I am on the record, proudly and repeatedly, jocking David Stern. I forgive him his trespasses—the man is a jerk who likes to grind blood into the ground, especially when given license to do so by someone else's command—but ultimately remain convinced of his brilliance. After all, he was the one who finally trumped the chain of command and stood up to the owners internally. And let's not forget, he knows as well as anyone that superstars, mega-markets, and dynasties are what makes the league as a whole its cash. His precious overseas outreach? It's been eons since we've heard about a team in China or Europe, or worried about a Euro invasion. Now, it's all about exporting jerseys to Indonesia. The hockey model is dead, or at least reduced to pageantry. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the model small market franchise, but are also run by the inimitable Sam Presti and got to draft Kevin Durant.
David Stern's ideal league includes super-teams that push ratings and hype up into rarefied air and organic, self-made dynamos like the Thunder and Grizzlies--a can't-miss firmament and just enough miracles to keep us interested. At least that's what I would have said before today, when Stern effectively squelched a Lakers super-team that would have given the league an enormous push. Already, Chris Paul (and the prospect of Dwight Howard) joining Kobe Bryant had swept away much of the lockout cobwebs, and that was before the CBA had even been ratified. To let it happen—as he should have, and as he so emphatically did with last summer's Heat assemblage, one with far heavier political overtones—would have been Stern's perfect "fuck you" back at the owners.
Small market teams are the majority, and their narrow interests lorded over lockout talks. Making a professional sports team succeed in a city that doesn't leap off of the map is a challenge, but also a rare opportunity. Giving these teams power, when they should have been contracted or spent the offseason worrying about getting smarter, was an embarrassment for Stern. The one thing that man likes less than losing is idiocy.
Except somehow, Stern was pressured into disallowing the very move that would have allowed him to reclaim the league and, indeed, his legacy. Whether it was the gutless sops like Robert Sarver, foolhardy hacks like Michael Jordan, or that dybbuk Mark Cuban taking advantage of the topsy-turvy climate to keep his 2011 Larry O'Brien Trophy from toppling off his bathroom shelf, the owners got to him again (Editor's Note: Yahoo! Sports reporting that Dan Gilbert was the most vocal. I didn't even want to entertain that possibility.) Stern doesn't serve at their pleasure now in quite the same way he did during the CBA talks. Clearly, he didn't want to risk the appearance of impropriety, what with a team technically controlled by the NBA sending one of the league’s five best players, one practically forgotten by national audiences, to Hollywood. Supposedly, Stern didn't want Paul to pick his destination. Except that would be at odds with everything he said last summer about the Heat, and counter much of what has always made him a canny marketer.
The Lakers are no Team Toast; Chris Paul isn't exactly turning the bonds of friendship and business ties into a basketball operation like a trip to the Knicks would have. Stern doesn't want it to look like he's fine with this sort of thing, lest the owners flip out. He is not in control. The brains behind the operation is no longer running the show. He was caught between two bitterly opposed parties and realized he had to choose a side. Unfortunately, it's one that makes me wonder if he even remembers what once made him great. This is the decision of a much smaller—and less vindictive—man. Stern announced today that this was likely his last CBA. Maybe he recognizes that he's lost a step. He doesn't want to give up the power, when in effect, it's now been stripped from him.