NBA commissioner David Stern's decision to veto the L.A. Lakers' blockbuster trade for Chris Paul is not that surprising once you get past the ugly precedent it sets, the massive P.R. wound for the league it represents and the incredible unfairness embedded within. Look at the basics laid bare:
- Stern desperately wants his league to be more balanced competitively, which means the worst teams need to be better and the best teams need to be worse.
- The CP3 trade would likely have downgraded the financially challenged New Orleans Hornets while improving the fortune of the filthy rich Lakers. (This is in some dispute; I hold that the superstar trumps all, even though New Orleans negotiated a good package.)
- Stern has been harping on competitive balance for weeks, but has to know deep down that nothing in the NBA lockout deal approve Thursday actually improves parity. It's like fighting a tornado with a machete.
- Stopping the CP3 trade by hook or crook is the easiest path to preserving a sense of competitive balance in the Paul trade game, insomuch as the rich don't get richer.
- The NBA owns the Hornets, and Stern runs the league, so if Stern doesn't want the Hornets to make this trade, he has the stature (and likely the legal authority) to stop it.
So that's what he did. Assuming the Lakers would be better off with CP3, Stern accomplished in one phone call what the league has struggled to make headway on for years to no avail: he preserved a slice of competitive balance.
Now come the repercussions.
Stern almost assuredly has the wide support of his owners, who have proven over the past six months to be solipsistic little monsters, with internal fights over revenue sharing and transaction restrictions on teams with the highest payrolls causing multiple delays in the lockout talks. The cabal of small-market owners (once reportedly led by Michael Jordan and Paul Allen, with renewed villain Dan Gilbert assumed to be enjoined) pushed and prodded Stern to be more Draconian, to turn the screws when the players didn't cave as the season began to crumble. Five of these jokers voted against the lockout deal, one which saved owners some $3 billion in future salary and created a heavily graduated luxury tax system.
Gilbert, the angry little man who owns the Cleveland Cavaliers, fired off a letter to the commissioner on Thursday complaining about the CP3 trade. The hilarious thing is that the trade doesn't mean jack Schintzus to Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland Cavaliers. What, are the Cavs now in the mix for CP3 via trade or free agency? Please. Are the Cavs on the cusp of competing against the Lakers for an NBA championship? Not unless that dude has been working on a time machine and a way to put LeBron James under hynopsis. This deal doesn't mean a damn thing to Gilbert, except that in the long run it probably boosts the Lakers' luxury tax bill, of which Gilbert would take a cut.
So why is Gilbert acting as if his opinion matters? Why does his opinion matter? Why should any of the 29 owners have any role in the operations of the Hornets? Buying a 1/29th share of a business, last I checked, doesn't give you a whole lot of sway in board meetings. I don't know a lot of folks who hold 3.4 percent of a company's stock and legitimately expect a voice at the table. Last November when Stern decided to bail out Hornets' owner George Shinn, the owners voted to buy the franchise and give Stern authority to run it. And when Stern took that authority, he made perfectly clear who would be calling the shots: not him.
Here's a transcript from Stern's December 6, 2010, media call discussing the Hornets' arrangement in response to a question about who will approve the team's proposed trades and free agent signings. You can hear the quotes for yourself at the Hornets' website. (Scroll down to the December 6 file.)
Take it away, 2010 Stern:
"As far as we're concerned there have been while this process has been going on, there have been two significant transactions. And our response to both of them was, 'You guys are management, you understand your budget and your instructions, just go ahead, because we've got Jac Sperling, Hugh Weber here, and if they recommend it, then we're going to be approving it.'"
Unless, you know, Dan Gilbert and his pack of wolves have a problem with it.
Just so we're clear, here's 2011 Stern's position on the league office's role in the management of the New Orleans Hornets:
[NBA spokesman Tim] Frank: "... League office declined to make the trade for basketball reasons."
Never mind that every GM anonymously quoted in the aftermath says the Hornets did better in that deal than anyone had expected. Never mind that some observers are even questioning if the Lakers might have ended up worse if they couldn't have followed up with an Andrew Bynum-Dwight Howard trade. Just the very idea that Stern reneged on his commitment to allow the Hornets' management to run the Hornets is dirty enough. "If they recommend it, then we're going to be approving it." So much for that.
This is disgusting jealousy from a set of NBA owners toward Lakers owner Jerry Buss, and it's sickening that players are (again!) used as pawns in one of the league's internal wank-offs. Gilbert and the small-market cabal already extracted $50 million in new revenue sharing from Buss ... and now they have blocked his 2011 coup de grace. Never mind that the Lakers' financial advantage has very little to do with the proposed Paul trade; L.A. has amassed great players on largely fair contracts. Sure, Buss' massive revenue streams probably helped keep Lamar Odom when the forward reached free agency, but he did reach free agency. Other teams had a chance to keep him away from the Lakers. L.A. traded for both Odom and Pau Gasol in previous years. This is a well-built team, not one purchased on the open market.
But it's a great team, and the Lakers are always great. (Seriously: 51 years in L.A., four seasons in which the Lakers missed the playoffs.) As a fan of a rival team, that makes me mad. It makes me want to scream. But I understand that the Lakers have been able to have that success because Buss has run the business side like a master, and that he always has a top-flight general manager at the helm. The Lakers don't win because they make money: they make money because they win.
Instead of working to become legit challengers to the Lakers over the course of generations -- which is what it takes, a long-term commitment to being smart, which some teams obviously struggle with -- these owners would rather execute a jock-block for the ages to extract another pound of flesh from the league's most successful, wealthy franchise. All the while, David Stern enables it by changing league policy with the wind, extending his micromanaging tendencies to wildly impactful basketball trades and treating players like hogs at the market. Stern's either an overbearing dictator who demands the control the narrative (a neo-Vince McMahon) or he's the zookeeper who has lifted all of the gates and let chaos reign before him. Neither one is a good look, and the league is much worse off than it would have been had the Lakers landed CP3.
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