Long live the Chris Paul deal.
NBA Commissioner David Stern decided to negate the three-way deal involving the Hornets, Lakers, and Rockets, roughly two hours after it was announced for “basketball reasons”. To this point, as far as I can tell, it is unclear under what specific auspices the league acted to block the deal. That, to my mind, is a very important point that needs clarification. It will tell us a good bit about precisely what kind of precedent has been set. Did Stern act in his role as custodian of the Hornets franchise? Or did he act in his role as league commissioner, using his “best interest” powers to preserve some notion of competitive balance? We may never get a straight answer, but I really hope that our good friends in the punditry will push Stern to clarify this point.
The league’s statement would have us believe that the commissioner acted as custodian. If so, it certainly raises the question: why was the league was hands-off until after the deal was announced? At absolute minimum here, the league has exhibited almost criminally poor form in allowing a deal for all-star caliber players to go forward while it was unsatisfied with the return. Add to that, doesn’t this alleged dissatisfaction thoroughly undermine Dell Demps, the supposed franchise caretaker, going forward? It is difficult to imagine a bigger “fail” than for the league to veto a deal its representative negotiated with two other teams, particularly for players of this magnitude.
Not surprisingly, when something stinks in the NBA Dan Gilbert is usually somewhere in the area. He gives us plenty of reason to believe that Stern actually used his “best interest” powers to negate the deal so as not to run afoul of owners who don’t care to see the Lakers acquire another elite talent. If so, that sets an extremely troubling precedent. The league will likely say that Gilbert’s email was just “Gilbert being Gilbert” and had no bearing on its decision, but either way it is difficult to see how nixing this trade helps New Orleans “for basketball reasons” at all. [Update: Apparently the timestamp on the Gilbert email shows that it was received after the commissioner nixed the trade. To be clear, there is no implication that Gilbert killed the trade–merely that he represents a view on competitive balance to which Stern appears sympathetic.]
Where to now? It’s hard to say. Almost nothing would surprise me, including having the trade go through today. As Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak noted, it is conceivable that somebody coughs up an extra draft pick or something to allow the league to save face and get the deal done. It is possible Stern comes to his senses this morning, recognizes that he misread prevailing sentiment, and reverses course. The public discourse last night and this morning has been almost universally critical of the league, and rightfully so. But, Stern clearly favors the same group of hard line owners that went scorched earth on a brilliant 2010-11 season with a lockout that won significant fiscal concessions but did not fundamentally alter existing rules governing player movement. So, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Hornets’ “29 owners” go scorched earth on it too.