through the 1987 season. He had a comeback season in 1984-1985 where he played close to star level and earned the Finals MVP. 

Ralph Sampson on the other hand? He never matured into a star. In fact, his best season was his rookie year where he was average. It turns out that top prospects aren't always a sure thing. Maybe he would have played better on the Lakers next to Magic. However, at bare minimum, it would have likely resulted in the Lakers not having two future Finals MVPs on their squad. And the Lakers ended up with some great role players in their big spots (A.C. Green and Kurt Rambis) to play alongside Kareem.

To sum up, not getting Ralph Sampson resulted in:

  • Getting James Worthy as a "consolation prize." He played great and turned into a Finals MVP.
  • Keeping Kareem, who played well, and earned a Finals MVP.
  • Relying on role players in the power forward spot - A.C. Green and Kurt Rambis, who played excellently.

And of course, those players combined to get the Lakers three more titles! So, it might be painful to watch the Lakers lose game after game this season. And it's tempting to look back to 2011 and Chris Paul and say, "What if?" But, it's also worth thinking that the greatest squad of the 1980s almost didn't happen. Hope that helps Lakers' fans!