|Nixing Chris Paul's trade to the Lakers proves that David Stern hasn't learned a thing. (US Presswire)|
On the very day that the NBA was supposed to be back, embracing us with this charade of a 66-game season after five months of a pointless lockout, it stepped into the worst kind of purgatory.
What happened Thursday, the incomprehensible events you'd expect from a second-rate, minor league sport, did far more damage than the lockout ever did -- or ever could. After years of fans, both casual and hard-core, not to mention the disciplined executives and coaches working in the business, believing that something always wasn't quite right -- something was rotten in Denmark -- the NBA finally proved it.
This whole thing Thursday reeked to high heaven, and the NBA is going to pay a dear price for it.
Having spoken with team executives getting back into the swing of things since the tentative deal on a new collective bargaining agreement was reached two weeks ago, I heard the anger. No sooner had the beleaguered negotiators slept off the 15-hour bargaining session that finally resulted in the deal, it was back to business as usual. After a five-month lockout that was supposedly about restoring competitive balance -- we can all hear deputy commissioner Adam Silver's mind-numbing, and as it turns out, empty soliloquy ringing in our ears -- it was right back to Chris Paul wanting to be in New York, Dwight Howard in L.A., and on and on and on.
"Pathetic," is how one team executive described the mayhem that played out Thursday, before commissioner David Stern somehow found a way to make it worse by canceling a trade that would've sent superstar Chris Paul from the Hornets to the Lakers for what a league spokesman laughably called "basketball reasons."
|More on Chris Paul trade saga|
NBA 'pulled plug' on Chris Paul to Lakers trade
On a day when it became apparent that the Knicks would maneuver for the top free agent on the market, Tyson Chandler, the Lakers brokered a three-team deal to acquire Paul from the Hornets. One of the brightest GMs in the league, Houston's Daryl Morey, was involved in the transaction, as was Hornets GM Dell Demps -- a savvy, no-nonsense basketball man who came up through the San Antonio Spurs organization, which is like getting your MBA in NBA.
Everybody in the sport has known for a long time that Paul was leaving New Orleans; it was only a question of when, and how. Paul was fleeing the Hornets, a decrepit, decaying franchise that was put there by Stern as part of a contagious disease of over-expansion that, more than anything, led to the crippling financial losses and the lockout that the league just endured.
Or had endured, until this.
When owner George Shinn, who couldn't hack it in Charlotte, couldn't hack it in New Orleans, either, the NBA's other 29 franchises assumed custodianship until a new owner could be found. The Hornets had been able to manage their basketball affairs as they saw fit, with Demps and coach Monty Williams reporting to -- and only to -- league-appointed governor Jac Sperling. The Hornets finally got their act together last season, miraculously eclipsing an attendance quota that prevented their arena lease from opening, and they made trades and did the other business of running a basketball team without incident.
In February 2011, the league-owned Hornets took on more than $2 million in salary as part of a trade in which they acquired Carl Landry from the Sacramento Kings. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, responsible for 1/29th of that money, decried the move as "absolutely, positively wrong."
The incident highlighted why a league or the other owners shouldn't collectively own one of the franchises in a sports cartel, but it blew over and everyone went on their merry way. It was swept under the carpet, the same one under which all the other carcasses of NBA scandals are buried.
It was all fine and dandy in the fantasy world of the NBA until Stern on Thursday decided to undercut and permanently impugn the power of the general manager who's supposed to be in charge of basketball decisions for the team that the league shouldn't own, but does. Until Stern passive-aggressively took out his frustration, and that of his owners, over a collective bargaining agreement that he couldn't negotiate punitively enough. Was it for "basketball reasons" that Stern did this, making a full-on mockery of the men who run his teams in a way that sullied the NBA's public image and credibility far more than any superstars flocking toward each other could?
"We are ruled by a dictator," said one of several angered and flummoxed team executives I spoke with Thursday night in the aftermath of this bush-league decision, one that threatens to blow the lid off the power struggle that has been brewing between owners and players for months in the bargaining room -- and, in truth, for decades otherwise.
"What if this had been done before the players voted on the deal?" a management source said. "They wouldn't have voted for it."
And while Paul was said to be discussing his legal options with Billy Hunter, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, the frustration across the league is such that a grievance or protest letter will hardly suffice. And if the players and their union were capable of organizing a press conference -- much less getting, oh, half the union membership to vote on the new CBA -- then the only rational and meaningful course of action here would be for 450 players to refuse to show up for work Friday when training camps are scheduled to open.
I know of at least one player who won't be at training camp Friday; that would be Paul, who almost assuredly will be a no-show, according to a person in contact with the Hornets' hierarchy. This is only a minor symptom of the pandemic Stern unleashed on the NBA Thursday. He turned Paul, one of the bright, smiling stars of the league who had never once publicly griped or demanded to be traded, into a villain.
"I believe in free agency," Stern said, incredibly, at the news conference announcing that owners had ratified this CBA they're now railing against by a vote of 25-5. "We have a deal where a player who has completed his time at a team under a contract has a right to go someplace else. And then there are potential judgments to be made by teams about whether there's a time when they want to consider getting something more for that player in the event he will leave. ... So nothing has changed about that. That dynamic is the same."
Unless you're the team that's owned by the rest of the teams, and they're out to get the pound of flesh they couldn't get at the bargaining table -- even though they did get a cool $3 billion over 10 years, no matter where Chris Paul or anybody else plays.
Make no mistake, this is pure ugliness -- warped, second-rate foolishness you'd expect to find in some half-baked, fringe semi-pro league office in Topeka or Toledo. This is the NBA becoming the Bad News Bears right before our horrified eyes.
Small- and mid-market teams being angry with the big-market star-poaching that was happening on the very day when the new CBA was approved is only half the story. Half the story is what Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert told in a letter he wrote to Stern Thursday requesting that the Paul trade be disallowed.
"I just don't see how we can allow this trade to happen," Gilbert wrote in the letter, obtained by Yahoo Sports. "I know the vast majority of owners feel the same way I do."
Gilbert pointed out that the trade would net the Lakers the best player in the deal and save them $40 million in salary and luxury taxes over the next three seasons. But this is not what would've happened. It was widely known that Paul, after a six-month waiting period instituted in the new CBA, would sign a new five-year, $100 million contract with the Lakers after opting out of his contract on July 1. And the Lakers, who'd be bereft of big men after sending Pau Gasol to the Rockets and Lamar Odom to the Hornets, would need to spend more to replace that size or risk having Kobe Bryant keel over in frustration while Paul futilely dribbled in circles with nobody to receive his magical passes.
While there was no question the Lakers were getting a huge star, it was hardly a guarantee that the trade would make them appreciably better. In fact, several rival GMs calculated that the trade may have made the Lakers worse in the short term, and applauded Demps for getting a haul of quality players (Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin) plus Goran Dragic and a first-round pick for a player everybody knew would one day leave on his own.
"Are they saying that Stu Jackson or David Stern or whoever the ___ it is knows more than the experienced GMs who made this deal?" one person involved in front-office dealings said.
Of the players Demps was going to get, three are capable starters, and one (Dragic) is a low-priced yet effective backup point guard. The draft pick in 2012, formerly belonging to the Knicks and only top-five protected, promises to be in the middle of the first round round of a deep and loaded draft. Only one player -- Scola, one of the most efficient post players in the league -- carries significant financial obligations beyond next season. Martin, who scores 20 points a night in his sleep, is 28 and has two years left totaling about $25 million -- or, the same total amount the Clippers lavished on Caron Butler Thursday without anyone stepping in to stop that.
It made sense, too, for the Rockets, who cleared $3.5 million and would've had room with the amnesty of one player to offer a max contract to a free agent like Nene -- or use the space in other creative ways. Gasol, among the league's most gifted big men, would fill the gaping hole in the middle left by Yao Ming's premature retirement.
Would the Lakers turn around and offer Andrew Bynum to Orlando in a trade for Dwight Howard, and is that what Stern and his petulant owners were afraid of? Well, with no other assets to offer, if the Lakers had traded Bynum straight-up for Howard between now and Christmas, that would've been a trade no one would argue with if it were called off for "basketball reasons." The Lakers weren't trading for Howard any more than Paul was staying in New Orleans beyond this season.
But more than that, the NBA has the fresh stench of a scandal wafting over it as it re-opens for business Friday -- re-opens for business as usual. The lockout ended, but the circus tent and all the pent-up anger and aggression inside of it hasn't gone away.
Immediately on the heels of a lockout that obviously accomplished nothing, the NBA managed to step into an even bigger pile of its own waste before the first whistle had even been blown or basketball dribbled. This supposedly healed economic model resulted in a trade that was disallowed because the sad-sack, charity case team supposedly couldn't be trusted to make its own decisions. And after this, how will that team possibly be able to make it any more? After making a credible, beneficial trade under the circumstances, how is Demps going to find a way to save his franchise with a better one?
But something bigger than that happened Thursday. The NBA became the place where conspiracy theories and frozen envelopes and suspicious whistles are no longer the stuff of overactive imaginations or the objects of cold stares from company men. It all came home to roost with this decision from Stern Thursday night, a fine way to take something that was already going to be a struggle -- a lockout-shortened season filled with bad blood and worse basketball -- and turn it into something far worse.
The punchline of a sorry excuse for a joke, under a circus tent growing more inflated by the minute.