When I first heard about the proposed trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers in return for four potential starters and a first round pick, I thought it was a good but not great haul. Not in the number of players or their quality, but the age and the fit together. Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, and Goran Dragic weren’t going to be the building blocks for a future contender, but they would probably be good enough to make it to the playoffs if they could find some chemistry. A first round pick sent to the Hornets from the Knicks (via the Rockets) wouldn’t hurt either. All in all if you are trying to remake your team and give yourself assets for future moves it wasn’t bad though. Over the course of a season Odom and Dragic could probably be moved at the very least, given Odom’s track record and the league’s ever present need for big men. I actually didn’t think it was all that great for the Lakers, given that they were sacrificing their size in the middle for an upgrade at a position that they were already at least okay at. Derek Fisher may be on his last legs but he is still a solid point guard, and Pau Gasol isn’t always aggressive under the rim but big men with a good shot are hard to find. When the trade was vetoed I found myself stunned, confused, and more disappointed in the NBA than ever.
Owners will claim that they were concerned about a league-owned team (nominally, anyway) making a significant move to make one of the NBA’s best teams even better. I understand that concern, if the Hornets were just giving Paul away for peanuts. That would a reeked of collusion and indicated that the league was conspiring to make the Lakers better and upset competitive balance. But that isn’t what this move was; the Lakers were marginally better and the Hornets were actually decently set up for another round of trades, should they choose to do so. The owners were just concerned about their own skin. They didn’t want Paul traded to Los Angeles because they wanted him to stay a Horney, they wanted him traded to a team where he wouldn’t have as much of an impact on their chances to be successful. As a league-owned team they get to have that kind of leverage and keep an otherwise competitive club with a bright GM right under their thumb.
Dan Gilbert, Cavaliers owner and lover of comic sans font, called the potential trade a “travesty.” As a matter of fact the only travesty here are the Cavaliers basketball team, but that is another column. He, like many owners, are upset about the rich getting richer. Well you know what, the San Antonio Spurs weren’t always title contenders, and the Knicks aren’t automatically in the playoffs every year. For a long while even the Celtics were little more than a punch line. Unlike baseball, there is actually some form of salary control in place in the NBA and teams are more than welcome to go over it if they can afford it. In fact, the new CBA tightens these controls and makes it harder financially (though not impossible) to move over it. However, not all of those are in place this year, and there are still a wealth of Bird Rules in effect to help teams hold onto their players.
But the owners need to learn that they can’t legislate desire. They can’t make a player want to be in Cleveland, Milwaukee, or Portland any more than you or I want to move to Helena (nothing against the good people of Helena). If a player is willing to take less money to go play with a winner (something Dan Gilbert is intimately familiar with), he should be able to do it. Likewise if a team wants to offer more money a lot of players will be lured by that too. Short of letting small markets have a higher salary cap than large market teams (and having the large-market teams pay for that expense), there isn’t anything they can do about it.
The owners were also concerned about Paul being able to declare where he wants to go and push for a trade to that city. They saw it with Carmelo Anthony and countless others and didn’t want to be dictated to. Well too bad. Players have that right to tell their employer where they want to work and I will be the first in line to criticize them if they don’t give their best effort to their current employer. But Chris Paul, even as he said he didn’t want to stay in New Orleans, has never put anything short of his best effort on the court. Regardless of his situation, he has been a consummate professional. If other teams have malcontents with bad attitudes, then they need to be better personnel managers.
All of this led to David Stern cracking the whip and yanking back on GM Dell Demps’ right to make the trade, a right that Demps had repeatedly been promised by the league. He did everything right on his end, but when the owners threw a fit David Stern decided to play Emperor and stop the move in its tracks. All because it helped another team. Now Demps is handcuffed to make future moves, a half-dozen players have to return to their teams knowing they were dangled out for a trade, and Chris Paul may leave in the offseason leaving nothing in New Orleans as compensation. All because the owners were more worried about what everyone else was doing than taking proper care of their own team and managing their payroll appropriately. Then again, that’s what got us into the labor dispute in the first place.