Let 'em walk

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
3:38
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
The unknown factors in the Chris Paul trade saga remain a mystery. Smart people are still asking the right questions, but we still don't know what governed the decision to veto a three-way trade between the Hornets, Lakers and Rockets, then sign off on a package from the Clippers.

We don't know to what extent that first deal was agreed upon by front office principals in New Orleans, Houston and Los Angeles. We don't know whether the subsequent rejection of that trade for "basketball reasons" was just that -- a statement about the contents of the package, or whether the league had ulterior motives like throwing a bone to a segment of owners or listening to the wishes of a potential buyer.

What few have asked is why the Hornets felt the dire need to trade Chris Paul in the first place, a question Mavericks owner Mark Cuban addressed over the weekend in an interview with TMZ:
[W]e went through a long lockout, and one of the things we were trying to gain was that small-market teams could have confidence they could keep their star players ... There would be enough financial incentives for them to stay with the incumbent team. And within two weeks of the new collective bargaining agreement, the smallest-market team, which is owned by the NBA, threw up their hands and said, ‘We can’t keep our star player.’ So it’s not about Chris Paul. It’s more about the fact that the NBA kind of gave up on the CBA before giving it a chance. And to me, that made them kind of hypocritical -- or very hypocritical -- which didn’t sit too well with me...

... We had a lockout. What was the purpose of the lockout? One of the goals of the lockout was to have more parity. With free agency, players are always allowed to choose wherever they want to go, but they have to make a decision. Do they want to stay with their existing teams and make the most money, or leave on their own terms to wherever they want to go with cap room and take less money? My personal belief is 90 percent of the time players are going to take the greater money, which meant that Chris Paul could've, would've -- or any star player could've, would've -- wanted to stay in the smaller market. And you’ve got other teams that are making that conscious decision to stick it out like Orlando is doing. But of all the teams not sticking it out, you would think the team owned by the NBA and run by the commissioner would be the first to stick it out, and they weren’t. And to me, it’s hypocritical, and threw a lot of us under the bus.

Cuban argues that a team owned by the NBA should've been faithful to the spirit of a collective bargaining agreement that makes superstars choose between destination and treasure. Had Chris Paul opted out of the final year of his contract with New Orleans and chosen the Lakers, then so be it. Paul would've had to settle for only $75.8 million over four seasons rather than the $100.2 million over five seasons he could've earned only with the Hornets.

Critics of Cuban's argument would say that an unwillingness to trade Paul could mean the Hornets would be stuck with nothing in return.

But is nothing really so bad?

Wasn't the initial proposal -- which would've netted the Hornets Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom and Goran Dragic -- rejected because it would've made the Hornets too competitive? The Hornets would've been consigned to the NBA's middle class, not competitive enough to win anything meaningful, but not bad enough to secure a future superstar with a high draft pick. While treading water, the Hornets would be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars, even if those contracts are of relatively fair value, which they are.

In contrast, the Clippers delivered a likely Top 10 pick, along with an expiring deal for an All-Star center, a prolific young scorer and a forward prospect. Nevermind that the center won't be around next season, the scorer might not want to stick around and the prospect may or may not amount to anything. In fact, for teams in rebuilding mode, success presents serious problems. As Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote last week at HoopSpeak, why pay to be competitive if you can tank for less?
Much of the appeal in this Clippers-Hornets trade is derived from how it makes the Hornets immediately, well, bad ... Obviously, Eric Gordon is a key get, but few observers believe he’ll take New Orleans to next year’s playoffs. And that’s the point. The Hornets will receive a high lottery selection to pair with Minnesota’s 2011 draft pick. A gutted team plus lotto hope makes for a more enticing situation than the playoff contention troika of Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, and Kevin Martin.

By shepherding this particular trade through, the commissioner is tacitly–maybe even overtly–singing a grand, bellowing ode to the glories of tanking. And he is quite correct, because ping pong balls determine so much.

This is why Orlando shouldn't worry too much about getting nothing in return for Howard -- and why New Orleans should flip Eric Gordon as soon as possible, lest he help them win 28 games and finish with the No. 9 or 10 pick.

Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri deserves praise for engineering a strong deal when Carmelo Anthony declared he wanted out of Denver, but pull back for a second and consider what the future looks like for the Nuggets. Those nice assets accumulated in Anthony trade should, along with Nene, sentence the Nuggets to respectability. The team will be fun, likeable and utterly irrelevant on May 25, if not sooner. While the dregs of the league scout all the coveted incoming big men at the top of the draft board, Denver will troll the middle ranks of the first round.

It will be years before we can fairly judge whether the Nuggets would've been better off letting Anthony leave "for nothing," but if your goal is June basketball in Denver at the earliest possible moment, Top 5 picks and swaths of cap space for the foreseeable future might be preferable to Danilo Gallinari and a highly-compensated Nene, who is approaching 30. Nuggets fans won't have to cover their eyes, but they can probably forget about seeing tickets with holograms on them anytime soon.

When we learned last week of a Howard trade proposal that had Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace, Jordan Farmar and a pick to Orlando, the early takeaway was that Orlando was getting the shaft. But the problem for Orlando wasn't that the deal was bad -- it's that it wasn't bad enough! The NBA is governed by a system that reserves its greatest rewards for abject failure, but tells teams striving to put a competitive product on the floor that it's wasting its time.

Think about the Houston Rockets for a second. While they had $40 million of annual salary tied up in two injured superstars, they continued to make wily deals, like offloading Rafer Alston for the Grizzlies' backup point guard, and stealing an Argentinian power forward from the Spurs for Vassilis Spanoulis. Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola have allowed the Rockets to remain competitive on a nightly basis -- and forever relegated to the middle of the first round of the NBA draft, where superstars are a once in a generation occurrence.

What do you do if you're the Rockets or the Hawks and have the talent in place to hang around the 45-win mark for the foreseeable future? Are you deluding yourself in a system with screwy disincentives and maddening inefficiencies? Are you better off conducting a fire sale and putting a sign at the arena gate apologizing for the mess while you remodel?

Mark Cuban is half right-half wrong. If the Hornets and/or the NBA made a mistake by dealing away Chris Paul, it isn't because they betrayed any tacit promise they owed to small-market owners (You want a promise? Get it in the form of a hard cap). It's because they acquired a player who has the potential to win basketball games and cost them lots of money next summer, two things that will work in opposition to getting atop the NBA draft board.

Orlando now finds itself in a similar situation with Howard. The two most desirable outcomes for the Magic are (1) figuring out how to retain Howard for the long term (2) putting themselves in the same position they were when they drafted Howard in 2004 -- 40 games under .500.

Offering him the most years at the most money is the only way to achieve No. 1. "Getting nothing in return for Howard" is the easiest way to get to No. 2.

But trading Howard for productive players is the sure-fire way to thwart both plans.

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