Like A Boss: What Is David Stern Even Doing Right Now?

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Broadly, there are two ways to trade a superstar in the NBA. Neither is the way to win a NBA title, at least in the short- to medium-term, of course—that's for the teams that receive the superstars, and there's not a collective bargaining agreement that can or will change that. But neither is necessarily wrong, although there are of course wrong ways to do it. Dell Demps, who I guess is still nominally the general manager for the New Orleans Hornets, has now successfully executed both types of superstar trades.

But because of Demps' boss—who is, in one sense, David Stern, and in another sense apparently a rump (as in ass-ish) faction of the loudest, most loutish and most manifestly worst NBA owners—neither of these trades has actually happened. The How U/quantum-whatever aspect of these trades-that-are-not-in-fact-trades has a chaos theory-ish abstraction about it. The actual ripple-out effect upon the league from these non-trades, visualized nicely by Pro Basketball Talk's Rob Mahoney, are an example of actual chaos. It's tough to see how Demps, or anyone, could trade Paul at this point—how he could get a package in return better than the two he has already negotiated, while simultaneously meeting the opaque criteria and satisfying the multiple honkingly ignorant interests of his various boss(es). At the risk of belaboring this:

In the first instance, Demps traded Chris Paul as part of a three-team deal that brought back Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic and a first-round draft pick. All are on reasonable contracts with no more than a couple of years remaining; Dragic is on his rookie deal, and Odom is the NBA's defending Sixth Man of the Year. This is how you trade a superstar if you are not planning upon rebuilding in the short term: Demps traded the NBA's best point guard and got back a new starting lineup comprised of valuable and accomplished players who could be further parlayed into other players or picks or savings or whatever at the trading deadline if that starting lineup isn't keeping the team competitive, solvent, and appealing enough to convince a prospective owner that New Orleans is a viable destination both for delicious sandwiches and high-quality basketball. It's not perfect, if only because basketball is complicated enough that the total-internal-organ-transplant model doesn't necessarily add up to the sum-PER of the players involved. But it's one way to trade a superstar. For "basketball reasons"—and certainly not because a widely ridiculed mortgage broker wrote an eyes-only email in the most unctuously please-advise-y corporate English—that trade was unacceptable to Stern, who vetoed it. We've been over this.

Demps then tried to make the second, gut-renovation type of deal. In this one, he flipped Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers—property of an even more unloved and universally ridiculed billionaire pustulence, not that it matters—for a package of cheap and promising young players, an expiring deal, and a pick that is likely to be at or near the top of next year's draft. The haul here was pretty good, too: quicksilver combo guard Eric Bledsoe, nascent Odom-type Al-Farouq Aminu, gimpy-and-well-compensated bowhunting big man Chris Kaman, and an unprotected lottery pick from the eminently in need of lottery-protection Minnesota Timberwolves. This would make the Hornets worse next year, but also notably less expensive to pay, and thus perhaps more appealing to a buyer. With Bledsoe and Aminu in the bank and a pair of lottery picks—that is presuming that DJ Mbenga, Trevor Ariza and the other six players currently on the New Orleans roster do not carry the team to a playoff berth—in a loaded draft, the Hornets would be set up for a Thunder-style buildout on a fairly rapid timetable, provided they get lucky with the picks, and then get those picks right. Today, Stern vetoed that deal, too, and reportedly has taken the responsibility for making a deal from Demps and given it to his deputies. There wasn't even a reason given this time, besides the Clippers' unwillingness to include Eric Gordon in the deal.

Of course, you already know all this, and you almost certainly already know that Dell Demps is not to blame for the fact that, two weeks before the season starts, his team consists of six players under contract and a supremely valuable superstar holdout for whom he has twice been denied any value at all via trade. But when you cast your mind back, years hence, to the NBA's tribulation time—and, honestly, if this shit does not wind up in court sooner than later, it will be astounding—it might help to remember the specifics of the moment.

Sometime between now and then, we will find out just what the hell David Stern is thinking, and whether this is a result of the Defective Billionaire Lobby portion of the NBA owners' community spitefully burning down its own McMansion or a simple, spectacularly out-of-touch manifestation of Stern's manifest and spectacular out-of-touchness. For now, all we can do is soak in it, and wonder anew and again at the damage that impunity, money and distance can do to even a smart person's capacity for wise judgment, and at how the man who was once sport's greatest administrator could become something so unlike a leader, and so much like a boss.

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Comments

Cuban and Dan Gilbert were only used as scapegoats. David Stern is all about money. Whether or not Chris Paul is in a Lakers uniform, the Staples Center will be packed. Chris Paul leaves New Orleans and ticket sales plummet.
http://www.fromthisseat.com.

I speak for the crescent
city when I say
our butt hurts.

What baffles me is how obvious this seems, not just to the experts, but to everyone, and right away.

Two good deals, both nixed. Apparently no option to move Paul now, right? Can't Stern see that if the Hornets don't trade him now, they're going to get nothing for him?

This all is rhetorical, but his actions are so contrary to what everyone sees as obvious that it's exasperating, even for a very casual fan.

... Which makes the decision to take the very competent Demps out of the equation and replace him with a couple of NBA front office aides (including the guy who drafted Big Country Reeves) who have been out of the actual trade-making business forever that much more infuriating. It's very Stern to be both totally ignorant and a total know-it-all. But it's hard to watch.

This remains baffling. I'm not an NBA fan, really--I've never developed that connection to a team that pulls me through a long regular season--but I will definitely tune in for big games and I do follow the major story lines through sites like this. I am, at the risk of narcissism, probably close to the prototype (hated?) casual fan that the NBA tries to court. At first, I was peeved by the Paul to Lakers trade; I may not have a team, but I have Not Teams and the Lakers are my most long-tenured and meaningful Not Team. I didn't want them getting such a great player in the same way I didn't want the Heat getting James and Bosh. Over the last couple days, though, I've realized, I watched more basketball last year than any other year I can remember. I relished watching teams play the Heat, particularly in the playoffs. I undoubtedly would have done the same with the Paul Lakers this year, which is to say, the trade may not have been wanted by the non-destination NBA teams for questionable "competitive" reasons (though, that is undermined by it seemingly being as good a return to the Hornets as could be expected) but it should've been wanted by a League that wants my eyeballs.

Fan with Overinflated Sense of Importance out.

It's really at the point now where you wonder what the hell kind of crazy super-generous package it'll take to get the NBA to move Paul at all. Would the Thunder have to send Westbrook, Harden, and a #1? What about the Heat - would it take Bosh, Chalmers, Battier, and 2 #1's? Would the Bulls have to build a time machine and bring 1984 Michael Jordan to the present, then surrender his draft rights AND Joakim Noah? Where is the line anymore?

It all feels so incredibly arbitrary, too. That Stern isn't the guy paid to be the final arbiter on how good that trade is for the Hornets -- that'd be the GM, who presumably follows basketball a hell of a lot more closely than Stern or Gilbert -- makes his high-handed arbitrariness doubly bad. Also, in their way, these were both really good trades for the Hornets: two different types of deals fairly well-executed. It can't get much better than that for them, this side of the talk-radio nonsense packages you mentioned.

Agreed on Stern's high-handed arbitrariness. Hearing that Demps is basically sitting in the corner like a bad widdle boy while the grown-ups talk turkey is absolutely disgusting.

The fact that the two offers the NBA scuttled are both very good and very different is the real nagging problem. You can look at the deals for Paul in two ways: how they benefit them in the short-term competitive sense, and how they benefit the Hornets in the long-term competitive sense. The Lakers/Rockets deal gave them viable players for this and next season, although the concerns about long-term economic factors and how that would affect the Hornets' viability for future owners were somewhat valid (if ignoring the fact that a team that just loses Paul for nothing is even less valuable than one who's trotting out Odom and Scola as its "superstars"). The Clippers' deal set them up for the future with expiring contracts and a high pick in a strong draft, even if that team would probably be lucky to win 15-20 games (with or without Gordon). The NBA seems to think that they can get a deal that works both ways, or at least a deal so stacked for the future that the Hornets' competitive downturn would be a season at most. That's just not possible, under this or any CBA. Stern & Co. don't seem to realize that, whether it's arrogance or whatever.