Chris Paul-To-Knicks Rumors, And How The NBA Created A Monster

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15: Carmelo Anthony (L) and Chris Paul watch a game between the Duke Blue Devils and Michigan State Spartans during the 2011 State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

If Chris Paul demanded a trade to the Knicks, it's only because the NBA's new rules encouraged him to. And after a NBA lockout dedicated to "competitive balance", suddenly we've reached a moment of truth.

This was Chris Paul on Tuesday, talking about a fresh batch of trade rumors that had him going from the Hornets to the Knicks. "I try not to pay attention to all that stuff," he said. "My heart is in New Orleans."

On Wednesday, according to report from Yahoo! Sports, Chris Paul's agent informed the Hornets front office that he won't stay in New Orleans past this season, and that he'd like to be traded to the New York Knicks as soon as possible. And at least until Dwight Howard quietly demands a trade to L.A., that disconnect between Paul on Tuesday and his agent on Wednesday makes CP3 the new face of superstars run amok in the NBA. 

He's now What's Wrong In The NBA. The superduperstar with no loyalty and no honor who's willing to go off and hijack his team's season for his own selfish demands, etc.

People hate this stuff with good reason; it's not fun to listen to non-stop trade rumors for a whole year. It's not fair to the fans in that player's city, but for the rest of us, it turns NBA news into a neverending stream "Sources" and "Reports" and reports countering the earlier reports, and on and on and on.

Thursday, Chris Paul offered the ying to Yahoo's yang, offering another denial of the trade rumors. And the cycle continues... This stuff is just the worst.

But before you go off and blame CP3 for being the no-good, horrible backstabber behind all this, let's be clear: If he'd said Tuesday what his agent said Wednesday, he'd have been fined heavily by the NBA. That's why he offered another denial on Thursday. It's against the rules for players to openly request trades, so in this case, Chris Paul's just playing by the NBA's rules. And that's really the theme to this story, in general.

The new NBA rules force superstars into demanding trades and engineering these months-long soap operas. Here's how, in general terms:

  1. To promote "SUPERSTAR X" from leaving "HOME TEAM" in free agency, the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement allows HOME TEAM to offer SUPERSTAR X more money, and a longer contract. 
  2. For instance, if SUPERSTAR X signs with EVIL TEAM, the most he could get would be $74 million over four years. If he stays with HOME TEAM, he could get $100 million over five years and HOME TEAM can exceed the salary cap to keep him. 

In theory this gives superstars financial incentive to stay with their original teams. 

But if franchise players do want to leave their teams, then this model gives leaves them with an obvious choice. Sacrifice $26 million and an extra year at max salary in exchange for the freedom to play where they want, OR tell their current team that they're definitely leaving, and force that team to choose between trading them now, or risk losing them for nothing.

SUPERSTAR X can also dictate where he's traded--by committing to a long-term deal with only certain teams. Or maybe only one team. This limits the options for the team trying to trade him.

Then, if SUPERSTAR X gets traded to the team he wants--say, the Knicks--then New York become that player's HOME TEAM in the model above, and they can offer the maximum amount of money and years, and go over the salary cap to do it. The "sign-and-trade" has become the "trade-and-sign", the only way a superstar can still go to the team of his choice and maximizes his market value at the same time.

In other words, if you want to blame guys like Chris Paul and Dwight Howard for thinking about trades before the season even begins, then you're arguing against players having the ability to choose where they want to play and make as much as money as they can.

The last time that logic was considered legitimate was 1975--when there was no three-pointer, a battle over integrated busing was erupting in Boston, and David Stern was a 33 year-old lawyer at a firm called Proskauer Rose ... where he worked as the lead litigator opposing Oscar Robertson's lawsuit fighting for NBA players' rights to become free agents.

And Stern's role in 2011 is where these Chris Paul rumors get interesting.

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There are few wrinkles to consider here.

  1. One of the biggest forces driving the NBA lockout--a public relations disaster on its own--was owners' unhappiness with the amount of leverage star players hold over their teams. Because in 2011, losing one superstar can kill a franchise's overall value in a market. This led to the league's desire to limit superstar movement.
  2. Nobody understands this better than David Stern, who believed it made sense to miss two months' worth of the 2011 season to seek a new a system. Basically, the NBA wanted to avoid situations where superstars hijack entire markets with sign-and-trade demands. Now, the new CBA hasn't even taken effect, and the NBA's new rules have already been exposed as a failure...
  3. ...And it's all being exposed in New Orleans--not just another small market team, but a small market team the NBA currently owns, whose market value could rise or fall dramatically based on what happens to Chris Paul. 
  4. If the Hornets don't trade Paul and lose him for nothing next summer, they'll probably lose David West, too, and sending them tumbling to bottom of the league.
  5. If the Hornets do trade Paul, they'll get no more than 50 cents on the dollar, and a team David Stern owns will have just proved the NBA lockout's most ambitious goal--leveling the playing field for small markets--was a complete and utter failure.

None of this is to say that Chris Paul's definitely going to the Knicks. Personally, I hope CP3 softens his stance, just because I think Chris Paul playing with Blake Griffin in L.A. would be the greatest gift the Basketball God's have given us since the 2011 NBA Finals. 

But if he doesn't, then there's a pretty epic game of chicken shaping up here. If Paul refuses to commit to any team but New York--a team that doesn't have much to offer in a trade--the Hornets could always just refuse to trade him and force Paul to sign there as a free agent.

If he's not traded to the Knicks, then New York can't offer him the 5-year $100 million deal, and even worse, they can't go over the salary cap to sign him. Because of the salaries they already have with Carmelo and Amare, the most they could offer would be $58 million over four years. In other words, Chris Paul would have to take a $42 million paycut to play in New York.

On the other hand, if Paul leaves as a free agent anyway, the Hornets get nothing in return. Who knows how much that'd hurt the value of the franchise the NBA's currently trying to sell, but it'd be much worse than $42 million. So if Paul doesn't blink soon, New Orleans might have to.

It's not necessarily a bad thing, either. Chris Paul in New York or L.A. would be a kickass story for one of the league's most under-appreciated superstars, and it'd generate insane amounts of interest in the NBA as a whole, if not New Orleans. (BTW: Replace "Chris Paul" with "Dwight Howard" and "New Orleans" with "Orlando" and that sentence still holds up.)

Star-divide

The problem with the NBA's new rules is that they ignore the reality that inspired them--the prospect of losing a superstar in today's NBA costs more to the team than it would to a superstar, even if he's sacrificing money. You can't change that unless you A) stop marketing superstars to limit their influence in the NBA or B) reinstitute the logic of 1975.

Make no mistake, that's what David Stern and the owners wanted to do with the NBA lockout. They couldn't quite get there without missing a season, so Stern relented at the eleventh hour. Now what we have is a rule that amounts to putting a piece of gum over a faucet and expecting it to stop running. The problem isn't the faucet, it's the running water. It's nature.

You can't stop the free market unless you shut it down entirely. Otherwise, the asset (SUPERSTAR X) is always going to have the leverage. Maybe CP3 isn't the beginning of a hundred different superstars exploiting this, because not every superstar is going to demand to play with his friends. At this point the NBA should just concede that all of CAA's clients--Paul, LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Melo, etc--are going to form superteams, and pray that the next generation decides to forge a path of their own. Kevin Durant isn't going to demand to play with Blake Griffin one day. (Um... Right?)

But speaking of following a path, earlier this week, Ken Berger at CBS Sports outlined Paul's chances of going to the Knicks superteam with the following: "In a cruel twist, the very path that he's trying to follow has been largely cut off because of the backlash against those who paved it."

That's true if you're talking free agency or a sign-and-trade, but not a trade that lets him sign later. Chris Paul's just taking the path in a new a direction. And if it's "cruel twists" you want...

  1. The commissioner who began his career opposing player movement is finishing out his career fighting the same losing battle. He plugs one loophole and creates another, still helpless the flow of the free market.  
  2. The owners who wanted to discourage superstars movement used the NBA Lockout to forge a system that essentially encourages departing stars to demand trades before their contracts end.
  3. The league that spent six months of press conferences talking about the importance of small markets now owns the small market franchise that's about to hand a "superteam" to either Los Angeles or New York City. 

The Chris Paul situation is a perfect storm of the NBA's conflicted interests, transparent inequity, and fool's logic, all wrapped in a rumor that will dominate the news all year long until it happens. Then it can happen all over again if/when a new "SUPERSTAR X" decides he wants a new team, but doesn't want to sacrifice $26 million to get there. The blueprint's already clear.

It's all kind of incredible. We always knew "competitive balance" was just a pipe dream, but after Stern and the owners used it to justify the NBA lockout... Man, Chris Paul is their worst nightmare.

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