Commentary

NBA sets a dangerous precedent

By nixing the Paul-to-L.A. deal, the league makes a clear move against the big markets

Updated: December 9, 2011, 3:21 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

For a little more than three hours Thursday evening, what always happens for the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans was a reality.

Chris Paul, arguably the best point guard of his generation was going to be a Laker. Andrew Bynum, who is either destined to be the Lakers next star center, or the trade chip that brings Dwight Howard to town, was still a Laker.

[+] EnlargeChris Paul
Layne Murdoch/Getty ImagesBy shutting down a deal that would have brought Chris Paul to Los Angeles, the NBA has set a dangerous precedent that might be hard for them to rebound from.

Fans in Los Angeles were buzzing, then salivating over what seemed like an inevitable second move to fill a hole at the power forward position left by Odom's departure. Would Bynum be traded for Howard? Would the Lakers use their $8.9 million trade exception to go after another big name? The possibilities were endless, the excitement was palpable. The Lakers had done it again.

Meanwhile, as usual, the rest of the NBA descended into various states of agony, confusion and anger.

Then the exact opposite happened.

Sorry, that's putting it too mildly.

THEN THE EXACT OPPOSITE HAPPENED.

The NBA didn't just kill the proposed three-team blockbuster trade between the Lakers, New Orleans and Houston, it flipped the NBA world on its head with a move so stunning, so unprecedented and, yes, so dangerous, it's going to take a long time for anyone involved to recover.

Afterward, not even the Lakers' critics could snicker. Well, snicker too loudly anyway.

Officially, according to NBA spokesperson Tim Frank, the league office, which is running the New Orleans Hornets until they can be sold, "declined to make the trade for basketball reasons."

Unofficially, the league office nixed the deal for the same reasons San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich once unloaded on the trade that brought Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies to the Lakers in 2008.

"What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension," Popovich said at the time. "There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense. I just wish I had been on a trade committee that oversees NBA trades. I'd like to elect myself to that committee. I would have voted no to the L.A. trade."

Popovich later backed off those comments, noting that the deal worked out for both teams in the long run.

But the point is clear: The rest of the NBA is tired of the Lakers and other large-market, destination franchises doing what they always do. And they sure as heck are tired of seeing young superstars like Paul leverage their way out of those small-market cities to brighter and better destinations and maximum contracts, as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh all did last season.

If the populist fury behind the just-completed lockout didn't make that point clear, the NBA's actions Thursday night announced it to the country over a megaphone.

It is more than ironic that the Lakers are the first team to feel the sting of this new world order. The team whose trades have caused more seismic shifts in the NBA than almost any other franchise, ends up getting bludgeoned by the backlash it helped create.

Those small-market owners may not have gotten what they wanted from either the players or their large-market colleagues in the new collective bargaining agreement, but for one night at least, they exacted a measure of revenge.

The timing of all of this is what's even more amazing.

Had the trade gone down even hours before, and the league taken a similar action, would the players union have voted in favor of the new CBA?

Had the trade gone down even a few hours later, after the owners had left New York where they were voting on the new CBA, would as many of them been able to complain loud enough to scuttle the deal?

Yes, I know the league claims that the owners had nothing to do with the league office's decision to nix the deal. I see five hands raised across America who fully believe that.

It simply doesn't make sense to allow Hornets general manager Dell Demps to negotiate this hard and this deep into this many possible trades for Paul for the league office -- acting as owners of the Hornets -- to scuttle the deal at the last moment.

This is not Jerry West talking Lakers owner Jerry Buss out of trading James Worthy to Dallas for Mark Aguirre and Roy Tarpley following the team's loss to the Celtics in the 1984 NBA Finals.

This is the league office -- men who have been charged to operate the Hornets by the league itself -- scuttling a done deal at the last possible moment.

Outside of a massive cell phone or BlackBerry outage across the country, it's hard to believe Demps could have gone this far down the road on this deal without his bosses giving him at least some tacit approval.

No, this one is too toxic for even the best public relations professional to spin his way out of.

It is a horrible black eye for the NBA, one that will undermine the newly created labor peace and the league's credibility for years.

The Lakers, Hornets and Rockets will feel this sting for a long while as the players involved somehow have to show up for work Friday morning for the opening of training camp.

At some point the rest of the league might snicker a little.

The Lakers have been on the right side of so many blockbuster deals in their history, it's probably a little fun for the rest of the NBA to laugh at their plight now.

But it won't be satisfying.

A dangerous precedent was set Thursday night. There are no "basketball reasons" to justify this.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.