Contraction talk with teeth

New Orleans Hornets fansChris Graythen/Getty Images Sport

The NBA has mixed messages for Hornets fans.

David Stern's rhetoric about the Hornets has become fascinating and, if you're a Hornets fans, maybe a little scary.

By and large he has talked about "showing a little love for New Orleans." And in his actions, he has dipped into the NBA owners' pockets specifically in an effort to keep the team in the Crescent City -- he points out there are plenty of bidders out there wanting to move the team, which is not his first option. In words and deeds, he seems like a guy who wants the Hornets to succeed in New Orleans.

But that does not mean that team is not, simultaneously, a pawn in various bigger games.

Back before Christmas, I called around to a lot of smart people to get the skinny on why the NBA bought the Hornets. There were lots of theories, and some direct insight. Three ideas really stuck out:

  • With owners like Bruce Ratner and Bob Johnson having sold at a loss, and the Hornets drawing weak offers, there was a new mood to shore up team prices. (If NBA teams end up in the bargain bin, 29 teams would potentially take a hit when they try to sell.)

  • The NBA has leverage with local politicians -- the mayor of New Orleans and governor of Louisiana -- to try to get the team the kind of support they have given the Saints.

  • In negotiating a new CBA, the NBA could now threaten to shut down the Hornets, which would be decidedly simple if it's a team they own.

That last point, when I first heard it, struck me as near blasphemy. It's a "shoot the hostage" style of negotiating that's entirely incongruous with Stern's lovey rhetoric about the city that inspired him to make "All-Star Day of Service" an annual tradition.

But there's real logic to it. If the NBA's rich teams are going to be forking over big dollars in revenue sharing, there's a ton of value for everyone in eliminating the teams that will collect the most. Closing a team down, in that world, is like winterizing your home. Plug one leak ... the whole place is more comfortable.

It could also be powerful to threaten the players with contraction. Basically, if they're going to insist on a big percentage of the league's basketball revenues, the league can threaten to reduce player income the old-fashioned way: by eliminating jobs.

Bill Simmons trotted out the idea that the league bought the team to shut it down in a conversation with Stern on the B.S. Report last week. Simmons called it his "conspiracy theory."

Stern's response was fascinating: "That wouldn't be a conspiracy. I know that there are some owners who might share that view."

To which Simmons responded, aptly: "Uh oh."

Now, to be clear, Stern's main point has always been that the league would try to make it work in New Orleans. But he could have done wonders for the mood of Hornets fans by saying he would not consider shutting the team down. He did the opposite -- even though he says he has no shortage of buyers willing to buy the team and move it to another city.

For a careful speaker like Stern, that sends a message.

What message, exactly?

He was asked more about contraction on Saturday, and said that revenue sharing was changing the conversation:

I would say it's not currently on the table. There's been no proposal about contraction. But what I said to you -- what I said earlier was the subject has been raised internally with respect to no particular team, but with respect to the concept that if we have 35 million dollars plus or minus of shared revenue that goes to a team, and we are talking about more robust revenue sharing that could be, who knows, let's say another 15 million dollars in a certain case; that's 15 million dollars, and some owners have been heard to suggest that that would be better used to buy out the team rather than to feed it. And that sentiment is out there. It's not a majority sentiment but it's out there.

What struck me most, however, was how Stern answered a question from a reporter wondering about getting a team to Kansas City. Stern said that he had talked to AEG, which built an NBA-ready arena in Kansas City, and that the hold-up in that market was not the building, but the lack of a ready ownership group. Then the reporter asked if a team would have to relocate there, or might the city be able to get an expansion team?

The tone of voice of Stern's answer to that struck me as about as honest and emphatic as anything he said in the whole press conference:

"There is not going to be expansion," he said, "at this time or, frankly, in the foreseeable future."

Wow. As in: No way in hell we think that's a good idea.

In terms of TV ratings, and some other measures, the NBA is about as popular as it has ever been. Stern rejects talk that the NBA has a talent shortage -- he points out that players now come from a bigger pool, including all kinds of international players. If you think the market for NBA basketball is strong, for someone in Stern's position, expansion is fantastic. That's the process that starts with a billionaire writing the league a check for $300 million or so, and ends with deep bonds with new audiences in what used to be football, baseball or hockey country.

Stern is saying to those billionaires, essentially: Please don't approach me with your stacks of cash. It's hard to imagine a stronger message that Stern thinks the NBA has enough teams to serve the current market.

The question for Hornets fans, however, is whether he thinks it has just the right number, or too many.