It’s hard to imagine anything more boring to most sports fans than a work stoppage of any kind, and this year’s NFL and NBA lockouts were no exception. The difference: When the NFL and its players reached an agreement, deals were reached, players trickled in to a camp and the professional football world quickly returned to business as usual.
Which brings us to the NBA, which has not returned to business as usual. On the contrary, the ongoing Chris Paul saga has become more tedious than the lockout. At least during the lockout the union and the commissioner exchanged some decent threats and from one day to the next you couldn’t tell if there would be a season, or if the season would start the next day.
Well, it’ll start Christmas Day, but the season’s biggest block may already have come last week when Commissioner David Stern vetoed a trade that would have sent the Hornets guard to the Lakers for Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Lamar Odom, with Laker Pau Gasol going to the Rockets.
Because this is 2011, all the involved parties thought they were on the move before Stern put his foot down. Odom was sent to the Mavericks instead, and the Lakers’ plans to land Dwight Howard with their cleared cap space was put on hold.
Why was Stern so interested in this trade? Because the league owns the Hornets, of course, a situation that has gone from uncomfortable to untenable. Because it’s clear that every owner in the league wants a say in running the Hornets – hello, Dan Gilbert! – and it’s clear that Stern is going to make decisions about the Hornets based on his ability to sell the franchise. That’s a fine concern, but the commissioner should concern himself with all the franchises, not just the ones in financial trouble, and not just the small-market ones tugging on his jacket and making whining noises.
That would be Gilbert, who sent an e-mail to Stern after news of the proposed Lakers-Hornets trade came out. In it, Gilbert called the deal “a travesty” and said the trade should “go to a vote of the 29 owners of the Hornets.” Gilbert was clearly angry that the Lakers would have the money to sign Howard; I wonder if he was thinking of another high-priced free agent who wanted to join a different team?
So the Hornets – or rather, their league representatives – turned to the Clippers, but the league’s asking price was apparently too high. The NBA wants the Clippers’ top five available trade assets for Paul. The Clippers, with cold feet over the high price tag, acquired always-reliable Chauncey Billups on Monday. One assumes they’d like to develop some of their young talent to surround Blake Griffin, especially since they would only be guaranteed to have Paul for two seasons.
Meanwhile, with the season less than two weeks away, Paul dangles. The Hornets’ front office has no power in negotiations; the league is handling trade talks. The league clearly intends to get everything it can for Paul – or leave him right where he is, which would probably be its preference. And what Paul wants really doesn’t matter in the greater scheme of things.
Stern may look back with regret at the Lakers deal he shot down – and there are reports Wednesday that the Lakers may be back in the hunt, if they can find a third team to enter the fray with them. It’s doubtful Stern would exercise his veto power again, and he shouldn’t.
Love ’em or hate ’em – and most people fall on one side or the other – when the Lakers are good, the league is successful. Right now, they’re not. In a lockout season, the success of the league’s marquee franchises may matter more than ever. Stern can talk all he wants about the small-market teams, but here are the 10 – 10! – teams playing on Christmas Day: Oklahoma City, Orlando, L.A. Clippers, Golden State, Boston, New York, Miami, Dallas, Chicago and, of course, the L.A. Lakers.
Finding a buyer for the Hornets is important, and the Lakers don’t need Stern’s help in building a winning team. But they also don’t need him to deliberately undercut their efforts before the lockout-shortened season even gets underway. With his veto, that’s exactly what he did.