NEW ORLEANS LA - DECEMBER 22: Chris Paul #3 of the New Orleans Hornets smiles as he walks off the court during the game against the New Jersey Nets at the New Orleans Arena on December 22 2010 in New Orleans Louisiana. The Hornets defeated the Nets 105-91. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and or using this photograph User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
The Chris Paul-to-L.A. trade veto by David Stern shows that now more than ever all the power still belongs to the NBA's superstars despite the league and owners' best efforts to take it back during the lockout.
Give this to the NBA's owners: they were smart enough to know the Chris Paul trade made its face-spiting lockout look useless. Of course, they were too silly to keep quiet about it, kicked and screamed until an emboldened David Stern killed a three-way trade so exciting that it seems like Albert Pujols signed with the Angels two weeks ago.
It was the most foolish thing Stern's done in 27 years on the job. Instead of protecting the integrity of a work stoppage that has deprived America of Shaq's debut on Inside the NBA, the owners have shone a light on their own weakness.
No matter how hard they try to protecting themselves from being left at the mercy of the next LeBron James, the best NBA players hold power the owners could only break by shutting down the league. As a result, the NBA is more embarrassed than its been since the Malice at the Palace. Everyone involved looks petty, amateur, weak or worse, except Paul.
Try as the owners did to fight it, it's clearer than ever: players run this league, and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it.
After this season, Chris Paul will play where he wants, and that's not New Orleans. If the Hornets keep him through the season, he'll walk at the end. Same result if he's traded to a team he doesn't like. If the right team - as defined by Paul -- swings a deal, he will sign a contract extension. So the Hornets must not only trade Paul, but send him to a place of his choosing. They'll never get equal value for him, but any trade now is better than the bupkis he'll yield after the season. He's the boss.
On a team with no owner, run by a commissioner who looks much like Pete Rozelle after the Raiders moved, CP3 holds the most important card: himself. And unlike Carmelo Anthony, who had just one place he wanted to play, Paul was more flexible. Since the Hornets are nowhere near a championship, providing no incentive to stick it out in a city he loves, CP3 has every bit as much leverage today as LeBron had after the 2010 playoffs.
Such is the life of an elite basketball player (hell, being 6'10" is almost enough to work forever). Their impacts on the court and at the box office are too enticing to pass up. To lose one, especially for a team like the Hornets, is to start over. Getting one can alter a franchise's trajectory for a decade. And if he has even an inkling of what he can do for an owner and team, a star player in the NBA has unparalleled power, control over his career and destiny unlike any other athletes in team sports.
And if there's anything Chris Paul, high school class of 2003, and his generation of basketball players understands, it's just how important they are to everyone in their worlds. There is no convincing them otherwise.
Nor should there be.
This generation of basketball players, who grew up surrounded by adults with angles, is more aware of its power than any other. They've walked out of AAU practices to see their coaches drive fancy cars, even though these men sometimes don't have day jobs. They've seen those same coaches turn their relationships with players into six-figure coaching jobs. They were bombarded by agents and figures from shoe companies, all of whom are there to profit off the players' talents, before they stopped growing.
And they know that those people have been around them for one reason: a great, entertaining basketball player can be that important. Too important to let pass if the opportunity is there to acquire him, and worth too much to let get away without receiving something in return.
This isn't football, where teams hold the power over a labor force desperate to cash in before its bodies break down. NBA teams do not receive compensatory picks as free agency consolation prizes. When their stars decide to leave, all that's left is a hole. These are things no lockout could change without instituting a reserve clause.
This trade's kaput for now. But no matter what, Chris Paul is going to get his wish. The only thing anyone else got was screwed.
Charles Pierce had it right: this lockout, like all lockouts, had more to do with power than money. For proof, look no further than the jilted Dan Gilbert, who personally wrote an e-mail to David Stern asking him to block the trade. He became one of the louder spokesmen for the lockout, a hawk willing to miss seasons -- with an "-s" -- to change "the system" and shift money and power back to the owners. It was his cabal of owners who tried to do whatever it could to make it nearly impossible for stars to cash in by leaving the teams who drafted them. There would be no more kissing some 25-year-old's ass to get him to stick around and make the owner more money, and there would be little need for discussion. Never again would Gilbert, or anyone else, give so much power to someone who cashes his checks.
Rarely is power given. It is almost always taken. But after a stalemate that will delay the NBA season for two months, with their wealth of experience in business and negotiating, league's attempts to keep its stars in line are more impotent than ever.
That says a lot. Even Melo, who foolishly signed a contract extension which expired after the 2011 CBA and badly tipped his hand when escaping Denver, wound up where he wanted. We're talking about some powerful impotence.
The best the league could come with publicly to explain the trade being nixed was "basketball reasons." When that's all someone can come up with, it's not to fool you. It's just time to change the subject.
This is an impressive package for a star player with red flags -- on his knees, no less -- demanding a trade. Somehow, Hornets general manager Dell Demps managed to piece together a haul with a quality big man (Luis Scola), one of the most versatile frontcourt players in the league (Lamar Odom), a bona fide scorer (Kevin Martin), some Slovenian swagger (Goran Dragic) and a draft pick.
What don't the owners want to talk about? The fact that they now know, more clearly than the ever, that the cream of the crop will do what it wants because it can. All the CBA could do to restrict their movement was limit what they can earn. But if the Big 3 in Miami each passed up millions to play together, and if Paul is willing to pass on more than $20 million (and an extra year, which is crucial to a man with bad knees) to choose his destination, what can the owners do?
What they couldn't do: sit and watch as a small-market hero went to a franchise which -- including this near-miss -- made at least one league-altering personnel move each of the last six decades. This was exactly what the league promised wouldn't happen, another stacked roster in a glamorous city.
Yet, right after the new CBA could take effect, it looks like it should be printed on two-ply paper. All the owners' rhetoric about ensuring competitive balance was flushed down the drain, thrown in by obvious fan excitement for another superstar - maybe Dwight Howard later? - joining the Los Angeles Lakers. The NBA swore on a stack fans wanted "parity." Searching @NBA's mentions tells a more balanced story.
But the NBA can't do anything about competition among owners. Small-market executives can't turn down calls from the 310 and 212 area codes for players they have no chance at keeping. Not when enough players are willing to turn down ten figures.
It took until its conclusion to fully decide, but we know who won the lockout: no one. If Stern and the owners thought they'd take the power back, it was lost before it started.