On Thursday, southern California almost imploded.
First, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim shut down the media circuit in the free world by signing Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $250M contract (they also signed CJ Wilson to a big deal that day as well). But baseball couldn't hold all of the headlines. The Los Angeles Lakers (not of Anaheim) made a blockbuster trade that would have put superstar point guard Chris Paul running next to Kobe Bryant.
The deal would have sent Lakers forward Pau Gasol to Houston and Lamar Odom to New Orleans, and the Houston Rockets (who were really the team getting shafted in the trade) would have sent guard Kevin Martin, forward Luis Scola, back-up guard Goran Dragic and a 2012 first round draft pick to New Orleans.
When the deal reached the ears of the league's commissioner, his response to the Lakers, Rockets and Hornets was pretty simple. Not so fast, boys.
Characterizing the deal as a bad basketball decision, Stern used his ability as the current "owner" of the Hornets (the league owns the team) to kill the deal. Reports were that a number of small market owners were all over Stern because there continue to be fears all over the league that big market teams will continue stealing star players from smaller market teams, and the competitive balance in the NBA will die.
Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert spoke to that belief, saying that he didn't like a deal that would have effectively save the Lakers in the neighborhood of $20 million, landed another star player in LA and wouldn't have cost the team a draft pick. Gilbert and other small market owners stand to make money off teams like the Lakers now that there is a significant luxury tax on franchises over the salary cap, a category that includes the Lakers.
Now the three teams that were shockingly slapped in the face by Stern are hoping they can still get a deal done. Meanwhile, superstar center Dwight Howard has reportedly met with the New Jersey Nets (illegally) and will allegedly tell the Magic that he wants a trade to join Deron Williams in Brooklyn when the Nets move into their new home.
But the cloud hanging over any trade involving a superstar player is now the iron fist of Stern. Indeed, the conversation between Stern and the teams involved in the Paul trade probably is something like this:
Stern was concrete during the negotiations between the league and players' association. The owners were firm in their desire to hang the players out to dry, and many small market teams were behind the strong movement to implement a hard salary cap.
Frankly, LeBron James and Chris Bosh screwed the future of the league when they signed in Miami. They opened the flood gates for players to hold their organizations hostage if they want out, as we saw when Williams forced a trade out of Utah and Carmelo Anthony forced his way out of Denver.
Owners know now that they no longer have the power in the NBA. A selfish generation of players has almost completely destroyed any long-term chances of small market teams to win multiple championships. The move Stern needed to make was to contract the Hornets, who are hemorrhaging money right now and aren't drawing fans, before the new CBA was ratified, and probably should have sent the Toronto Raptors packing with them. There are too many teams spending (wasting) too much money for the NBA to continue down its current course.
But what Stern did here was wrong.
If he wanted to use his influence as the "owner" of the Hornets, he should have done so by giving specific instructions to "his" general manager to not trade Paul. If he has the power to block the trade, he should have used it before a trade was completed and went public.
And, frankly, he picked the wrong trade to veto... and did it on behalf of the wrong team.
In the proposed Paul trade, the Hornets are getting a fantastic return for a star player. Consider the production of the guys they're bringing back from last year:
- Odom: 82 games, 14.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists per game
- Martin: 80 games, 23.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.5 apg, 38.3% 3-pt.
- Scola: 74 games, 18.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.5 apg
- Dragic: 48 games, 7.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 2.9 apg
Also, remember they Hornets were supposed to get the first round pick from a Rockets team that finished last year three games out of the playoffs in the Western Conference last year and was giving up their top two scorers and their top rebounder.
Cliff Notes: the Hornets would have been getting a lottery pick and three solid veterans in exchange for Paul who, for all of his talent, has missed significant time in two of his six NBA seasons and has only played in as many as 80 games twice. New Orleans made the playoffs last year, but they're in need of burning it down and completely starting over (reports on Friday night are that power forward David West, their best player not named Chris Paul, will end up in Boston after a sign-and-trade). This trade rebuilds, indeed it improves, their starting five and puts them in a better position to compete for a playoff spot in 2011-12 than they would have been with Paul wearing their uniform.
The team that was getting screwed by the deal was Houston. They used their two first round picks on power forwards, Marcus Morris from Kansas and Nikola Mirotic from Spain. Unloading their two best players for Gasol would have been a redundant and inefficient trade, and throwing in their first round pick (again, likely a lottery pick in what's expected to be a very good, deep draft) would further handicap the Rockets' ability to compete.
Stern should have been thrilled that the Hornets could land as much value as they did for Paul. The only way competitive balance will exist in the selfish new NBA is if small market teams can take the big market teams for as much as they can when their superstars want out. It hurts to be forced to move superstar players, but ultimately the goal is to compete for a championship. Chris Paul wasn't going to win a title in New Orleans, and unloading him might have been their best chance.