The Chris Paul trade veto: an NBA travesty

This was so, so dumb. But we've all kind of moved on, right?

Even if Robert Griffin III’s Heisman Trophy and Superman socks, Ryan Braun’s positive PED test, the Xavier/Cincinnati brawl, and another Tim Tebow comeback all happened this weekend, the NBA’s Chris Paul trade/non-trade fiasco remains the biggest sports story of the past few days.

Basketball reasons–that’s what justified NBA commissioner David Stern stepping in and canceling a three-team trade that, for a few hours at least, had netted the Lakers a second superstar in point guard Chris Paul. When the trade was first announced on Dec. 8, my first reaction was along the lines of ‘here we go again…’ A lockout that was supposed to cure the NBA of precisely these types of trades and power struggles had been rendered precisely useless.

Then, Stern nixed the trade, and it turned out that the lockout hadn’t been useless: by vetoing this deal, Stern brought the NBA to an even more dubious place than even the five-month lockout could. 

It looks like it will indeed be a nuclear winter for the NBA–just a different kind that Stern had first envisioned. That decision was 18 months in the making, since LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach. Following that Decision, the league enjoyed a stellar regular season and excellent playoffs before the lockout brought everything to a halt.

The players had become too powerful and could hold their franchise hostage and force a trade to a city of their choosing–and because of that, a lockout was deemed necessary. Five months later, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul are now using their pending free agency to potentially force a trade to a team of their choosing. In turn, their teams react in any way that they can–which means a drunk-dialing nightmare for Magic CEO Bob Vander Weide and a rather nice would-be trade for Hornets general manager Dell Demps. A superstar player is as powerful as he’s ever been in today’s NBA, and nothing will change that.

The superstar gets drafted to an NBA team and can’t decide where he plays at the beginning of his career, but why should he not look to join a better team once he becomes a free agent? Why should he not look to play in a great city like New York? Why should he not look to play for the history-rich Lakers if he can, rather than the Raptors? Players other than Joe Johnson have even shown that they’re ready to leave money on the table to join the team that they want. Teams like the Lakers, the Heat, the Knicks, the Mavericks, the Celtics, and the Magic will always have a chance to sign free agent players to a contract due to a rich tradition, to being a great market and city, or a combination of both. That being said, superstar players have also proven that they will stay put if their current team makes it worth it.

Rejecting this trade was possible because the NBA itself owns the Hornets franchise. There really is no way that the league can avoid trades–dumb or not–but if there ever was one, this is it. When it purchased the franchise for $300 million a year ago, the NBA promised it would treat the Hornets team like any other despite the obvious conflict of interest. Demps and head coach Monty Williams were hired and have since worked under the tutelage of NBA-appointed Jac Sperling. At the time, Stern explained that the NBA would keep itself at arm’s length–and regarding roster moves, he said that, “if they recommend it, then we’re going to be approving it.” Apparently, Stern was speaking only about last season. This season, it’s different. This season, he can do whatever he wants with the Hornets.

That includes, among other things, making money. Small-market teams like New Orleans are hard pressed for money and must make shrewd roster moves to remain viable and competitive. Many saw the Paul-to-Lakers trade as going against both of those goals, thus the uproar. An example of a terrible roster move is the Sacramento Kings resigning their restricted free agent Marcus Thornton to a new four-year, $40-million contract, as per SI.com’s Sam Amick. You’re the general manager of a small-market and you want to create a winning tradition, but giving $33 million to Thornton isn’t how you start. Neither is giving $43 million for four years to DeAndre Jordan if you’re the Golden State Warriors general manager.

If we stick on the topic of basketball reasons however, this trade actually made sense for the Hornets. GM Dell Demps was and still is in a weak position, with everyone knowing that Paul is one season away from leaving for a destination of his choosing–which is to say, leaving New Orleans. Demps has little leverage, yet he would have received a 2012 draft pick, a strong power forward in Luis Scola, the reigning sixth-man of the year in Lamar Odom, a shooting guard who can put the ball in the basket in Kevin Martin and, finally, a backup point guard in Goran Dragic. Basketball-wise, this trade made sense. But the Hornets would have taken on salaries and so, this trade didn’t make sense financially.

Alas, Stern intervened for “basketball reasons” and there are now two solutions. Either Paul plays out his year in New Orleans, or he still gets traded to Los Angeles–despite how utterly ridiculous this would look. He can’t possibly be traded to any other team, because that would mean that Stern is telling the Hornets that Paul can’t play in Los Angeles, but that he sure can play in city X.

The real shame is that in the end, Paul will leave the Hornets on July 1, 2012, at the latest, and the Hornets will get absolutely nothing in return if he leaves then. His decision will be based on…. wait for it… basketball reasons.