In an effort to justify a nearly five-month lockout that threatened to do irrevocable damage to the NBA, Commissioner David Stern actually did more damage to his league with a condescending and unnecessarily paternal effort to protect the New Orleans Hornets.
By vetoing the proposed three-team deal that would’ve sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers, Stern proved that the labor fight wasn’t about basketball-related income or competitive balance: The owners want control. But if anything has been proven over the past two years – as LeBron James made his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami and Carmelo Anthony strong-armed Denver to deal him to New York – they have already lost it.
Paul, arguably one of the five best players in the league, is using his leverage as a potential free agent next summer to go to his desired location. Dwight Howard is using the same strategy to leave small-market Orlando. Loyalty and commitment to one franchise is admirable, but not a requirement, they shouldn’t be obligated to stay in those cities indefinitely, or until they are washed up, out of their primes and the team no longer wants them.
The NBA is a players’ league and despite the league establishing a system that places a maximum salary on star players — essentially making its superstars the most underpaid in professional sports — it is impossible to legislate where they will play. New York and Los Angeles will always be attractive destinations, no matter how much cap room a team like Minnesota or Sacramento possesses, players have and always will continue to gravitate to teams in big markets. Ever hear of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? This isn’t new.
Stern and the 29 NBA owners jumped into a precarious position the moment they seized the Hornets from bumbling former owner George Shinn, because they had to know of Paul’s pending free agency next summer. The league wants to sell the team but potential buyers weren’t lining up to purchase the Hornets with Paul, and would acquire the team knowing that its best asset will be gone between now and next summer.
The owners wisely compromised with the players in order to salvage a 66-game season, but they agreed to a system that allowed Paul to make this move (no franchise tag was created to allow teams to hold on to their stars). To turn around and quash a deal that was within the rules, within hours of ratifying the new collective bargaining agreement, because it might’ve strengthened the Lakers appears petty and spiteful.
But the NBA was left with no choice, unfortunately, after it continually promoted the desire to give small-market teams equal footing to compete with big-market teams. Paul, a member of the players’ union executive committee, was perhaps at fault for not letting the ink dry on the new deal before he made his intentions known.
Using the excuse that the trade was forbidden for “basketball reasons” is disingenuous and also completely undermines Hornets General Manager Dell Demps’s ability to run the team. Demps didn’t acquire a potential superstar in return, but pulled off a respectable haul – three borderline all-star talents in Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Lamar Odom, a decent point guard in Goran Dragic, and a first-round draft pick.
Fantasy basketball owners certainly would’ve balked, but New Orleans wasn’t going to get equal value for Paul. Now, with little negotiating leverage, the Hornets may have to settle for a less-appealing trade — or watch Paul bolt to sign with the team of his choice next summer.
Forcing a disgruntled superstar to stay doesn’t make the league healthier or more competitive. It merely satiates a small minority of owners on a vindictive pursuit to flex its power. But the embarrassing trade ban raises questions about the credibility of a league that is now dictating what is deemed as appropriate player movement. Hard to imagine that Paul would’ve been prohibited from going to Charlotte.