As the joke goes, there are two sides to every story–no two ways about it. You’d have to work awfully hard to find another side to David Stern’s decision to veto the recent three-way deal among the Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Hornets, and Houston Rockets. This move (made possible because the NBA owns the Hornets) was one-sidedly dumb.
The Hornets, who would have lost Chris Paul to free agency after the season, managed to salvage the situation by sending him to the Lakers. In return, they would have received three quality players and a first-round draft choice. Not a bad haul for Paul, who’s been hampered by serious knee problems.
Stern felt otherwise, claiming he had to veto the deal to spare the Hornets a self-inflicted wound. It’s widely believed that Stern’s real concern was not that the trade hurt the Hornets but rather that it helped the Lakers. During the bitter negotiations with the players over a collective bargaining agreement, owners complained that the league’s competitive balance is threatened when superstars join forces. The idea of Paul hooking up with Kobe Bryant stirred the Hornet’s nest (ha-ha). Cavaliers’ Owner Dan Gilbert allegedly said that the deal would leave the Lakers and Heat in a class by themselves, relegating the rest of the teams to the status of the Washington Generals (the Harlem Globetrotters’ designated patsies.)
In reality, it is doubtful that the trade would have improved the Lakers at all. In giving up Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, two quality big men, they would have sacrificed depth and size. Their new nucleus of Bryant, Paul, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest (oops, World Metta Peace), would have been dangerously fragile, both physically (Bynum and Paul) and emotionally (Peace).
Maybe Stern disagrees. As with most trades, there’s room for reasonable disagreement – that’s what makes a horse race. But that’s exactly why it was crazy to void the deal. Where it’s a good barroom debate over which team(s) would have prospered, how can the deal be deemed too outrageous to pass muster?
The elephant in the room is the Miami Heat. What understandably rankled Dan Gilbert, and probably Stern and others, is that Chris Paul joining forces with Kobe Bryant echoes LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh congregating in Miami to form a “Dream Team.” Free agency wasn’t supposed to be a vehicle for uniting superstars.
Like most observers, I found the Miami situation distasteful, but it’s easy to overreact to it. For one thing, it was and will remain the exception, not the rule. For various structural reasons (starting with the salary cap), we needn’t much worry about three or more stars arranging rendezvous. It will happen rarely, and when it does, the team in question will have to gut its roster to afford the studs. Note that the Heat did not win the championship. Moreover, by making itself the team everyone loves to hate, the Heat actually heightened interest in the NBA.
Further, Chris Paul did not leave New Orleans as a free agent to join a fellow superstar (much less arrange with a third star to land there with him). Yes, Paul used his free agency to leverage a trade, but what’s so bad about that? The point of free agency is … freedom.
For sure, there are competing values. Competitive balance matters. But free agency hasn’t remotely destroyed it. More than a half dozen teams are legitimate contenders for the NBA championship, some of them in small or mid-sized markets. Most teams in the league have a realistic chance of making the playoffs. And big-market teams are by no means guaranteed success. Just ask the Knicks, Nets, and Clippers.
The fact that Orlando will have trouble keeping Dwight Howard, just as New Orleans couldn’t keep Paul, is not a major problem provided those teams show foresight. Denver traded free-agent-in-waiting Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks, and probably benefitted more from the deal than the Knicks. Orlando can and presumably will get high value in return for Howard. So too, New Orleans engineered a good trade for Paul to the Lakers. I’m not the only one to think that the deal would have helped the Hornets and hurt the Lakers. And it was vetoed in the name of competitive balance? It’s hard to be sure what David Stern was thinking, but easy to evaluate what he did: He blundered.
Paul was subsequently dealt to the Clippers (in a deal Stern approved), so everyone is happy … except the Lakers, Rockets, and those of us who dislike the idea of the commissioner exercising draconian power over player movement.