As the Chris Paul trade saga continues to wear on -- the L.A. Clippers are back in pole position, after having dropped out of the race roughly 47 times on Sunday and Monday -- there's been a push by fans to insist that CP3 is no victim in this messy, eye-opening procedure. The only fans who seem to be indicating otherwise are those who note that this is a messy, eye-opening procedure, one made cringe-worthy by the NBA's role in dictating the terms of where one of its top-5 players will go.
A year ago, David Stern said that he would not loom over basketball decisions made by New Orleans Hornets GM Dell Demps, team president Hugh Weber and appointed chairman Jac Sperling. This was the right decision, given that Stern answers not to the fans of the Hornets or the future owners of the Hornets but to the other 29 owners, not one of whom gives a floating fig whether the Hornets are thrust into purgatory for the next decade, and whose only concern with regards to the Hornets is that they do not require further investment from the league during the NBA's ownership of the franchise and that Stern turns a profit on the sale of the team.
NBA owners have varying goals. Winning is typically high on the list. There's no question that Demps and Weber want the Hornets to win, now and later. Sperling could very well feel empathetic with the franchise, as well. But the men who Stern answers to could care less if the Hornets win now or later: it's all about setting the franchise for a sale in excess of $300 million (which sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud, given the prices tagged to the Charlotte Bobcats, Philadelphia 76ers and nearly the Atlanta Hawks).
Given the purpose of the Hornets right now according to its owners, can you blame Chris Paul for wanting to be elsewhere?
Even if the franchise were a model of stability, the basic right of free agency -- of determining where you work -- should give CP3 the all-clear on making his intentions known. It's sad that we're still bitching about players choosing their homes almost 40 years after Oscar Robertson vs. the NBA ended the option clause. The NBA has built an incentive to entice players to stay with their incumbent teams. It tends to work on players' second contracts, the ones most stars sign after their third year in the NBA. It has been less successful on those third contracts, signed after the seventh or eighth year.
As the core of this problem is the NBA's maximum salary regime. For stars, there is very little negotiation when it comes to salary. The best players are typically underpaid, which means that all teams can justify offering the max, which puts all teams -- the capped-out New York Knicks, the wide-open Indiana Pacers, the incumbent New Orleans Hornets -- on a level playing field. The Bird rights incentive affects two things: the annual raise a player can receive and an extra year on the end of the contract.
For these superstar players, the extra year doesn't matter a lick. Come on, most of them take shorter second contracts to reach free agency more quickly! You aren't making Chris Paul give up $20 million if he chooses to re-sign elsewhere -- you're just not guaranteeing he makes all of $20 million in Year 5 of the deal. He probably will anyway, because he is a highly desired player in his prime. The difference in annual raises doesn't amount to much, just a couple million dollars over the life of a deal.
That reality has made free agency -- freedom to choose -- more attractive, which is why, again, some superstars (Paul included, and also LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) sign shorter second contracts. That's what these superstar trade requests are all about: the use of free agency as leverage. It obviously helps the incumbent team, too; look at the Denver Nuggets, who got something for Carmelo Anthony, vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were crushed by LeBron's free agent flight. Fans certainly want the best players to stay home. But if the star is going to leave anyway, you'd prefer he make that clear in advance of free agency. There's no sense in cutting off your leg to spite your box turtle.
So this is where we are with CP3: the NBA has created a system in which there is little real incentive to remain in a difficult situation when other teams have cap space, a superstar earns leverage by spending six seasons under contracts that pay him far below market value, the star uses that leverage to attempt to have a say in where he'll play the seventh season with the understanding that it will have an impact on where he plays in future seasons. But in New Orleans, as opposed to other NBA cities, the owners of the franchise are making decisions not based on the long-term outlook of the team, which serves fans and players alike, but the quickest way to make this franchise worth more than $300 million, which serves the interests of the 29 NBA owners and the commissioner only.
No one would argue that it sucks for New Orleans to lose Chris Paul. But the NBA is unable to find a way to convince stars to stay home longer than seven or eight years, in part due to the max salary structure. That's life. This is the NBA right now. The sooner upset fans come to terms with that and decide whether the league is worth following in the future, the better off they'll be. Blaming the player for making sure his interests are represented in this messy proceeding won't help a thing.
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