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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