Note: This could end up being one of the craziest months in NBA history. To celebrate the signings, trades, rumors, roster shuffling, insanity and (almost definitely) ensuing hilarity/incompetence, I have unleashed a special series called “The 12 Days of NBA Christmas.” Every weekday through December 19 (give or take a day), I will be writing about this unexpected NBA Christmas.
Day 1: The Road to Groundhog Day (and more dumb contracts than ever)
Day 2: The Donut Dilemma (the bubble in the center market)
Day 3: Is Arron Afflalo really worth $50 million?
Day 4: Where the hell is Chris Paul going?
Day 5: Inside Grantland Featuring Blake Griffin, Part II
Day 6: (12/9) The Day the NBA Lost Its Way
Norm MacDonald’s Comedy Central show may not have lasted long, but it left behind my favorite two-word phrase of 2011: “Wait, what?” The bit went like this: Norm would read a completely insane story with a totally straight face, milk it for a beat, then do a double-take and scream, “Wait, what???” It always slayed me.
See, life is full of those “Wait, what???” moments … you know, like yesterday, right after the Lakers pulled off a three-team trade for Chris Paul, when everyone was still digesting that stunning news through phone calls, e-mails and tweets. I had just tweeted a joke about coming to grips with my favorite point guard — Paul, a true artist, maybe the best pure point guard who ever lived — playing across the street from my office, for the team I hate the most, ultimately deciding that I just needed to get drunk. Not even a minute later, my cell phone rang. A friend of mine was on the line. He’s never steered me wrong. And now, he was about to put me into a freaking stupor.
“The trade’s off! The NBA vetoed the trade!!!”
“The NBA vetoed the trade! They said it wasn’t in the best interests of the league.”
“You heard me. They said it wasn’t in the best interests in the league. Chris has to play out the year in New Orleans.”
You know the rest. One of the strangest things about loving sports: Those random moments when you’re sitting in your house, your office, your classroom, wherever … and suddenly you get blown away by a legitimate bombshell. This was crazy. This was insane. This made no sense. By blocking the trade, David Stern was willingly creating his own Watergate and validating every critic who ever claimed, “That guy stayed too long.” Tim Donaghy was just one guy acting alone — we think — and tampering with dozens of games before they caught him. Blocking the Paul trade? This was different. This was Big Brother stuff. This was one of the biggest conflicts of interest in sports history. This was a league intentionally jeopardizing its own credibility. This was a scandal popping out of thin air, self-created, almost like a man-made lake or something.
These are the facts: Twelve months ago, the NBA bought the New Orleans Hornets for a little more than $300 million. Every other owner (29 in all) split the price for the franchise, the same way you’d split a meal 12 ways for your buddy’s birthday or something. Stern and his cronies claimed this wouldn’t be a problem, that Hornets GM Dell Demps would be able to swing moves just like any other general manager. When Mark Cuban flipped out in February after a Carl Landry/Marcus Thornton swap caused New Orleans’ payroll to rise, nobody really cared. When the lockout dragged on for five months and nobody ever seriously considered contracting the Hornets — a franchise that lost money AND couldn’t find an owner — nobody really cared. When the Hornets stole the spotlight after the labor agreement by immediately being involved in 50,000 different trade rumors, nobody really cared. We all assumed things were “on the level.”
And why not? We had no reason to think differently … right? The league made a point of saying that Demps had been empowered to make any trade (without interference). Every team dealing with New Orleans believed that Demps was in charge — without any question — and that they weren’t wasting their time spending their days batting around ideas with him. On Wednesday morning, when I was working on my column about Paul trades, I sniffed around on Stern’s role in the trade talks and got the same answer from different people: It’s Dell Demps’ call. I ended up joking in that column that Stern might block a Clippers/Paul trade to avoid having Donald Sterling own one of the league’s signature franchises. Everyone read that and got the joke.
I mean, Stern wouldn’t actually BLOCK a trade. That’s preposterous. Right?
Fast-forward to Thursday night: Those first few minutes after word spread (not only that the trade was canceled, but that Paul would probably remain in New Orleans for the entire season), as everyone came to the same sobering conclusion. The old man finally lost his mind. Sure, he was pushed there by a cluster of bitter owners, but the old Stern never would have rolled over like that. Twenty years ago, 10 years ago, maybe even five years ago, Stern would have brushed them off in his endearingly condescending way, quelled the fire, called in a favor or two, acted like the politician he always secretly was. Not this time. The old man doesn’t have the same sway. We just witnessed it during that lockout. Few people understood how much time and effort he spent pushing his holdout owners toward that final compromise. He barely got there.
If you want to know the truth, Stern started losing control of the league during the middle of last decade, when a new generation of wealthy billionaires started paying full boat for franchises. The days of Abe Pollin and Bill Davidson were long gone — family guys who bought in early, stuck with their investments and watched their league flourish into something much bigger than they ever expected. Stern’s favorite owner was Larry Miller, a dynamic Salt Lake City businessman and philanthropist who bought the Jazz in 1985, then ran the franchise with his family for the next 24 years. A year after diabetes claimed Miller in May of 2009, Stern met the press before a playoff game and spoke earnestly about his affection for Miller. Someone asked the commissioner about Jerry Sloan’s longevity. At the time, Sloan was still coaching the Jazz at 67 years old, six months older than Stern.
“We’re a dying breed,” Stern admitted. “It’s not happening anymore. But it sure is reassuring to look there and expect to see him, and darn, he’s there. It’s kind of neat.”
That’s probably how Stern thought people saw him. Or, how he hoped people saw him. And in some cases (like with me), it was true. Little did he know that Sloan was losing control of his players — in 2011, an ongoing clash with star Deron Williams caused Sloan to resign — just like Stern was slowly losing control of his owners. The newer generation of guys wasn’t indebted to him. They found him to be increasingly obstinate, stuck in his ways, more of a condescending bully than anything. After paying full sticker price for their teams, they weren’t interested in answering to some aging know-it-all. Stern’s control slowly started to erode, whether he realized it or not.
Leaders thrive when they feel creatively empowered, when they trust the people around them, when their confidence is swelling. Leaders make mistakes when they lose that same confidence, when they’re fretting about their power base, when they’re reacting instead of acting. The worst kind of leaders hang on too long, get seduced by their own voice, start doing things from memory — because that’s the way we’ve always done it! — stop thinking outside the box, start playing checkers instead of chess. Stern reached that point last night. I think he caved because of the whining owners, but also out of exasperation: because yet another superstar was trying to push his way to another big city, because he’s in charge, because THIS IS DAVID STERN’S LEAGUE. It’s like the old Will Ferrell/Dodge Stratus SNL sketch:
You don’t talk to me like that! I’m David Stern! I make the rules here! You don’t get to pick your team, I do! I’m the commissioner of the NBA! I DRIVE A DODGE STRATUS!!!!!
Fact: That trade was totally, undeniably, 100 percent defensible.
Fact: Of the three teams involved, New Orleans made out the best. Repeat: the best. By my calculations, it landed one of the better offensive big men in basketball (Luis Scola), one of the better scoring 2-guards in basketball (Kevin Martin), a playoff-proven forward who can play either spot (Lamar Odom), a scoring point guard with upside (Goran Dragic), and a 2012 no. 1 pick (via the New York Knicks). Can you do better for someone who was leaving in seven months anyway? I hate trading superstars, but if you HAVE to trade a superstar? That’s pretty good.
Meanwhile, the Rockets spent the past three years stashing enough pieces to make that trade: Acquiring the second-best center in basketball (Gasol) while leaving enough cap room to sign a marquee free agent (and yes, they were closing in on Nene). And the Lakers paid the steepest price: giving up their best low-post guy and all of their frontcourt depth, giving Andrew Bynum an immense amount of responsibility (you know, the same guy who stormed off the court half-naked during the playoff sweep last spring) and reinventing their team around Paul’s aching knee and Kobe’s aching knees. It would have been a brilliant move had it worked and a legendary disaster had it failed — especially if Kobe rebelled against sharing the ball with Paul — only now we’ll never know.
Once word leaked of the deal, rival owners started rebelling almost immediately. What was the point of that lockout, and all the talk of competitive balance, if the Lakers were allowed to immediately acquire Chris Paul? Dan Gilbert sent a scathing e-mail to a few of the other owners that, of course, was leaked on the Internet last night.
The best part of the letter: “This trade should go to a vote of the 29 owners of the Hornets.”
(Translation: “Let’s cut Demps’ balls off, throw the last few weeks of negotiating out the window and go back on our word. Also, I’m thinking of starting a support group for small-market owners who overpaid for their teams, don’t have the balls to sell and would rather whine, bitch and bully about their lot in NBA life. I’m going to call it O.A.: Overpayers Anonymous.”)
The second-best part of the letter: “I just don’t see how we can allow this trade to happen. I know the vast majority of owners feel the same way that I do. When will we just change the name of 25 of the 30 teams to the Washington Generals?”
(Translation: Boooooooo hooooooo.)
There it was, in all its Comic Sans MS glory, that whopping conflict of interest that had been staring at everyone for 12 solid months. How can a league own one of its own franchises? What happens if it has to, you know, make important trades and stuff? The league always knew that, at some point, the Hornets might have to trade Chris Paul. They claimed they had a plan in place. And they did. Until O.A. started bitching with even more fervor than usual. That’s when Stern’s eroding power finally sank him. Instead of backing a decision he had already made, Stern choked like Nick Anderson. The unthinkable happened.
He blocked the trade.
Was it the worst moment of David Stern’s entire tenure? I never thought anything would top an official fixing games, but man … how can anything be worse than this? Imagine this happened in your fantasy league. Imagine spending weeks shaping a deal, executing it, then having your commissioner waltz in and say, “Nah, I’m vetoing that one.” Would that ever happen? And now this is happening in a PROFESSIONAL SPORTS LEAGUE?
Just know that I’m a die-hard Celtics fan and die-hard Lakers hater … and even I am appalled. I hope Chris Paul sues. I hope the Rockets sue. I hope the Lakers sue. I hope Dell Demps resigns and makes a sex tape with a stripper wearing a David Stern Halloween mask. Whatever happens, the season has been irrevocably tainted — we just watched FIVE teams have their seasons screwed up by this debacle. Houston’s three-year plan just went up in smoke; now the Rockets have to make up with their two best players. (Good luck with that.) The Lakers need to determine if their relationship with the notoriously sensitive Gasol and the even more notoriously sensitive Odom is salvageable; and if it’s not, what then? The Hornets are just plain screwed. It’s a basketball catastrophe for them. As for the Celtics, Pinocchio Ainge’s ill-fated pursuit of Paul ruined the team’s relationship with Rajon Rondo, only its best young player. Even the Knicks got screwed — supposedly they closed the deal with Tyson Chandler yesterday, never expecting Paul to become available this summer (and now they can’t chase him).
The total tally: Five teams were screwed by one cowardly decision.
Here’s what saddens me: We should have remembered December 8, 2011, as one of the best random basketball days in years. It was like climbing on a Twitter/e-mail/phone call/texting roller coaster from the moment I woke up. First, Boston was in the lead for Paul as Golden State and the Clippers were falling out. Then, Boston fading as the Knicks were gaining steam. Around lunchtime, I called a Knicks buddy who was gleefully planning a future with Chandler, Carmelo and Paul, with poor Amar’e headed to New Orleans, Orlando, Houston … who the hell knew? And then, boom! That went up in smoke. The Lakers came roaring back, word of a three-teamer spread … and my Knicks buddy went from euphoric to despondent in less than three hours. My Laker fan buddies were crowing, my Boston peeps were freaking out, my dad was practically having a heart attack about the Kobe/Howard/Paul possibilities, Twitter was blowing up … I mean, could that have been a more fun day to be a basketball fan?
The best point guard of his generation was switching teams, in his prime, to the Los Angeles Lakers … and only after the Celtics and Knicks failed to get him. Read that sentence again. It’s what Dan Gilbert and the other Overpayers Anonymous owners will never understand. In professional basketball, history trumps everything else. It’s not just about playing in Los Angeles. It’s about playing for the fucking Lakers. It’s about following the footsteps of Magic, Kareem, Wilt, West, Baylor and Shaq. It’s about Showtime, Nicholson, the yellow jerseys, the Laker Girls, even that awful Randy Newman song. It’s about that buzz before a big Laker home game, when the place is packed with celebs and eye candy, when you’re the best guy on the team, when you might as well be the king of the world. When these idiots complain about a “big market/small market” disparity, it’s almost like they never followed the league before they bought their teams. Of course there’s a disparity! What kid doesn’t grow up wanting to play for the Celtics, Lakers or Knicks?
Remember what pissed us off most about LeBron picking Miami over New York? It wasn’t just that he tried to stack the decks with a superteam; it’s that he walked away from New York, the city with the most basketball fans, the city with the biggest spotlight, the city that would have either made him immortal or broken him in two. He didn’t want it. He copped out. He could have picked loyalty (Cleveland) or immortality (New York); instead, he chose help (Miami). That killed us. We hated him for it. What was telling about Chris Paul’s choice was that he eschewed the Clippers (a safer basketball situation for him; he would have been able to grow with Eric Gordon, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin) for the Lakers (a much more volatile basketball situation with Kobe’s miles and Bynum’s knees) for the simple reason that he wanted to be a Laker.
For the right players, it’s not about cities as much as teams, uniforms, histories, owners, fans, titles … and Chris Paul cares about the right things. He’s the best teammate in the league. As much as it killed me that my least favorite team landed him, the “basketball fan” side of me loved it. Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant … together? Playing across the street from my office? How cool was that? I remember when KG landed on the Celtics, one of my Lakers-fan buddies told me, “I hate KG and I hate the Celtics, but this is going to be cool.”
That’s how I felt about Chris Paul and the Lakers. If you love basketball — if you truly love it — you appreciated what was happening. And it had nothing to do with the Washington Generals. Believe me.
Of course, that’s not how December 8, 2011 will be remembered. Years from now, I won’t remember anything about that day except for David Stern losing control of his own league. Once upon a time, it was reassuring to look there and expect to see him, and darn, he was there. It was kind of neat. Those days are long gone. The National Basketball Association has lost its way. I feel like crying.
Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter and check out his new home on Facebook.
Previously from Bill Simmons: