We could have been teammates...<sigh>... (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

You have to have certain ethical and moral lines you won’t cross to please your superiors. NBA Commissioner David Stern apparently makes up his lines as he goes along.

On Thursday, Stern (who as Commissioner is the de facto owner of the league-owned New Orleans Hornets) vetoed a trade that would have sent All-Star point guard Chris Paul from the Hornets to the Lakers in a three-team deal. Paul, who will be a free agent after this season, has made it clear that he had no intention of re-signing with the team. Rather than lose him for nothing next summer, Hornets GM Dell Demps pulled the trigger on a deal. The players and draft picks the Hornets would have received in return were universally considered above fair, especially in light of the fact that when Paul left at the end of the season they would have received nothing. Frankly, it could be argued that the Lakers gave up too much to get him.

Throughout the league’s ownership of the Hornets, Demps was assured by Stern that he had a free hand to make trades and sign free agents (obviously within financial constraints). All three teams (the Rockets being the third) involved agreed to a deal after extensive negotiations whereupon Stern vetoed it for “basketball reasons” with no further explanation. It’s been widely reported that the owners (the 29 of them technically own the Hornets) complained to Stern about the deal and pushed him to veto it. The small market owners complained that this was yet another example of a star forcing his team to trade him to a larger market.

This whining is sort of ironic because we just lost almost 20 percent of the season because the owners were unhappy with the level of player movement under the old labor system. Rather than push for real changes in the system during the lockout, the owners chose to squeeze every last dollar out of the players in exchange for not making large systemic changes, about which they are now complaining. The larger market owners’ unhappiness was due to the fact that the Lakers were now acquiring one of the top point guards in the game. Essentially they didn’t like that one of their main competitors would be made better.

At this point, you would expect Stern would put fairness and the integrity of the game first, and basically told the owners/bosses to go shove it. He should have told them that if they continued to push the issue, they could look for a new commissioner. But as we learned in the most recent labor dispute, Stern puts the owner’s needs ahead of what is best for the league.

An alternative theory is that Stern wasn’t listening to the owners as much as he was trying to artificially inflate the value of the team so that it could be sold by the end of the year. More people are going to buy tickets and watch games on TV with Chris Paul than without him. Either Stern was willing to trade his moral authority to placate the owners, or he was temporarily boosting the value of the club (by keeping Paul this year) in order to sell the team at a high price before Paul leaves. Artificially inflating the value of a property before unloading it before its value drops, sound familiar? A lot of our tax dollars were spent on Wall Street cleaning up after that way of thinking.

This is all very sad for Stern because for the first 20 years of his reign (1984-2004), he was considered one of the great sports commissioners. He turned the NBA (in partnership with Jordan/Magic/Bird, etc.) from a small time money-losing league with a bad public image into a dynamic, money-printing league with a vibrant international presence. The last seven years have seen numerous missteps though, culminating in the public relations disaster that was this year’s lockout. There were many villains in that debacle, but this latest one is entirely on Stern. He has put the value of the Hornets ahead of the public image of the league, and for that he needs to go.

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