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Through the Looking Glass: Revelations from the Chris Paul Non-Deal

If the 2011 off-season were a double-scoop sundae of weirdness and angst, the cherry was laid atop yesterday as Chris Paul was non-traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. The news broke mid-afternoon that a deal was in the works. By late afternoon it was apparent that Houston was involved as a third party. Shortly after we discovered that major players--including Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom--were moving. And then the deal was dead...throttled by Commissioner David Stern acting on the objections of several owners to yet another premier free agent heading to L.A., this time at the hands of the the league itself, functioning as custodian of the currently un-owned Hornets.

Whether Stern stopping the deal--which he had a right to do under the terms of ownership for the Hornets--was a good thing or bad is up for debate. That argument shouldn't obscure the fact that this whole thing is wrong, top to bottom. This incident reveals multiple, disconnected ills plaguing the NBA which somehow converged in this gloriously horrific moment. To wit:

  • How are the Lakers, nearing the end of a long title-level run, even able to sniff at Paul in the first place without giving up their own superstar or at least their young center? This is the problem with built-in inequities: they perpetuate themselves beyond a single generation. The Lakers are one of a handful of teams with the economic resources to afford multiple stars, the marquee status to become a destination for said stars, and the depth of talent to exchange their 2nd-5th best players for someone else's absolute best. Granted Paul has been chronically injured but he's still a statistical superstar and one of the top two free agents on the market (the other of which the Lakers are also likely to get). The more this happens the more well-worn the perceived path to stardom in purple and gold becomes and the more unique it seems. The cycle perpetuates. The imbalance has become so profound that half the league's observers--and apparently owners--groaned at yesterday's trade announcement. It was the equivalent of the 99% rising up to complain about the 1%. Something's deeply wrong when, in a league full of people desiring Chris Paul, the first go-to is the same old favored franchise.
  • What the heck is the league doing owning the Hornets anyway? If the league is so wonderful, how come owners aren't beating down the door to get their hands on this franchise? Now the league's ownership creates such an appearance of a conflict of interest that they're going to be paralyzed. Nothing good will come of it.
  • Why the heck is David Stern making these decisions, and on what basis? What New Orleans trades are acceptable? Where's the list of criteria, outside of his mind? Half the league is angry that the trade almost went through but you can bet the other half will be angry that it didn't, among them GM's and owners in New Orleans, Houston, and L.A. Right or wrong, there's only one target for their wrath. Everybody has to guess at, and operate under, unspoken rules sprung from one man's head.
  • You know who gets screwed in this? The Hornets. They're the one team involved that desperately needed something good to happen. Losing the face of their franchise wasn't the best news but they were getting some big names in return. Now Paul will be cranky when he puts on their uniform. When he decides to leave the team as a free agent at the end of the season nobody, not even Stern, will be able to stop him. If they can't trade him, New Orleans will lose him for nothing. Houston will get value for the players it trades. So will the Lakers. The Hornets will be left holding the bag. In doing right by the little guy the commissioner ran over the little guy.

Whether it was the correct move or not, canceling the trade doesn't resolve any of these issues. Letting the trade go through would have resolved only the last one, local to New Orleans. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't. This incident shines a light on what a fractured mess this league is right now.

Have you ever been riding a bike down a hill and had it go too fast and start shaking all over the place? That's a bad place to be. If you throw on the brakes you're probably going to crash. If you lean left or right you're probably going to crash. The only alternative is to sit perfectly still and pray as your bike starts hurtling faster and faster down the slope...knowing that you're probably going to crash. That's exactly what this feels like. The league is vibrating now with inequity, with resentment, with anger among its participants and fans. The last few months have been full of it. It feels like David Stern is sitting on top this out-of-control bike. Whatever he does at this point only hastens impending doom. There's no turn to get out of it anymore.

This league hasn't been built on a solid foundation. It hasn't been built on teams, but stars. Today's stars are young enough to have never known a league that was different. Unsurprisingly they are ready to assume their power and feel they have a right to it...that there is no league without them. They're attempting cluster under the brightest lights together like moths beneath a porch lamp. Stern can't shoo them back to their place but it's far too late to try to get along without them. The rest of the league is weak, a half-baked local scoring hero and a bunch of role players comprising many a roster. Having to promote--let alone rely on--Cleveland versus Memphis would make Stern and his marketing gurus wake up in a cold sweat. They can't put that on national TV. It's NBA basketball but not real NBA basketball. I'm not sure what would make them more nervous, that nobody would watch or that everybody would.

Once upon a time people thought that baggy pants and chains were the league's biggest image problems. They masked the true one: that this league doesn't believe in itself nor in all its teams. Stern once played the hero by instituting a dress code, telling they players to act like grown ups. They suited up and grew up enough to see the gaping hole in the design of the modern NBA. They discovered they couldn't prosper fully unless they joined one of the pet teams, one of the few the league trusts to carry its banner. Now the chickens are coming home to roost as Stern is trying to dictate Dress Code Part Two, the Official Uniform version. The league would prefer to keep the same old haves and have nots, restricting movement and letting a few guys prosper while the rest languish so its illusion isn't spoiled. But this time the impeccably-suited men Stern is trying to bully in the name of "competitive balance" are staring him down and telling him no. He can tell them what to wear in the airport but he can't dictate where the plane goes. If the league remains imbalanced--competitively, economically or otherwise--they're going to get on the good side of the scale.

Neither has this league been built on a solid financial foundation. It's been smoke and mirrors: promote the lifestyle and the image, swagger like you're part of the elite, lose money every year but keep the neon-level flash going so some billionaire will come in behind you and pay an exorbitant fee to be part of the show. It's like a glorified pyramid scheme except now people are refusing to buy into the lower rungs and somebody's going to be left holding the bag...likely the guys who just spent $400 million on a franchise that can't win a championship and is going to drain them dry if they try.

This league hasn't been built on a sport, but on a marquee. "Lakers vs. Whomever" has been the motto for a couple of decades. They've reffed for television. They've made reputations for television. They've promoted such a stilted view of basketball that few people know the difference anymore. Even the fans are part of the illness, each loving their own plucky team but disparaging the rest of their non-famous brethren. "Our players have that special magic to let us challenge the big boys. It's our destiny, just wait and see! Meanwhile you guys in Milwaukee with roughly the same level of talent as we have no chance because your team sucks. By the way, when are the Lakers and Heat coming to town?" We can see that all the other little emperors have no clothes, but our own nakedness escapes us. Meanwhile the real kings laugh all the way to the playoff (and actual) bank.

All of this is the shadow side of the Showtime Lakers versus Bird's Celtics, of Michael Jordan versus all comers, of Shaq and his thumping forearm leaving Orlando and bringing glory back to L.A. Remember when Jordan first retired and the league went flat? Everybody blamed it on the players. "There's nobody around to fill Michael's shoes. The players aren't as good." Maybe nobody will ever be as good as Jordan, but we used to be able to watch good basketball anyway. The quality of player was never the problem. The problem is you can only sustain this definition of the game--this way of marketing it, this way of officiating it, this way of describing and envisioning it--so long before you're going to end up with an unsustainable result: six stars, two teams, everybody else giving up and going home. And the best solutions the NBA has to offer, apparently, are to:

A. Blame it on the players all over again, take away a bunch of their money, and restrict their movement through a new CBA. And...

B. Rely on heavy-handed, unprecedented actions by the commissioner who, accustomed to acting with impunity, now appears to be fiddling like Nero as Rome burns around him. And...

C. Have those actions solve nothing, indeed making the problem worse as the little guy suffers even more, while...

D. The world watches in horror as, in the wake of the Chris Paul veto, the whole "Shaq leaves Orlando for L.A." script plays out again with Dwight Howard...this generation's physically gifted superstar center who's about to join the Lakers not because they offer the most in trade, nor because they can pay him more than anyone else, but just because they're the team that will always look good and will always be able to afford him and players like him while everybody else goes hungry.

Though the problems highlighted here are disparate this isn't an isolated incident. This is the sign of a league in trouble...a league that doesn't know what to do anymore and is starting to fall apart at the seams. You can't fix this by changing the actions of the players or instituting more restrictions. You have to rebuild the entire system, reducing the all-too-clear incentive for things to go exactly this way.

Sadly, that won't happen. The bike is awfully far down the hill now. This won't be the end of the NBA. There's too much money and power and history involved for the league to sink. But this may turn out to be the end of this incarnation of the NBA and particularly of David Stern, its architect. It feels like the thirty-year run--the gloriously problematic era which brought us the grandeur of Magic vs. Bird (etc.), genius marketing that captured our imagination, and all of the problematic fallout that followed--is coming to an end. The only question is, does Stern get off the bike in one piece and walk off into the sunset (most likely given his pedigree and contributions) or does the bike crash spectacularly before they have to haul him off, bruised and battered? How many more decay-exposing crises have to bubble to the surface and how many more ineffectual attempts to patch them up do we have to see before everybody admits that this is the end of an NBA age...and needs to be?

--Dave (