The Hornets are only trying to do their job, which is to trade Chris Paul for the best assets they can get. In the soap opera that has ensued, everybody loses.
The Hornets lose, and so do the city of New Orleans and the rest of the NBA. And if you're beginning to think that this is what ending the lockout was all about -- replacing boring labor stories with prima-donna soap operas and dysfunctional trade negotiations brokered by league executives who couldn't run an NBA team if their lives depended on it -- then you're not alone.
The start of the season is less than two weeks away, and two of the biggest stars in the game are stuck in awkward love-hate relationships with their teams and cities. Several teams can't even field enough bodies for a legitimate practice, and there hasn't been a hint of interest in the actual product, the sport itself. Only a sideshow, a WWE-like charade.
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The NBA has become a parade of fools and shallow storylines. It's like NASCAR, or pro wrestling, or bubble gum. That initial burst of flavor, that rush, is addicting. But it's a short-lived high, and after you chew on it for a while, it loses its flavor and you realize there was no substance there in the first place.
The worst part is, people are starting to see right through it all. As more than one person involved in the NBA for the better part of their adult lives told me in recent days, this is an embarrassing time to be associated with the sport.
"Deplorable," said one of those people, who is supposed to be making his living running a team in a professional sports league, but instead feels as though he's stuck in a bad reality TV series where sensationalism and gotcha moments are all that matter.
To recap: Commissioner David Stern, in concert with league executives Joel Litvin and Stu Jackson, disallowed a trade that would've sent Paul to the Lakers in a three-team deal that would've sent Pau Gasol to the Rockets. Shellshocked and beside themselves, the Hornets brass nonetheless re-engaged Clippers management about a deal that would've sent Paul to Staples Center as a member of the Clippers.
The league office, in its role as arbiter of personnel decisions for the league-owned Hornets -- a role that is way more of a sham than the players dissolving their union a few weeks ago during the lockout -- drove such a hard bargain in that deal that the Clippers pulled out of the talks Monday. General manager Neil Olshey was unwilling to part with a massive haul of assets that included young star Eric Gordon and Minnesota's unprotected 2012 first-round pick for Paul, who sources say had only committed not to opt out of his deal after the season as part of the trade.
"We felt it was in the best interest of the team to keep this roster intact," Olshey told reporters Monday.
Two-and-through with Paul was never going to be good enough at that price for the Clippers, who perhaps for the first time in their history have assembled enough young talent and cap flexibility to be not a laughingstock, but a meaningful, valued member of the NBA. Something the Hornets, at this rate, will never get a chance to be.
Under these fluid and unprecedented circumstances, an executive briefed on the talks told CBSSports.com that the league was trying to re-engage the Clippers in talks for Paul Monday afternoon. Earlier, sources had indicated the talks "died" Monday morning when Clippers management became frustrated with the steep demands for the All-Star point guard and the frustrating process under which the talks were taking place.
The talks were revived yet again Monday night, with the Clippers able to include point guard Eric Bledsoe in the deal after they claimed Chauncey Billups off amnesty waivers for about $2 million. The inclusion of Bledsoe, along with either Eric Gordon or the Timberwolves unprotected 2012 first-round pick, had a chance to push the deal to its merciful conclusion, league sources told CBSSports.com.
The strong perception among rival executives Monday was that Stern and his fellow executives felt the backlash of the Lakers decision and realized they were boxed into a corner. If the league, which has owned the Hornets since December 2010, wouldn't let Paul go to the Lakers, where could it let him go? How would it be OK for Paul to be a Clipper, or a Celtic?
At the same time, how could they allow Paul to be stranded in New Orleans, opening the door to potential legal action from the union and, more important, crippling the franchise if Paul left for nothing as a free agent after the season?
Meanwhile, rival executives were scratching their heads as to whose business was it whether the Hornets received accomplished veteran players like Lamar Odom, Luis Scola and Kevin Martin for Paul, or prospects and draft picks? Simply put, it should have been solely up to the people who would have to live with that decision on a daily basis -- the people whose reputations and jobs are on the line.
It should have been up to Hornets GM Dell Demps, his front office staff, coach Monty Williams and his coaches. But in this alternative sports universe created by the mind-boggling conflict of interest resulting from 29 teams owning team No. 30, it was the commissioner's office evaluating the subjective merits of various trade options. It was a perfect storm at the end of the lockout, which has produced zero excitement over what perhaps will be Tim Duncan's last season in the NBA or the Celtics' last run at a title with their current core and has instead only been good for spitting out one sensational, vapid storyline after another.
It has been a smorgasbord of the absurd over the past 72 hours as the NBA made a seamless transition from professional sports property to guest on the Maury Povich Show. Deron Williams, one of the stars of the league, labeled Stern a "bully" for nixing the Lakers trade -- a decision that ultimately could cost Williams' Nets dearly if it results in Dwight Howard getting traded to the Lakers instead of New Jersey/Brooklyn.
Kobe Bryant, the preeminent basketball talent of his generation, said derisively that Stern "can do whatever the hell he wants. He's the commissioner." The next day, after Odom was sent to Mark Cuban's defending champion Mavericks for free instead of the New Orleans for Paul, Bryant said, "I don't think Mark Cuban is protesting this trade."
Howard, whose representatives are seeking a trade to the Lakers, Nets or Mavericks without the potential of league interference because those teams all have owners, took the deplorable step of throwing general manager Otis Smith under the bus this past weekend. Howard didn't have enough say in the team's personnel decisions, he said, stooping to a level where not even LeBron James would go on his way out of Cleveland.
At media day Monday, bygones were bygones. Howard said, "If it is meant for me to stay here, I'll stay" -- as long as the team was willing to change some things so it could compete for a championship, which it's already done. Magic CEO Alex Martins said he's "confident that we can work with Dwight and convince him to stay here long term."
Good luck with that. A rival team executive predicted that the Magic will "get burned" if they think they can patch things up with Howard and keep him.
On the next Maury ...
But the most perceptive and telling quote about the whole fiasco came from Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who as president of the National Basketball Players Association got a glimpse behind the curtain at the brutal, dictatorial and increasingly shortsighted way the NBA is run. Time after time throughout the summer and fall, Fisher would emerge from 12- and 15-hour bargaining sessions looking as though he'd just learned where the bodies were buried.
"I just think the overall approach to things in this business is getting a little bit difficult to stomach," Fisher said.
Don't worry, Fish. We're all right there with you, ready to barf.
The NBA had a chance to close the lid on all this madness during the collective bargaining negotiations, and took a pass. In some ways, it was to their credit. Rather than lose the season, the league chose compromise and tried to fire up the engines for a shortened season starting on Christmas. In retrospect, that is looking like an eminently poor decision.
It is becoming painfully apparent that the short-term gain of having a season without solving the power struggle between stars and teams has too many unsightly side-effects. And we haven't even gotten to the back-to-back-to-backs, the brutal travel schedule, and the ugly basketball that we'll get starting on Dec. 25, like a giant lump of steaming coal burning a hole in our stockings.
The genie got out of the bottle last July, when James and Dwyane Wade behaved how they'd been raised in the NBA to behave: like stars who always get their way. For so long, the league has marketed the stars as the product, made it a game and a business of individuals, big markets and relentless self promotion. And last summer, a new generation of owners didn't like it and threatened to shut down the sport for a long time until it was fixed.
The only way that was going to happen was a season-long lockout, with copious amounts of financial carnage and pain. In fairness, the players caved, too. They had set themselves up for the mother of all antitrust lawsuits -- had Stern and his owners right where they wanted them, their legal advisers insisted. And they let everybody off the hook, chose a flawed agreement and an unresolved battle for control over a longer, bloodier fight in which a clear winner ultimately would've been declared.
Instead, we get this passive-aggressive, junior-high musical. We get the lowest common denominator.
Now, they're trying to put the genie back in the bottle, and it doesn't want to go. It's business as usual in the NBA, only worse, and substance and the value of the product -- the sport itself -- is in a fight for its life against short-sighted soap operas and the instant gratification of sensational stories written on the backs of bubble-gum cards -- one after another, after another, until we all just want to be sick.
And the sport, the product, and everything it should be about, is losing in a landslide.