Commissioner Stern Should Not Have Voided the Chris Paul TradeRemember the old Saturday Night Live skit about "Bad Idea Jeans"? The NBA created a real-life version a year ago when it assumed ownership of the troubled New Orleans Hornets franchise. What could possibly go wrong when the league office--which is supposed to impartially run the NBA's affairs without showing favor to any team or player--is in charge of a specific team? Phil Jackson, then the L.A. Lakers' Coach, immediately mentioned one possibly unsavory scenario: "When Chris (Paul) says he has to be traded, how's that going to go?...Someone's going to have to make a very nonjudgmental decision on that part that's not going to irritate anyone else in the league." If this were an SNL routine, one character would say, "Nah, that could never happen" and then the "Bad Idea" logo would fill the screen.
In theory, the NBA is running the Hornets essentially like a blind trust, assuming formal ownership until a suitor can be found who will hopefully keep the team in New Orleans: the league technically owns the team but the team's front office executives are supposed to be free to make whatever decisions they think are in the team's best interests without interference from league headquarters. That theory went up in smoke in stunning fashion on Thursday when Hornets General Manager Dell Demps completed a three team deal that would have shipped Chris Paul to the L.A. Lakers in exchange for Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and a first round pick while sending Pau Gasol to the Houston Rockets. The NBA cliche is that the team that receives the best player "wins" a trade; technically this would be considered a "win" for the Lakers but it was hardly a lopsided transaction: the Lakers received an elite point guard but gave up two quality big men, the Hornets gave up an elite point guard but received four potential starters and the Rockets gave up a lot of depth but received an All-Star big man to replace Yao Ming in the middle. Obviously, the Hornets would be disinclined to trade Paul if they thought that they had a realistic chance to re-sign him after this season but the so-called Derrick Rose rule in the new CBA will unfortunately not be of much use to New Orleans or Orlando (in the future, young superstars who have made the All-NBA Team and/or won an MVP will receive much more lucrative contracts by re-signing with their original teams than they would by seeking their fortunes elsewhere but this stipulation does not apply to Paul or to Orlando's Dwight Howard).
After word of the proposed deal had already leaked out, NBA Commissioner David Stern announced that the league had voided the entire transaction, supposedly for "basketball reasons." There is much speculation about who may have pressured Stern to take this action: perhaps "small market" owners do not want to see the Lakers profit at the expense of the Hornets or perhaps "large market" owners do not want to see Paul go to the Lakers because they had their own designs to woo Paul either now or after this season. Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert reportedly sent an email to Stern complaining that if such deals are permitted it will only be a matter of time before the NBA consists of five superteams and 25 other teams that should each be known as the Washington Generals. This is indeed a valid theoretical concern in the sense that, if the NBA operated as a totally free market with no salary cap or other restrictions, all of the top players would probably end up in New York, L.A. and Miami. Henry Abbott and others keep banging the same drum saying that it is wrong for the league to in any way restrict how much money stars can make and/or prevent stars from deciding where they want to play but a league run by Abbott's rules would not last very long; a successful professional sports league needs a common draft that gives weaker teams first crack at young talent and it needs a business model that provides for ample compensation to the best players while also making sure that all of the best players do not end up on one or two teams. If you take Abbott's way of thinking to its (ill)logical conclusion, then the NBA should not have a draft, a salary cap or any free agency rules: the New York Knicks should be able to offer $150 million to Chris Paul and $100 million to Jared Sullinger (or whichever college star they like next summer), while Dan Gilbert fills out his roster with players from Cleveland State University--but once you accept/understand why a league should have a draft, a salary cap and rules regarding free agency then the next step is to figure out specifically how to construct a business model containing those elements; such issues can only be solved through collective bargaining and that is why the NBA just had the second longest work stoppage in its history: the business model needed to be fixed. Abbott and his favorite economist may have determined that LeBron James and other stars are supposedly underpaid relative to their alleged true market value but if the NBA paid James what Abbott thinks James is worth then the whole enterprise would collapse and James would ultimately receive nothing. If James or other players dislike the terms of the league's CBA then they are certainly free to sell their services to the highest bidder in other leagues--but until Abbott and Costello (Dave Berri) find someone with very deep pockets to put their economic "theories" to a real world test (by creating a rival league based on "advanced basketball statistics") the fact is that James' true "market value" is what the NBA can afford to pay him without destroying its entire business model.
The Dream Team was fun to watch in 1992 in the Olympics but if the NBA's rules permitted a handful of wealthy owners to buy up all of the elite players then the NBA would indeed become nothing more than the Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals. Abbott and others say that competitive balance has never existed in NBA history but that depends on how you define competitive balance with regard to pro basketball. Competitive balance does not mean that every team has a 100% equal chance to win a title in a given year or even in the next 10 years; obviously, history has shown that to win an NBA title you almost always must have an elite player on your roster and there are only a handful of elite players in the NBA at any given time (plus another 20-25 All-Star caliber players). Competitive balance means two things in the context of the NBA: (1) No one team can simply spend $1 billion and buy up the All-NBA First Team; (2) any team that drafts well and makes sound free agency decisions has the opportunity to put together a solid playoff team and that the handful of teams that acquire/nurture an All-NBA First Team caliber performer have a reasonable opportunity to contend for a title and to retain the services of that All-NBA First Team player when his initial contract expires.
The Showtime Lakers were not built because top players decided to leave small market teams; while the Lakers acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar via a trade with a small market team, they did not become a dynasty until they surrounded him with shrewd draft picks (including Norm Nixon, Magic Johnson and James Worthy). The 1980s Boston Celtics drafted Larry Bird and his Hall of Fame frontcourt partner Kevin McHale. LeBron James had every right under the old CBA to form a power trio in Miami but it is historically incorrect to suggest that this is how dynasties have previously been built in the NBA--and it is foolish to think that what James, Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams did last year set a healthy precedent for the NBA. How many casual fans really missed the NBA during the lockout? There was a very real backlash against the NBA, a "pox on their houses" mentality that can be largely traced back to the resentment that fans outside of New York/New Jersey and Miami feel about what James, Anthony and Williams did.
So, I understand Gilbert's concerns and I can even understand why Stern felt that he had to stop the Paul trade--but I think that Stern has made a horrible mistake and that, ultimately, this trade (or one like it) is inevitable. The new CBA does not prevent Paul and Howard from following in the footsteps of James, Anthony and Williams so there is no way that the NBA can stop them from forcing their way out of New Orleans and Orlando respectively; moreover, it is a horrible conflict of interest for the NBA to reject a deal unless that deal is clearly lopsided--particularly when the NBA technically owns one of the teams involved in the deal. Stern has potentially disrupted the functioning of not only the Hornets (who now have a very disgruntled Paul on their roster) but also the Lakers and Rockets, who now have to welcome back players they just tried to ship out.
The extremely ironic sidebar to this situation is that, while I agree with Gilbert's theoretical objection about big market teams trying to corner the market on elite players, I disagree with Gilbert's apparent belief that the specific deal in question is lopsided in favor of the Lakers. While the Lakers certainly need to upgrade the point guard position (something that I have been saying for years, much to the chagrin of Lakers' fans/Derek Fisher lovers), two quality big men is a steep price to pay for a small point guard who has been somewhat brittle in recent years. Gilbert seems to think that this deal would have paved the way for the Lakers to also acquire Dwight Howard; if that were true, then the Lakers would indeed be in great shape with a Bryant-Howard-Paul trio but with Gasol and Odom out of the picture it is unlikely that the Lakers could have persuaded Orlando to part with Howard. An aging Bryant paired with a brittle Paul and an even more brittle Andrew Bynum hardly looks like a sure-fire championship nucleus; Bryant and Paul could perhaps have carried a team to a title three years ago or perhaps could do so now if they (and Bynum) stayed healthy but what the Lakers really need to do to make a last run at a Bryant-led title while also laying the groundwork to contend as Bryant declines is to acquire Howard in exchange for Bynum and Gasol or (preferably) Bynum and Odom.
However, the actual skill set evaluation of the proposed Chris Paul trade is going to be largely ignored because of the serious implications of how the trade was cancelled. I wonder how many casual NBA fans even realized that the NBA has owned the Hornets for the past year, let alone thought about all of the potential ramifications of this: not only is it a bad idea for a league to own a team but the fact that for more than a year the NBA has searched in vain for a suitable owner tends to reinforce the contention that the league did in fact have a broken business model under the terms of the old CBA. Sure, it might be easy to find someone who wants to buy an NBA team in Philadelphia (or to move a team to Brooklyn) but who wants to buy one in New Orleans? New Orleans is home to a championship team under the NFL's business model but under the NBA's old business model it hardly attracted much interest among prospective NBA owners. It cannot be emphasized enough that the San Antonio Spurs--considered a small market team in NBA parlance even though San Antonio is hardly a small city--lost money in recent seasons even though they have won four titles in the past dozen years and are considered to be a model franchise. The NBA has some deep seated problems with its business model that the new CBA tentatively addresses but the Chris Paul trade/non-trade fiasco could potentially not only overshadow those issues but perhaps even scuttle the tenuous peace agreement between the owners and the players.
The NBA may be back but it is hardly in good shape: the compressed 66 game season is going to be tough to watch--featuring a lot of out of shape and/or fatigued players--and whatever happens on the court is likely to attract less attention than the off court dramas surrounding Howard and Paul.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:41 AM