There's a great new drama running on Starz this fall called "Boss". Maybe you've seen it. Kelsey Grammer--the guy who played the character of Frasier Crane for about 48 years--stars as the Mayor of Chicago. Or more accurately, he's a specific kind of mayor, a Big Bill Thompson set in a modern context with a little Daley family sprinkled in for effect. Grammer's character, Tom Kane, has been the boss for so long that he's at the point where all he cares about is keeping his job. He has completely lost touch with what his job actually is. He's drunk with power--a description that has been recently whispered about David Stern--and believes that his iron fist trumps all. During a crisis of the sort that politicians dread, a Kane underling pleads with him to consider the PR aspects of the situation, to give some sort of answer to his constituency. Kane's response? "F#%& them."
Has Stern reached a Tom Kane stage of his career? It sure as heck seems so. His decision to pull the plug on the Chris Paul megaswap has the potential to be disastrous for the league as a whole and for one franchise in particular. And it couldn't have come at a worse time. Perhaps as reported, Stern was merely acting on the behest of his aldermen--the league's 29 ownership groups--but let's face it, in the NBA all bucks stop with Stern, and that statement has nothing to do with Jon McGlocklin.
Let's spell out exactly how this situation looks to fans of the NBA who, I might add, have generally responded to the end of the lockout with jubilation rather than what would have been an understandable dose of resentment:
- The league locks out its players for five months, depriving its fans base of basketball and related activities, wiping out paychecks for hand-to-mouth workers that depend on the league for their living and putting poor authors who write NBA annuals in a bind during the holiday season. The league does this, it contends, because it is essential that fans in every NBA city be imbued with the hope that their franchise can compete for the NBA title. The biggest part of this is to install a system that ensures that a franchise can retain its biggest star, when it is so fortunate to have acquired one.
- Five months into the stalemate, an agreement is reached. The players agree to slash the percentage of revenue that will be distributed to them. The owners also are able to institute a more harsh luxury tax system and other system tweaks that they declare will give hope to small-market teams throughout the league. Whatevs ... the lockout is over.
- The day before training camps open and free agency begins, the owners and players vote to ratify the new CBA. NBA TV televises a press conference to announce that the deal has passed. Stern says, "This is going to be a more competitive league over time. While it's not perfect, the deal addresses significant issues on both sides in a very productive way, we believe. We think it's a very good deal, and it's going to withstand the test of time."
- At the very moment Stern is making his comments, New Orleans general manager Dell Demps--who works for the league, which oversees the Hornets in a receivership arrangement--has finalized a trade to send the best player in franchise history to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers are the richest team in the NBA. Another story that circulated on Thursday was that in terms of Facebook 'Likes' the Lakers have become by far the most popular team in American sports.
- News of the Paul trade hits the news wires and Twitter. It's not official and can't be made official until Friday, but even the Associated Press is reporting it as a done deal. The various players involved are Tweeting farewells to their former fans. Sure, there are wry comments floating around on Twitter, making light of the fact that one of the league's top players was heading from one of the league's struggling markets to its most prosperous. Few missed the irony in the timing. Most, however, chose excitement about the news and began the process of debating the various facets of the trade.
- About an hour later, the bomb drops: Stern has killed the deal. The Lakers are simply told, "No." They are given no alternative scenarios in which a deal might be allowed to go through. It's just dead.
The details are ugly. An email from tempestuous Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was leaked to Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski. Gilbert called the trade a "travesty." He did not address any kind of inequity of talent. He merely pointed out that the Lakers would not only be getting the best player in the deal, but they'd also be saving money in both salary and luxury tax. Of the latter, some of that would have ended up in Gilbert's coffers. Wojnarowski reported that Demps was so upset that he wanted to resign. He was talked out of it.
Some have speculated that Stern killed the deal because of appearances. It doesn't look good for Paul to go to the Lakers, not now, not when the perception of hope is being peddled to the small markets. Others feel that Stern has grown weary of players dictating where they want to play. Damn their freedom of movement. Either way, it's a complete mess.
Paul has made it clear to Demps that he's going to be moving on one way or another. He'll be a free agent after this season and will have the right to do go where he chooses, though some of his choices are considerably less appealing than others. That being the case, Demps had to shop his point guard around a league full of teams that knew he was over a barrel. Demps had to move Paul and his only leverage was to play interested parties off each other.
Despite the difficult circumstances, Demps put together a whopper of a deal. As reported, he had dealt Paul to the Lakers. New Orleans would have gotten back L.A.'s Lamar Odom plus Houston's Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic. The Knicks' next first-round pick would have been heading to New Orleans as well. The Hornets could have rolled out a lineup of Dragic, Martin, Emeka Okafor, Odom and Trevor Ariza. That's a playoff team if healthy, and there were draft picks around which to build in the future.
The Lakers would have taken on Paul with no implicit guarantee that he would remain with them beyond this season. Sure, you'd like their chances, but Paul wasn't having any part of the newer restrictions on extend-and-trade deals. He can get more years and more money by becoming a free agent. It's the new system working its wonders. The Lakers get Paul, but also take on a fair amount of risk. And not only because of his impending free agency--he's got looming knee problems that could grow worse with time. Think Brandon Roy.
On top of that, it's entirely possible that the trade wouldn't have helped the Lakers on the court this year at all. L.A. was to surrender Pau Gasol to Houston in the trade, leaving them with a frontline anchored by Andrew Bynum, a talented center who has serious problems staying healthy. The Lakers would be scrambling to find a starting power forward and relying on Ron Artest (I am still calling him that) way more than they should.
Meanwhile, new coach Mike Brown would be trying to figure out how a Paul-Kobe Bryant backcourt works. Bryant has never had to play full time alongside an actual point guard. Phil Jackson's triangle offense is no more--Bryant would be playing off a point guard that dominates the ball and excels in pick-and-roll basketball. The players are talented enough to figure it out, but sometimes the diminishing returns of certain on-court pairings destroy a team's on-court chemistry.
So Stern killed a deal that not only was fair to each team in the transaction (the Rockets not only would have landed the center they need, but would have ridded themselves of Martin's contract) but you can make a viable argument that the Lakers would have gotten the worst end of the trade.
The fallout from this fiasco could be considerable. There are already rumors that Paul is seeking legal counsel. You can't blame him. Trade chatter around the league has halted--no one is sure what to do now. Then there's the PR aspect of it: The appearance is that Stern maliciously wielded his power stick in defiance of Paul, who had the audacity to offer his voice to the process of resolving his own future.
That's not the worst of it. What happens to the Hornets now? Demps has to feel utterly useless, a figurehead limited to signing the likes of Brian Butch as a warm body so that his team will have enough players to actually scrimmage. Of course, Paul may not report to camp now, so there's another opening. Even if Paul reports and the Hornets are more or less forced to keep him around, what about after the season? Stern can't keep him from signing with another team, can he? The Lakers might not have the cap space, but the Knicks might, or the Clippers or the Celtics--big markets which would love Paul as a building block.
If Paul walks under those circumstances, the Hornets are screwed. They lose their meal ticket for nothing in return except a cap hold. Sign and trade? Would Paul even be amenable to something like that at this point? He may just sign where he can go free and clear and not worry about maximizing his dollars. He can sign with the Knicks and play alongside close friends Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. He won't get a max deal, but there are lots of opportunities for a famous athlete to make extra money in the Big Apple.
This isn't just an issue about perception. There is tangible damage that could be done to the league's most fragile franchise. If you think the Hornets lose value to a prospective owner if Paul is traded, just imagine how much value the franchise will lose if Paul walks and leaves the team empty handed. Unless the league gets a new ownership in group right away, that's a plausible scenario. Besides, a new ownership group would be only too aware that the top player on the team it is acquiring no longer wants to be there, and has the option to leave in a few months.
While perception isn't the biggest issue, it is an issue nonetheless and it's not just about the fans. The players, fresh off acrimonious negotiations, have also got to be scratching their heads, wondering just what kind of league they are returning to. Here's how outspoken and articulate Pacers forward Danny Granger put it:
"Due to the sabotaging of the LA/NO trade by David Stern and following in the footsteps of my athlete brethern Metta World Peace and Chad Ochocinco, I'm changing my last name to 'Stern's Bi#$h', effective immediately."
Get in line, Danny. You're not the only one. David Stern may not be the Mayor of Chicago, but he's the Mayor of Basketball and he's not going to let anyone tell him how to run his kingdom.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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