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Now that Paul's been traded, Stern can start damage control for himself

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist

David Stern's image has taken a huge hit after the worst offseason of his professional career. (Getty Images)  
David Stern's image has taken a huge hit after the worst offseason of his professional career. (Getty Images)  

Well, at least we have one stop on David Stern's Victory Tour that won't end up in complete shambles.

The Los Angeles Clippers gutted a good chunk of their team to get Chris Paul Wednesday, a deal that seems to have satisfied both the Clippers and, if Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a first-round pick turn out to be useful, the New Orleans owners.

Everyone sighed with relief as for the first time since the lockout ended, the people who run the National Basketball Association don't look small, stupid or mean.

And yes, that includes Stern, who has been the public face for the owners through the worst offseason of his professional career.

But now that he can stop being the De facto general manager of the Hornets, he can get back to considering his exit strategy from the dung heap constructed since the Mavericks won the title back in June. This is not the NBA Stern wants to have connected to his name as he heads toward retirement. He said he wouldn't be there for the next CBA fight in 10 years, or probably wouldn't be there when the opt-outs are exercised in six.

More on Chris Paul trade

In fact, we'd bet a flagon or six that he won't be around at this time next year. Between the boxing-glove-handed negotiating tactics of the lockout and the bumbling embarrassment of the Paul trade talks, Stern has become a target of ridicule, scorn and dismissal. And even after you allow for the money he makes doing this, this is not what he signed up for. He's had too many good years to let it end with him as a figure of fun.

So while this is not a confirmable story by any means, this seems as good a time as any for Stern to just say, "I don't need this anymore." To be booed in public like Bud Selig and Gary Bettman is not part of the legacy he wants to leave, and working for inflexible and vengeful reactionaries like Dan Gilbert only serves to make him even more nostalgic for Jerry Colangelo.

And while he will still catch hell in a lot of cities for being the face of a league at a time when it was shaming itself, he'll have L.A. At least he'll have Clipper L.A. Laker L.A. will hate him most of all, of course, and most other cities will take their animus about the entire offseason out on him because the owners are good at becoming invisible when the temperature reaches the low sweats.

To that end, LeBron James, who is already trying to undo the damage caused by his own decision to play the villain last year, must surely be relieved that Stern took his job. Being the villain is so hard that most players who do so tend to mellow in time because of the extraordinary energy it takes to keep up the façade.

And Stern is 2 ½ times James' age, and has somewhat less stamina to carry that kind of weight. So here's our guess -– this is Stern's last year in the big leather chair. His 34 years with the league -- the last 28 as commissioner -- have seen the game grow in franchises and popularity, and it has survived some monumental self-inflictions over that time. This isn't the worst of them, but as they say, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in their 20s ain't comin' through that door to save anyone this time.

These are going to be hard times in the league, and they will last at least through this truncated year. More to the point, nobody will blame Billy Hunter for them, because the head of the players union doesn't have to take a public role in anything for years.

And the owners won't be anywhere where blame can be sniffed out and distributed. No, this will be presented to Stern -- as Stern's -- and if James had trouble with the bad guy, Stern, who has even more reason to be perceived as the good guy, will have a bellyful of this, and quickly. Maybe he takes the thank you tour, and maybe he doesn't. He'll be the best one to gauge the wisdom in that.

But this smells like the end of the run for him, and he will view it with more relief than sadness. If he'd been in the kind of position of influence he used to be, it could have had an ending more to his liking. Instead, he takes a beating that wasn't entirely his to take.

But at least he has friends in L.A. Some, anyway. Depends on who's playing at the Staples Center that night.


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