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: The Day the NBA Lost Its Way
The One Day When the Clippers Actually Mattered (VOIDED BY DAVID STERN)
Day 8 (12/13): The Chris Paul NBA Hostage Crisis Continues
Hold on, I have to finish setting Monday’s column on fire. It was called, “Day 7: The One Day When the Clippers Actually Mattered.” After wasting most of my day writing it, I spent the afternoon watching it slowly burn to a crisp. You know, just like the NBA’s credibility.
If you’re looking for answers, you came to the wrong place. If you’re looking for logic, keep looking. I don’t know why David Stern tarnished his legacy, shredded his league’s credibility and opened the door for a collusion/circumvention lawsuit by the NBA Players Association (filed on Chris Paul’s behalf). But I’ve heard some fantastic theories, including
THEORY NO. 1: Stern didn’t want a screwed-up franchise (the Clippers) with a screwed-up owner (Donald Sterling) to acquire one of his signature players (Paul).
Possibility of being true: 40 percent. That’s actually a semi-defensible reason, no? Had Stern said, “I’ll approve the trade, Donald, but only if you agree to sell the team to someone who doesn’t embarrass the league and make everyone’s skin crawl you know, like you,” I would have been fine with that. That’s not the overriding reason, though.
THEORY NO. 2: Stern wanted someone to make a 30 for 30 documentary about him and worried about a dramatic hook, so he started acting like Vince McMahon right after the Montreal Screwjob to sway a celebrity filmmaker like Jason Reitman to make December 8, 2011: The Day the NBA Died.
Possibility of being true: One percent. Remember when Vince reinvented himself as a heel after Bret Hart punched him, started calling himself Mr. McMahon and even made that catchy “No Chance in Hell” entrance song? I know that seems like it was the goal here but it wasn’t.
THEORY NO. 3: There’s no conspiracy at all — the real problem is that Stern is relying on the NBA’s executive vice president of operations, Stu Jackson, to advise him on the “fairness” of every trade offer for Paul.
Possibility of being true: 50 percent. The “Jackson is advising him on trade offers” part is actually, and amazingly, true.1 That doesn’t mean it’s part of a bigger conspiracy — if one exists — but I hope you appreciate the rock-solid unintentional comedy of Stu Jackson assessing what’s fair and unfair with an NBA trade. A nice guy by all accounts, Stu Jackson is the answer to the trivia question, “Who’s the only executive in NBA history who did such a lousy job, his franchise actually had to relocate?” (Please see this footnote.2) Ask the 40 remaining NBA fans in Vancouver how they feel about Jackson’s front-office acumen. On my podcast two years ago, Stern called Vancouver’s NBA experience his single biggest regret as NBA commissioner; Jackson was in charge of Vancouver’s basketball decisions that entire time. Now he’s advising Stern on a basketball trade that’s doubling as the biggest conflict of interest of Stern’s entire commissionership? Really???? Either way, here’s your answer to another trivia question: “What improbable chain of events had to happen for Stu Jackson to get another NBA GM job?”
Stern leaned on Jackson’s advice last Thursday before killing the three-team trade. These past few days, he’s been leaning on both Jackson and Joel Litvin, who’s currently the head of league’s basketball, legal, player development and security operations.
The Grizzlies lasted six years before moving to Memphis. Only Jackson called the shits during that time I mean, called the shots. Some Stu highlights: He overpaid Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Bryant Reeves and Michael Dickerson; he stubbornly wasted the no. 2 pick in a loaded 1999 draft on a guy who didn’t want to play in Canada (Steve Francis), then panic-traded Francis to Houston for Brent Price, Antoine Carr, Othella Harrington, Dickerson and a no. 1 pick a few months later; he passed on local hero Steve Nash not once (in the 1996 draft) but twice (when Nash became available via trade two years later); and he dealt an unprotected no. 1 pick for Otis Thorpe in 1997 that ended up being the no. 2 pick in the LeBron/Carmelo/Bosh/Wade draft (yeah, Detroit took Darko, but still); and (my personal favorite), he took Anthony Peeler and George Lynch off Jerry West’s hands in 1996 so the Lakers had enough cap space to sign Shaquille O’Neal.
THEORY NO. 4: The league has a mystery Hornets buyer lined up and doesn’t want to jeopardize the sale by not getting enough value for Chris Paul.
Possibility of being true: 60 percent. They’d rather keep Paul and let the new owner figure it out UNLESS someone blows them away. Translation: When you don’t care if you trade someone, you can waste everyone’s time making insane requests like, “Hey Houston, we’ll let you get Pau Gasol in this revised three-team deal, but only if you give up six of your seven best assets” (100 percent true) and, “Hey Clippers, you can have Chris Paul, but only if you include Eric Gordon, the rights to Minnesota’s unprotected 2012 no. 1 pick, Chris Kaman and last year’s no. 1 picks (Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe)” for someone who, again, is leaving our team in seven months. It’s like someone saying, “I know my house is worth a million dollars, and I know I have to sell it before the bank forecloses on it, but if you want to buy it, I’m gonna need $2 million in cash.”
THEORY NO. 5: That same mystery buyer is either blocking these trades himself (because he has an irrational idea of Chris Paul’s value), or believes he can convince Paul to sign an extension with the Hornets (equally irrational).
Possibility of being true: 35 percent. For the record, rumors have been swirling about this mystery buyer for three days; the New York Post‘s Peter Vecsey even mentioned “him” squashing last weekend’s three-teamer. If that’s somehow true, I hope he’s reading this — I’d like to become the first writer to call him a moron.
THEORY NO. 6: Stern made a bet with a buddy that he could keep humiliating and neutering Hornets GM Dell Demps until a frustrated Demps finally resigned.3
Behind the scenes, the NBA is spinning a story that Demps never had the authority to agree to that three-teamer, and that the league squashed the deal so abruptly partially because he went rogue like Tom Walker in Homeland. Here’s what I will never understand: Instead of canceling the deal so quickly, why didn’t the league just announce that it needed 24 hours to review the trade? Why open itself up to such a PR catastrophe? And if Demps really did go “rogue,” why didn’t they fire him immediately? The details of that day continue to be fishy.
Possibility of being true: 10 percent. Remember when Mortimer and Randolph Duke made a $1 bet about Winthorpe resorting to crime in Trading Places? Same thing. By all accounts, the NBA pushed Demps aside completely Monday and assumed control of talks with the Clippers; Demps also hasn’t been allowed to make any roster moves. Should we mention that the Hornets have only seven players under contract right now and three of those seven are Quincy Pondexter, David Andersen and Patrick Ewing Jr.? In the next few days, if Dell Demps gets mysteriously framed for heroin possession and moves into an apartment belonging to a hooker with a heart of gold, these odds jump to 50 percent.
THEORY NO. 7: Stern eked out only 16 “yes” votes for the latest labor agreement by promising the naysayers that he’d address the whole big-market/small-market disparity as well as the whole stars-jumping-teams issue. Now they’re making Paul an unfortunate litmus test — by NOT caving unless it’s for a Godfather offer, the league is practicing what it preached.
Possibility of being true: 80 percent. Imagine Stern’s horror when, within 72 hours of the NBA’s “We’re back!” announcement, “Who’s getting Dwight Howard?” and “Who’s getting Chris Paul?” became the league’s two biggest news stories. Sure seems like he’s trying to prove a larger point here. And that point is, “I don’t care how bad this point is, or how bad this makes me look, I am proving a point!”
THEORY NO. 8: The league believed it would find a Hornets buyer before the season; that never happened; and now it’s ill equipped to handle the inevitable conflict of interest issues that accompany any Chris Paul trade so it would rather bury him in New Orleans for the season until the team gets sold than allow him to file for free agency next summer. And if it screwed over CAA’s Leon Rose and William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley (who were prominently involved with The Decision and Carmelo’s saga last season), even better.
Possibility of being true: 80 percent. In 2008, Michael Heisley blew a potential Grizzlies sale by trading his best player, Pau Gasol. He thought the deal would make Memphis more attractive to buyers, when actually it made the franchise less attractive. That’s why the league was searching for the “perfect” deal here; the league would rather avoid the headache (and backlash) of steering Paul toward a big market. So why spend three weeks going through the “Demps has authority to make a trade” charade? Why waste everyone’s time? Why come off so poorly and disingenuously? How did a seemingly well-run league that had 12 solid months to prepare for this particular moment botch that moment so completely and totally?
THEORY NO. 9: The league is trying to destroy the Hornets so it can contract the franchise in June.
Possibility of being true: 5 percent. I know it sounds far-fetched, but let’s say you couldn’t find a new Hornets owner and wanted to dump that franchise, only you knew you couldn’t do that right away. Wouldn’t you ruin the team’s relationship with its franchise player, make it impossible to get fair value for him, tank the 2011-12 season and run the team so reprehensibly that every player would be terrified to play there?
What’s the answer? I’d wager on a theory pupu platter of nos. 1, 3, 7 and 8 with no. 5 sprinkled in for good measure. That’s why the NBA faces a fairly compelling “collusion and circumvention” legal case, and that’s why CAA power agent Rose reached out to embattled Players Association head Billy Hunter for help after Thursday’s vetoed trade.4 Hunter and Rose kept Paul silent while trying to revive the three-teamer (no luck), then pushed the Clippers these past two days once Paul agreed to play there. If the Clippers deal isn’t revived within the next 24 hours, we’re headed to court and the league will need to prove that it didn’t collude to prevent a Paul trade.
You could choke on the irony here: Rose was one of seven powerful agents who tried to overthrow Hunter last summer.
Look at it from Paul’s side. He only wants a fair chance to be traded from his team. He doesn’t want to re-sign with the Hornets, and why would he? They don’t have an owner. They have a GM who’s hung like a Ken doll right now (through no fault of his own). They just allowed his best teammate (David West) to leave for Indiana. After they backed out of two separate trades, they’ve become one of those eBay buyers with awful feedback ratings; nobody wants to deal with them. Oh, and Paul’s best teammates right now are Emeka Okafor, Jarrett Jack, Trevor Ariza and David Andersen. Good luck finishing 20-46 with that motley crew.
Beyond that, the new labor agreement practically spells out the words, “CHRIS PAUL WOULD BE AN IDIOT IF HE DIDN’T PUSH FOR A TRADE RIGHT NOW.” Read this piece or this piece for the gory details, but Paul needs to broker a trade to a favorable team, then pick up his 2012-13 player option ($17.79 million) OR sign an extend-and-trade for $36.49 million combined in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. Unfortunately for him, the NBA doesn’t want superstars to control their own destinies like they did before. That philosophy makes sense when “stars” are quitting on their teams — like Vince Carter did in 2004, or Carmelo did last year — but becomes murkier for a loyal franchise guy like Paul, someone who’s been one of the league’s best role models, busted his butt to make New Orleans competitive and threw himself into the city’s Katrina-ravaged community. You would think one of the league’s best signature stars earned the right to say, “I want to play for a contender instead of an unowned, small-market, talent-poor lottery team that’s just been turned into a joke.” You would think.
And look, I don’t want to play the sympathy card for someone making $16 million a year to play basketball for a living. But what if this debacle is creeping toward a “Sorry, Chris, you have to finish the season playing for this putrid Hornets team, we’re not trading you” conclusion? What then? How is that fair? If the league’s best American players had any balls whatsoever — yeah, I’m looking at you, Kobe, Dwyane, LeBron, Dwight, Deron, Blake, Derrick, Carmelo and everyone else — they would threaten to boycott the 2012 Olympics until Paul’s situation was rectified. Trust me, the league doesn’t care about a “collusion and circumvention” lawsuit; I still haven’t found a legal expert who thinks Paul can win it. But having every American star no-show the 2012 Olympics? Now THAT would catch the NBA’s attention.
Of course, we could solve this mess by swinging a reasonable trade. I thought New Orleans made out better than anyone else in last Thursday’s three-teamer; if Stu Jackson disagreed, that makes me feel even better about that assessment. I also thought the Clippers’ offer of Kaman, Aminu, Bledsoe and Minnesota’s pick5 was a totally fair offer, especially after every other suitor had dropped out of the chase.6 Why should they have to give up Eric Gordon? You only trade for Paul if you want to contend; giving up the league’s best under-30 shooting guard (Gordon) defeats the purpose of acquiring Paul in the first place. Wouldn’t the Clippers contend immediately with Griffin, Paul, Gordon, DeAndre Jordan, Mo Williams, Caron Butler, Randy Foye and Chauncey Billups?7 If it doesn’t work out, no biggie — the 2011-12 Clips would still be a playoff team with tradeable assets to boot, and it’s not like anyone else is acquiring Paul. If I were running the Clips, I wouldn’t let Stern and his henchmen break me.
Minny’s pick might be overrated. The following teams have less talent on their roster: Cleveland, Toronto, Charlotte, Washington, New Orleans. The following teams MIGHT finish worse than them: Utah, Detroit, Sacramento, Golden State, Milwaukee, Denver (if it decides to rebuild for next season) and Houston (ditto). Also, the T-Wolves went from the league’s worst coach (Kurt Rambis) to one of its most successful coaches of the past 20 years (Rick Adelman, who has a habit of getting teams to overachieve). And a nucleus of Kevin Love, Derrick Williams, Wesley Johnson, Ricky Rubio, J.J. Barea, Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph, Anthony Tolliver, Luke Ridnour and the 18-Foul Center Monster (Darko Milicic, Brad Miller and Nikola Pekovic) is surprisingly solid. I hate going deeper than nine or 10 guys, but for this nightmare of a 66-game season, wouldn’t you want a deep team with young legs? How many games will the T-Wolves steal just by being deeper and fresher?
A source close to this mess told me that Paul refused to sign even a one-year extension with the Warriors. The Lakers aren’t trading Andrew Bynum for him. The Celtics don’t have the salaries to make a trade work. The Knicks don’t have the cap space. There are no other suitors.
Another fun wrinkle to this sordid saga: The Clippers miraculously winning Billups’ amnesty bid in a process that, of course, was controlled by the league you know, the same league that was trying to convince the Clippers to throw Eric Gordon into the Chris Paul trade. Fact: Billups makes it easier for the Clippers to deal Gordon. We’re running out of ways to say “conflict of interest” this week.
Then again, these are the Clippers — the league’s dumbest franchise for three decades and counting. If any team is capable of getting fleeced by its own commissioner, or dealing the no. 1 overall pick in consecutive years (a distinct possibility if this Paul trade goes through), it’s a Clippers franchise that’s been cursed for 35 solid years. And here’s where we have to give Stern the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he’s playing this one perfectly.8
Well, except for the “deferring to Stu Jackson’s judgment on basketball trades” part.
Maybe he blocked last week’s three-teamer knowing there was a willing patsy (the Clippers) sitting in the weeds.
Maybe he remembered that no NBA franchise has ever traded for a superstar in his prime without also locking that superstar down long-term9 but if a franchise were ever bucking that trend, it would be Donald Sterling’s Clippers.
By my calculations, seven superstars were traded at the peak of their powers: Moses Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jason Kidd, Charles Barkley, Pete Maravich and Julius Erving. All seven times, the team acquiring him knew the star was sticking around. You can’t count Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Gary Payton, Elvin Hayes or Oscar Robertson — all of those guys were past their peaks when they got traded. And you can’t count Bob McAdoo, Chris Webber or Bernard King, who had fallen out of favor with their old teams.
Maybe he knew that Sterling spent the past three-plus decades living in his buddy Jerry Buss’ shadow as the much reviled owner of the Clippers — the black sheep of the L.A. sports scene since 1984, the whipping boy, the punch line — and would be delighted if his little-brother Clippers pulled off something that the big-brother Lakers couldn’t pull off.
Maybe he realizes that, deep down, Sterling cares only about what he’s getting (the best point guard alive) and not what he’d be giving up (promise, hope, potential, Ping-Pong balls basically, all the crap he’s been selling to Clipper fans these past 30 years).
Maybe Sterling cares only about keeping Griffin two years from now. Maybe he thinks Paul’s presence will sway Griffin toward signing a lucrative extension next summer. Maybe he’s only thinking, “Give me one of the most electric pairings in NBA history right now and we can figure out everything later.” Maybe Stern is banking on this.
Maybe he envisions Sterling getting seduced by that one Zihuatanejo-esque moment in the distance: Paul dribbling 30 feet from the hoop in the last minute of a tight Lakers game, Griffin catching his eye, and suddenly, Griffin charging toward the basket as Paul lofts a pass toward the rim. The pass will be perfect, and only because Paul plays point guard about as perfectly as anyone ever played the position. Griffin will take care of the rest. Clipper fans will leap up and down, slap palms, scream incoherently toward the ceiling. The Lakers will call timeout and slink back to their bench. Griffin and Paul will point at each other, smile, laugh, and slap hands, the league’s most electric new duo, the hottest ticket in town.
And when that sequence happens, believe me nobody will care that the Clippers gutted their future to rent Chris Paul for 19 months, or that the league disgraced itself to get there.
But guess what? The Billups acquisition changed everything for the Clippers; suddenly they believe they can contend without Paul, and in the shocker of shockers, they might be right. They backed away from negotiations last night, and one more time this morning, leaving David Stern sitting at the “CHRIS PAUL FIRE SALE” table by himself. There isn’t a single suitor in sight. Not one. With the season just 12 days away, Stern finds himself stuck with a miserable star, a disgruntled fan base and the single most hopeless roster in the league. Unless that was his intention all long, it sure seems like the old man overplayed his hand twice. And we thought Donald Sterling was a bad owner.
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: