To quote the great Vin Scully, "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened." And we haven't even gotten to the first day of business yet. Welcome to the 2011-12 NBA season.
"Basketball reasons" has now joined the vernacular, as NBA commissioner David Stern put the kibosh on a trade that would have sent Chris Paul from the league-owned Hornets to the Lakers; Lamar Odom to New Orleans along with the Rockets' Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and Goran Dragic; and Pau Gasol to the Rockets.
Now teams in three cities are reeling, Paul and the players' union are considering their legal options, and per ESPN.com's Marc Stein, the three teams in the trade are lobbying the league for Stern to reverse his ruling.
And just when you thought this saga couldn't get any weirder, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert stepped up to prove you wrong. In a letter to Stern first obtained by Yahoo! Sports, Gilbert implored the commissioner to allow the "29 owners of the Hornets" to vote on the deal, saying, "It would be a travesty to allow the Lakers to acquire Chris Paul in the apparent trade being discussed." Gilbert further stated that "the vast majority of owners feel the same way that I do."
Apparently Stern agreed with him.
Gilbert's logic was as flimsy as his motives were suspect. He called on Stern to act in his role overseeing significant management decisions with the Hornets, yet Gilbert's letter made clear that the Hornets were the least of his concerns. Instead he complained about the Lakers receiving the best player in the trade while saving money, not giving up any draft picks, and receiving a large trade exception to boot. For good measure he also brought up the Lakers' trade for Gasol in 2008, just in case the commissioner needed a reminder of the perception of the Lakers as the league's golden child.
Gilbert went on to complain that the trade would save the Lakers "approximately $20 million in salaries and approximately $21 million in luxury taxes." Why is this a problem? Wasn't the point of the lockout to change the system so that teams will no longer overspend? Isn't the more punitive luxury tax supposed to dissuade teams from spending above the tax line? Since when is it a bad thing when a team saves money?
Gilbert provides the answer: "That $21 million goes to non-taxpaying teams and to fund revenue sharing."
That's stunning. The system is supposed to decrease spending, yet owners like Gilbert rely on teams like the Lakers continuing to spend like they used to -- because the proceeds from the luxury tax go to teams like the Cavs. Gilbert is using his position as part-owner of the Hornets to implore Stern to exercise his power as the fiduciary of the Hornets to make a ruling on behalf of the Cavs.
This is a blatant conflict of interest. When it purchased the Hornets from George Shinn, the league put team chairman Jac Sperling in place specifically to avoid any conflict of interest. The only way the league can avoid such a conflict is by staying at arm's length -- by relying on Sperling's autonomy with the team. Instead the league has trumped Sperling, and trumped Hornets GM Dell Demps and his basketball staff.
Read the letter again. Gilbert talks about how it will help the Lakers, and he talks about how it will hurt non-taxpaying teams. Not once does he suggest that it's actually a bad deal for the Hornets.
But his logic gets worse -- his claim that the trade would save the Lakers approximately $20 million over the next three seasons is patently absurd. This would be true only if the Lakers made no subsequent moves to acquire players to replace the departing Gasol and Odom. A lineup featuring Metta World Peace starting at power forward is surely not what the Lakers had in mind.
Gilbert answers his own objection in the next paragraph, apparently without realizing that he is contradicting himself. He wrote that the Lakers "would also get a large trade exception that would help them improve their team." In other words, the trade exception would enable the Lakers to spend more money -- money that would count against the luxury tax, and therefore help line the Cavs' pockets.
Gilbert also said that by not trading draft picks and by gaining a trade exception, the Lakers were improving their chances "to eventually trade for [Dwight] Howard." Let's skip the fact that trade exception likely will be useless in a trade for Howard -- it wouldn't be big enough to fit Hedo Turkoglu's salary, and let's also ignore whether a pick or two at the end of the first round would sway the Magic's decision in a Howard trade. Instead, let's focus on Gilbert's premise -- the Lakers shouldn't be allowed to make the trade for Paul because of something they might do in the future.
Let that one roll around in your head for a while. It's like being arrested for buying a plane ticket to Las Vegas, because the police think you might commit a crime while you're there. It's a stunning abuse of power. Trades need to be evaluated on their own merits, and not because of what a team may or may not do in the future.
Even though Gilbert's letter was a train wreck of illogic, it still appears to have influenced Stern's decision. Stern, however, denies that there was any connection. "In the case of the trade proposal that was made to the Hornets for Chris Paul," Stern said in a statement released by the league office, "we decided, free from the influence of other NBA owners, that the team was better served with Chris in a Hornets uniform than by the outcome of the terms of the trade."
And if you believe that, then I have a bridge to sell you. Never mind the fact that Gilbert's letter was a clear smoking gun. If you believe that Stern's decision was made purely for "basketball reasons" and was in the Hornets' best interest, then you also have to buy in to the following:
• That the Hornets don't need to trade Paul due to his contract status and the high likelihood that he would leave as a free agent next summer.
• That the entire league didn't know that Demps was dealing from a position of weakness, and that this would lower other teams' trade offers.
• That any team trading for Paul wasn't assuming the risk of his surgically repaired knee and his contract status which could make him a one-year rental.
• That the reigning sixth man, a productive power forward, a high-scoring guard, another young and improving guard, and a first-round pick in an unusually deep draft weren't the best the Hornets could get under the circumstances.
• That three of the smarter GMs in the league needed to be overruled on their basketball decision-making ability.
You also have to believe that by nixing this trade, the Hornets are somehow better off.
But if there was any question about Paul's exit from New Orleans before this mess went down, those questions are now answered -- he's now a lock to be playing elsewhere next season. So the Hornets still need to trade him or lose him for nothing. Raise your hand if you think Demps will be able to find another offer that beats this one, either now or at the trade deadline. And if he waits for the smoke to clear from this mess, he will have an unhappy superstar on his hands for much of the season.
So what can happen at this point? If the league has dug in its heels and won't reconsider its decision -- and Stern's statement would seem to indicate that this is the case -- then perhaps the trade can quickly be reconstituted in another form, in a way that satisfies all three teams and passes muster with the commissioner.
If that fails, then we have a true scandal on our hands -- one with potential legal consequences. But even as Paul and the players' association explore their options, some legal analysts caution that there may not be any recourse. "If the governance of the Hornets was not subject to collective bargaining," said Houston attorney David Holmes, "then yes, there is a potential antitrust claim." But Holmes cautioned that it's not clear who would have legal standing to bring such a suit. "Who is actually injured here? Probably the Hornets, Rockets and Lakers. Chris Paul had no right to be traded. He is still going to get his full salary. I'm not sure that Paul or the union would have antitrust standing. The teams aren't going to sue, so this is probably just an academic matter."
According to some agents, had this incident occurred prior to their ratification vote rather than afterward, the outcome of the players' voting might have been different. But the union may still have another recourse at its disposal. "It is unlikely that the entire CBA has been drafted," said Holmes, "given that some of the terms were still being worked out on Wednesday morning. If the union wants to make an issue of this, they could say, 'You have created a new issue that now must be collectively bargained before we sign the agreement.'"
But as satisfying as this outcome might be to many players and fans, it is unlikely to actually happen. Instead, the teams and players will pick up the pieces and resume their business. But the damage has already been done. This is a huge black eye on the integrity of the league -- at a time when it can ill afford such problems.
Everyone failed here. Gilbert failed for his obtuse lack of critical thinking and for his blatant attempt to coerce Stern for his own benefit. The "vast majority of owners" Gilbert cited failed for going along with these shenanigans. And Stern failed for caving and allowing this to happen.
"When will we just change the name of 25 of the 30 teams to the Washington Generals?" Gilbert asked in his letter to Stern. At least the Generals never employed such underhanded measures to try to keep the Globetrotters from winning.
The NBA is now worse than a league of Washington Generals.
It's officially a circus.