David Stern is still bunkered down somewhere in a law firm's conference room; the only difference between now and two weeks ago is that no reporters are sending cakes from the lobby with the whole world watching. There's no chance Stern is oblivious to what is happening in his NBA, even as he and negotiators from the players' union hammer out the full collective bargaining agreement in time for free agency and training camps to begin on Friday. But his attention is surely primarily tied up in the negotiating room, not the rumor mill.
But there's a special circumstance that will require his attention once he does look up, and that special circumstance is named Chris Paul. CP3 won't sign an extension with the small market New Orleans Hornets, instead looking forward to free agency in 2012. His agent has reportedly told the Hornets that if the team decides to trade him, he's only interested in signing a new deal in July with the New York Knicks. That will really mess up the trade market for CP3.
This is a long-running problem for the NBA insomuch as the NBA repeatedly pushes the importance of competitive balance, of having 30 teams that can contend for a championship. The biggest hurdle to competitive balance in the NBA is the dearth of truly elite players. When those talents create flock to where other talents play, the talent gap among teams spreads. This is an issue Stern claimed to want to fix during the NBA lockout; the solution was apparently to put a timer on extend-and-trade deals and maintain longer contracts and higher raises for in-house stars.
Clearly, at this point, that wasn't enough.
CP3, of course, presents an additional problem for Stern, because Stern is essentially the owner of CP3's team, the Hornets. It was just over a year ago that Stern asked 29 of his owners to bail out old Hornets owner George Shinn -- one of the most contemptible owners in American pro sports -- by buying the New Orleans franchise for $300 million. Those owners complied with a unanimous vote. Then Stern made the proclamation that the league wouldn't be selling the team until the brewing labor issue was resolved, and that the NBA would be looking primarily for local ownership that would keep the Hornets in New Orleans. So attached to this commendable goal was Stern that he reportedly rejected a $350-million bid from Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who planned to move the Hornets to San Jose, Calif. (That would have involved a hefty payout to the Golden State Warriors, no doubt.) If the lockout rhetoric showed Stern to be a showman on issues of protection for small markets, the commissioner's salvation of New Orleans is the exact opposite. It's real meat.
Without Chris Paul, the Hornets are going to be awful. We know full well how hard it is to get fair value for a true superstar, and I'm not talking about Carmelo Anthony. Even if you strip CP3's specificity of market, this is a difficult trade. Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom sure as Hades aren't enough for New Orleans -- what's the point of a 32-year-old Odom on a team that will win 30 percent of its games? There isn't a player under the age of 30 on the Lakers roster worth considering an asset except Bynum, and he's so far below Paul's level as to be almost a cruel joke played on Hornets fans.
And that's one of the good offers. If Paul won't commit to a team like the Warriors or Hawks, those teams won't be giving up players like Stephen Curry or Al Horford. The Knicks have nothing. The options for New Orleans GM Dell Demps, the league-appointed president Jac Sperling and Stern himself are to accept a lower offer to send Paul to the highest bidder regardless of his preference (shooting themselves in the foot once), send Paul to his preferred team even though the offer is bottled garbage (shooting themselves in each foot once) or sucking it up, playing the season out and hoping something magical happens in southern Louisiana before CP3 leaves as a free agent in July (sawing their foot off with a butter knife).
You want another complication? The league has a labor deal, so it's time to sell the Hornets. Who is going to buy a team that already struggles financially due to a lack of population, corporate sponsors and a good arena that happens to be in the throes of being forced to sell off its prized asset at a bargain basement price? The Hornets need to resolve this on-court matter so that the off-court matters can be attended to. That means acting quickly in a trade process that would naturally take months to reach a conclusion. It's one helluva shove forward by circumstance on Demps and Sperling.
Now add in the other 29 owners, 28 of which will be steaming mad if Stern allows CP3 to be traded to the Knicks for a pittance (Frozen Envelope Part 2) and 28 of which will riot if a Stern-owned team deals another superstar to the Lakers, the league's richest team who survived the lockout relatively unscathed and has missed the playoffs all of four times in 51 years since moving to L.A. Seriously, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was pissed at the trade deadline because the Hornets took on something like $750,000 in extra salary in a Carl Landry-Marcus Thornton swap, presumably because picking up Landry made New Orleans more formidable in the playoffs, where the teams might have met. Cuban was getting twisted up over Carl Landry. What's he going to say if the Hornets pawn off Chris F. Paul to the hated Lakers for a bargain price? He will not be pleased, and neither will any other Western contender or hopeful.
Finally, we have the small markets. Early in lockout talks, the league caved on the hard salary cap. The league caved on its threat to move below a 50-50 revenue split. The league caved on its harshest transaction restrictions for luxury tax teams. The league still doesn't have a final revenue sharing plan in place. The small markets lost all of those concessions just so that the NBA could return to business. And as soon as the NBA return to business, it's business as usual, with a small-market club being cajoled into trading its best player, its raison d'etre for the past six seasons. And not only will it be business as usual, but it will be David Stern, the man who caved on all of those deal points that the small-market owners so desperately wanted, signing off on the deal.
We lost 16 games, all of November, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. And it's the same damn NBA, where the small markets remain the league's picked-on little brothers. Good luck spinning this one, Commish.
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