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NBA AM: The Craziest Almost-Trades in History

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This weekend’s most notable bit of basketball journalism came courtesy of Brian Windhorst and the ESPN.com hoops crew, and it detailed the dissolution of the Cleveland Cavaliers. It mentioned, among other things, that Paul George came extremely close to landing with the Cavs.

To repeat, George easily could have joined LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland this season, perhaps giving the Golden State Warriors a more substantial run for their money when the inevitable Cavs/Warriors Part IV went down next June.

Instead, Kevin Pritchard pulled the trade for whatever reason, choosing instead to send George to the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it was the almost-trade to Cleveland that not many basketball fans soon will forget.

Of course, it isn’t the first time in league history that a major star came within inches of being traded someplace borderline unbelievable. The following are the most memorable almost-trades in recent league history:

Charles Barkley almost was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.

This thing where a team agrees to a trade verbally, only to go back and change their mind, is nothing new. In fact, in 1992 Barkley received a phone call from his agent telling him that he had been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, only to have the offer pulled hours later. Barkley had spent most of the season hoping for a trade, unhappy with the direction the Philadelphia 76ers were heading, so when he received the call that he’d finally been set free and would be moving to L.A. to play for one of the most storied teams in league history, he couldn’t help but celebrate.

“I went to lunch and started drinking,” Barkley told SI in 2015. “I’m f—ing so excited that I am going to the Lakers.”

Barkley didn’t end up playing for the Lakers, obviously, and his agent called him back a few hours later to relay the bad news. Unfortunately, the Sixers had a game that night, and Barkley was going to have to suit up.

“I said, ‘Oh, s—t, I’m feeling pretty good right now,’ so I went out and played that night… I wasn’t blasted, just a couple of drinks at lunch. I mean, I was excited to get the hell out of Philly.”

He would, eventually, that July after the season ended, and his Phoenix team would even play in the Finals in 1993. It’s quite a thought experiment to consider what that Lakers team would have looked like with Barkley in the middle of the paint, though.

Hakeem Olajuwon almost was traded to the Miami HEAT.

That same season, Houston Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon grew disenfranchised with his own organization, something that eventually led to his agent, Leonard Armato, relaying to the press his client’s desire to play elsewhere.

“If you have a disgruntled and unhappy superstar and there are irreconcilable differences then a trade nearly always happens at some point,” Armato said.

The Houston Post even received a letter from Armato threatening legal action if the Rockets didn’t trade Olajuwon and retract statements the team made about Olajuwon’s injuries the season prior. In 1991-1992, the star center was suspended for missing games with a hamstring injury the team doctors didn’t think was severe enough to require that he sit out. There were some within the organization that were pretty vocal about that.

It all made Olajuwon dream about playing elsewhere, and one intriguing trade with the Miami HEAT reportedly came pretty close to happening. The deal was centered around Glen Rice, Steve Smith and Rony Seikaly, but the HEAT were reticent to “gut their nucleus” for just one player, no matter how good.

Houston later came back at Miami with an offer of Olajuwon and Sleepy Floyd for Seikaly, Grant Long and Harold Minor. This time, the HEAT declined, and it obviously proved for the better, at least for Olajuwon. He’d go on to win titles with the Rockets in 1994 and 1995.

Dennis Rodman almost was traded to the Phoenix Suns.

Rodman was traded to the San Antonio Spurs in 1993, but he easily could have been a member of the Phoenix Suns that fall instead. In September of that season, the Detroit Pistons reportedly had a deal they liked that would send Rodman to the Suns in exchange for Richard Dumas and a couple of other players to make the salary cap numbers work.

The deal was set to go through when the Pistons discovered that Dumas, a player who had struggled with substance abuse in the past and was banned for a full year in 1991 because of drug use, was currently attending an after-care program for the same issue at the time of the trade. Detroit wanted to no part of that noise, so they backed out. The Spurs ultimately took the gamble on Rodman instead and sent Detroit less risky players in return.

Kobe Bryant almost was traded to the Chicago Bulls.

In 2007, Kobe Bryant asked to be traded to the Chicago Bulls. He always had idolized Michael Jordan and had grown fed up with his time in Los Angeles, and all that culminated in one of the most insane what-ifs in NBA history.

He really wanted it to happen, too. There was a video that circulated at the time where a gaggle of Lakers fans approached Bryant and implored that he stay with the Lakers. His response was, ominously, “Get a Bulls uniform, fellas.”

The problem with this potential trade is that in acquiring Bryant, the Bulls would have had to trade essentially their entire roster to bring him in, and Bryant wasn’t particularly keen on playing with a team that didn’t also have Luol Deng on it. However, L.A. asked for Deng, along with Tyrus Thomas, Ben Gordon and Joakim Noah as the main parts of any trade for Bryant, and that wouldn’t have left much for Bryant to work with on his new team.

Eventually the trade just disintegrated, with Bryant realizing he’d have a better shot at more rings with the Lakers. It’s a good thing he stayed, because two more championships would come his way in the next half decade.

Chris Paul almost was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Actually, Chris Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. There really is no “almost” about it. It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost seven years since that trade was agreed to and ultimately vetoed by then-commissioner David Stern, but the whole thing felt like a bad dream then and little has changed in remembering the event all this time later.

For those that have forgotten (or just blocked it from their memories), the agreed-to trade would have sent Pau Gasol to the Houston Rockets and Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic and a 2012 first-round draft pick to the New Orleans Hornets. The Lakers, obviously, would have received CP3.

Stern vetoed the deal for “basketball reasons,” something that was especially complicated at the time because technically the league owned the New Orleans Hornets in the midst of a messy sale in 2011. Back in Twitter’s infancy, Paul got wind of the veto and tweeted, famously, “WoW,” while Odom tweeted, “When a team trades u and it doesn’t go down? Now what?”

The “now what?” was L.A. sending Odom to Dallas and Paul getting traded to the L.A. Clippers, where he saw great individual success, but very little of it in the NBA Playoffs.

Stern insists the Lakers still could have landed Paul had the three-way trade extended to include Kyle Lowry from Houston, but he believes Mitch Kupchak “panicked” in moving Odom before the trade could be re-worked. It remains one of the weirdest single occurrences in league history, and certainly the most notable almost-trade the NBA has ever seen.

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It’s crazy to think that Paul George could have played alongside LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland this year, but it’s no crazier than any of these other near trades that simply weren’t meant to be. Olakuwon and Bryant won rings because their trades didn’t happen. Barkley made the Finals because of his failed swap, and Rodman put himself on a path to more rings of his own because he didn’t end up with Phoenix.

The Basketball Gods work in mysterious ways, and while it’s sad for Cavaliers fans to think what could have been, the stories that sprout forth from this non-trade could end up being even more monumental than the trade itself.

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About Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.