I know that what I’m about to say is going to be met with tons of criticism, but I applaud David Stern for blocking the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers. I fully understand the disdain that Lakers, Hornets, and Rockets fans may be feeling, and I also understand the public outcry that is going on in the media. The way this situation was handled reeks of underhandedness and ulterior motives. The move makes both David Stern and the NBA in general look ridiculous, especially with it coming on the heels of the NBA lockout. Some may say argue that the NBA owns the Hornets and so Stern should have the right to block any trade, just like any other owner. However, all it takes is one quick glance at Dan Gilbert’s leaked letter to realize that this trade was not blocked for the good of the New Orleans Hornets, but rather for the interest of the NBA owners, both financially and competitively.
Truth be told, if enough dirt surfaces, this whole ordeal could become a debacle on the level of the Tim Donaghy scandal. It will go down as a huge black mark on the legacy of David Stern, continue to taint the NBA’s already shaky credibility, and drive a further chasm between the players and ownership. Yet despite all of those glaring negatives, I absolutely love this decision by Stern.
Over the past several seasons the NBA was losing any and all appeal to me. I’m the type of person who is a die-hard follower of his team first and foremost and only takes a passing appeal of the league in general. I would far rather watch the Timberwolves battle it out with another cellar dweller like the Cavs than check out a Lakers/Heat game. I know I’m in the minority there when it comes to the Timberwolves, but I don’t think I’m alone when it comes to fans who just really love watching their team. I’m sure the NBA makes plenty of money off all the casual bandwagon jumpers who tune in for marquee matchups like the Christmas Day games or only pay attention come playoff time. However, at the heart and soul of this league, at its foundation, are the die-hards like me. We’re the people who fill the arenas and buy the season tickets that allow the league to survive, or at least skate by, in markets like Memphis, Sacramento, and Milwaukee.
As much as big-market teams with national appeal like the Lakers, Celtics, and Knicks mean for the league’s overall revenue stream, there’s still no denying the fact that the “lesser” two thirds of the league are still vitally important to its overall health and survival. However, the way things have played out in the NBA the past few seasons reveals a disturbing trend that is alienating fans of these smaller teams and causing them to lose hope that they will ever be able to watch their teams truly compete again.
What I’m getting at here is mass exodus of star players from small market teams. In the past 18 months we’ve seen LeBron bolt from Cleveland, Chris Bosh leave Toronto, Amare leave Phoenix, Carmelo leave Denver, and Deron Williams leave Utah. Now days after the lockout ends, we had Chris Paul nearly sent from New Orleans and Dwight Howard making plans to leave Orlando. If Howard and Paul do get set “free”, it will mean that since July of 2010, nearly 25% of the NBA’s franchises will have had their superstar player force a trade to a new team. How does a stat like that do anything but deflate those fanbases and cripple their hopes of being able to compete at a high level? And remember, I’m only accounting for “super star” caliber players in those sentences above. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of listing lower-tier players like Carlos Boozer and Tyson Chandler, who have also been fleeing for larger markets in increasing numbers.
After watching what has gone down the past few months, it’s extremely difficult for me to get excited about the Minnesota Timberwolves. Trust me, it’s already hard enough to stay enthusiastic when your team last sniffed the playoffs in 2004, but now there’s a whole new set of obstacles to overcome for the Wolves on top of their incompetent management history. At the moment, I have little to no reason to believe that Kevin Love will sign a long-term contract with my team vs. forcing a trade back home to the Lakers or Clippers. How am I supposed to embrace Ricky Rubio as my team’s savior when rumors were swirling that he wanted to play in New York since the night he was drafted? Even if the Wolves finally turn things around and make the playoffs in the next year or two, who’s to say that they won’t get sent tumbling back down to the basement because Minnesota’s best players bolted just as they were about to hit their stride?
At least when the Timberwolves were awful back in the early 90’s, I could hope for the day when we would land the super star player who would turn everything around. When we finally drafted Kevin Garnett, he stuck with the Wolves through thick and thin, brought the team to the Western Conference Finals, and then stayed even when the team fell back into the lottery for a few seasons. I have it on extremely strong sources close to Garnett that he never asked the Wolves for a trade. Minnesota’s ownership decided their only move was to blow up their struggling team and cut ties with Garnett. Even then, losing our franchise player was a tough pill to swallow, but I think everyone saw the logic behind the move, and in some ways, a certain kindness that it endowed to KG after all his years of faithful service. When he won in Boston, he did so as a hero to Minnesota fans, and that 2008 title is something that I look upon just as favorably as any other big moment in T-Wolves history.
How many Cavs fans can say the same thing for LeBron James if he finally raises the O’Brien Trophy this summer? Today’s crop of young superstars are burning bridges and creating a landscape of jaded fans, that is causing the league to slowly die in these smaller markets. Many will argue that it’s up to the teams to create an environment that makes the players want to resign with their teams. In some ways, I agree. It’s hard to fault Chris Paul for thinking that it may be in his best interest to play for a team that has an actual owner and isn’t the top candidate for contraction. If the Wolves extend their lottery streak for another couple of years with no signs of making the playoffs any time soon, I can understand that Kevin Love might pursue a chance at winning somewhere else. But I have zero tolerance for players like Dwight Howard, who went to the Finals two years ago with the Magic. Or LeBron, who’s Cavaliers were perrenial title contenders. Carmelo Anthony’s Nuggets were Western Conference contenders year and year out, and Amare Stoudamire had plenty of success with the Suns and got to play with one of the all-time great point guards in Steve Nash. Explain to me how any of those players was in an awful situation that necessitated them leaving their team to go play in a big city. Yes, you can point to the Tim Duncans and Kevin Durants who stayed true to teams in some of the league’s smallest markets, but those players are the outliers. Why should I invest myself in Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, when recent history suggests that there’s a 80-90% chance that they will force their way out of Minnesota at the end of their contracts?
You can also argue that players have negotiated a right to free agency and have the ability to play wherever they would like at the end of their contracts. I agree with you 100%. However, there’s the growing notion among players that not only do they have the right to play wherever they’d like, but that they also have the right to a max contract when they hand-select that destination. LeBron, Carmelo, Bosh, Amare, and most likely Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, will not go to their new team via free agency, but rather via trade. They sign a new max deal with the team they just handcuffed before getting shipped out to their new destination. If a player really wants to stab their franchise in the back and head off to L.A., then they should have to take less money to do so. And I’m not talking about “LeBron and Bosh” less money, where they shaved a small percentage off the top. I’m talking about Dwight Howard manning up and taking the MLE if he really wants to be a Laker that badly. The way things go now is that management is so fearful of the player walking away for nothing that they ultimately cave to the trade demands in the hopes that the stockpile of draft picks and cast-offs will save their jobs.
The reality is that those draft picks ultimately end up being in the teens-to-twenties in the first round, and players like Lamar Odom aren’t going to do anything for the Hornets’ chances of seriously contending. He won’t get them to the playoffs, he will hurt their lottery positioning, and even if they trade him to a contender at the deadline, what will they get they get that remotely offsets the blow of losing an All-Star like Chris Paul?
This is why I love David Stern’s move, even though it’s a complete and utter sham. The only way that this parade of superstars to large markets will end is if the small market teams stand up to their super stars. Right now, Dwight Howard knows that the Magic’s GM will cave to his trade demands and send him to one of his prime destinations. Orlando is still scarred from Shaquille O’Neal bolting for nothing back in the mid-90’s, and there’s no way that management wants to deal with the backlash of letting the same thing happen a second time. They will deal Howard away and try to sell fans on the pretty-looking pile of draft picks and role players they received back in return, which, in reality, is a bunch of trash that will just eat up cap space and keep Orlando in the hell of NBA lottery mediocrity for years to come. Again, this is what is killing the NBA. Wouldn’t you be pumped up to buy season tickets for the Magic for the next five years after the Dwight Howard trade is made?
Right now, the players feel like they have all the leverage. Ownership fears the empty seats in the stands resulting from letting their star player walk away for nothing. GM’s want to hang onto their jobs and feel much more secure with Lamar Odom and a bunch of 28th overall draft picks for the next three years than a giant vacuum to fill. But it’s time for the owner and GM’s to realize that they have nothing to gain by caving to their super stars. Truth be told, they would be much better off just letting the player walk and having tons of cap space. I honestly believe the Wolves would have been better off trading Garnett for thin air, than Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff, Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, a super-high 1st rounder, and their own first rounder that would have defaulted to a 2nd rounder anyway. All those players did for Minnesota was create a log-jam of mediocrity or sub-mediocrity for the team to dig themselves out of. It’s time for management to take a stand and say “If you want to go play in L.A. next year, you can do it for the MLE. If you decide to walk after this season, then walk. We aren’t trading you.” I wonder how many of those players listed above would be on their current teams if their former management had held firm like that?
And that is why I love the fact that David Stern blocked the Chris Paul trade. Finally, an owner stood firm. Even if it was under the most dubious of circumstances, ownership still stood firm. It’s asking a lot of David Kahn or some other GM on the hot seat to put his job on the line and stare down his team’s all-star. In the case of the Hornets, there was little to no risk. Management truly doesn’t care whether Paul goes or stays at the end of the season. Nobody is going to get fired if he packs up his bags for another team. But what this will do, if the league holds firm, is give every malcontent superstar a glaring example of their true position the next time that one of them demands a trade. If the league stays firm, there will be one of three outcomes for Chris Paul. He’ll either re-sign for a max deal with New Orleans, take a lesser max deal from a team with cap space that isn’t one of his top destinations, or finally make it to New York or L.A., but only after taking a massive, massive paycut.
When Ricky Rubio stares down David Kahn and Glen Taylor a few years down the road, I want them to be able stare right back and point to Chris Paul. Maybe then, the Wolves will actually get to keep their superstars. Maybe then, my team will finally have a prayer of competing at a high level. If it takes a completely unjust blocking of a trade to set the NBA back on course, then I’m willing to live with the injustice.
After all, there’s nothing fair about the way things are now.