On the occasion of David Stern's final NBA Draft, as he stood on the stage in Brooklyn and bid adieu, chaos was unfolding all around him.
And we're not referring to the rowdies and drunks who annually make the second round of the draft an adventure. We're talking about the business of assembling basketball teams as the sun dipped beneath the horizon on Stern's 30 years of overseeing drafts.
At the moment when Hakeem Olajuwon, the very first No. 1 pick introduced by Stern in 1984, was rejoining the aging commissioner on the stage Thursday night, the Nets and Celtics were finalizing something that defied logic. The team that occupies Barclays Center was finalizing a blockbuster trade that will send future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from Boston to Brooklyn.
No fewer than 13 first-round picks were involved in trades. Picks were swapped and flipped and swapped again. There's nothing like the draft in the NBA, because there's nothing like the bonanza of cheap labor that comes with it -- except for the glamour teams in the glamour markets.
Just like always.
The Nets agreed on Thursday night to acquire Garnett and Pierce along with Jason Terry from the Celtics for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Reggie Evans and Keith Bogans (a free agent, in a sign-and-trade). On Friday, the deal was revised -- Marshon Brooks, not Evans, will go to Brooklyn. The Nets will send Boston first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 once the deal is approved, which can't happen until the free-agent moratorium is lifted on July 10, league sources told CBSSports.com.
Along with the 2015 first-round pick they acquired from the Clippers for coach Doc Rivers, the Celtics will have nine first-round picks in the next five drafts. Rebuilding is hard, but if you're going to do it, do it all the way. With all these picks and the flexibility that comes with dumping their aging stars and their millions in guaranteed money, the Celtics are positioned to rise again.
The Nets? They are the test case for the limits of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, which was supposed to level the playing field regardless of market size. By my math, Brooklyn's payroll after the trade will be $94.7 million, good for a whopping $56.6 million luxury tax bill. Who else could do this? Two other teams in the NBA, basically: the Lakers and Knicks.
If the Nets use their taxpayer mid-level exception -- which they most assuredly will -- their total payroll and tax will rise to $176 million next season. So a $3 millin player will cost them $15 million with the luxury tax figured in. That's almost max money allocated for a role player.
Who else could afford to dump three first-round picks -- the potential cornerstone of your team if you're in Milwaukee or Sacramento or Oklahoma City -- to take a $150 million gamble on two Hall of Famers who are combined 72 years old? Not to mention Terry, who brings the trio to a combined 107 years old?
(They'll be a combined 109 years old by the start of next season, when Pierce and Terry will both turn 36. Garnett is 37.)
The simple answer is the glamour teams in the glamour markets. They still rule the NBA, no matter what the rationale of the new CBA was two years ago.
While 25-plus teams were scrounging around in the late-first and second round for cheap labor, swapping picks like kids trade Pokemon cards and stashing players overseas to clear cap room, the Nets were loading up with bazookas.
There are still two distinct sports being played within the NBA, as Thursday night showed. The haves are playing one game, and the have-nots are playing another.
In this case, though, there are nuances. One of the haves, the Celtics, who assembled their Big Three in 2007 and capitalized with a championship, folded up their tent on draft night. They'll go back to a blueprint of smart, long-term management for a while. The pain of rebuilding never hurts as much in Boston as it does in Minnesota or Charlotte, but at least it's a temporary condition. Two-thirds of the NBA is rebuilding all the time, year after year, forever. The Celtics, at least, know they'll be back.
If the Nets were in Memphis, they could never afford a luxury tax bill greater than the committed salaries of half the teams in the league next season. If the Nets were in Indianapolis, they could never squander three future first-round picks without a second thought. In places like Indiana and Cleveland and even a big city like Toronto, you need draft picks because they're the only way to get players. Unlike in New York and LA, the free agents will never show up.
In New York and LA, the free agents always show up. It's why the Lakers aren't going to panic if Dwight Howard bolts for Houston or Dallas (big markets, by the way). If Howard leaves, the Lakers simply will stand on the knowledge that they're the Lakers and will reload in 2014, when LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are free agents.
Here's what I'll say is the most interesting litmus test when it comes to all of this: The Nets are free to spend the kind of money that at least 28 other NBA teams could only dream of, but what does it guarantee? Nothing. The Nets will be interesting, easily the most interesting story in the NBA next season. But will they be great? Will they be championship contenders?
Maybe. But maybe they'll be terrible. That's possible, in which case the bazookas they loaded up with on Thursday night will blow up in their faces.
The Celtics didn't want to pay Rivers $7 million to rebuild next season with Garnett and Pierce, and so the Nets are going to pony up $150 million to have Garnett and Pierce play with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez -- for rookie coach Jason Kidd? It has a chance to be fantastic -- a fantastic success or a fantastic failure. If it's the latter, then the Nets will have used the privileges afforded only to teams with their enormous resources to commit franchise suicide.
Look at it this way: Counting luxury tax, Garnett will cost the Nets a total of $51 million in 2013-14 -- more than 15 teams currently have committed to their payrolls next season.
It's a fun way to play the game, if you can afford it.