Defending David
 A Stern Decision


December 17, 2011

Hope is the lifeblood of a sports fan. It’s why the backup quarterback is often the most popular player on a struggling team. The backup is unproven but he represents hope, the possibility of better days ahead, if only the starting quarterback was replaced all would be well. Usually there’s a reason he’s the backup, but once in a while you unearth Tom Brady or Kurt Warner. It’s also the reason drafts are so popular. The NFL draft is now a 3 day made for TV event – it gets more airtime than the President of the United States. Who will we get? Will he help us win next year? Will he be a stud in 3 years?


It’s been a rough few months for NBA commissioner David Stern. First he had a prolonged lockout which cost his league two months of games and dented his legacy. Then came his decision to veto a trade of Chris Paul from the Hornets to the Lakers, a decision met with seemingly universal scorn, derision, and calls questioning of Stern’s abilities. Stern, an NBA Goliath, had become its David.


Well, in the end, David is right and David wins. Stern was right to veto the trade. The criticism, levied from seemingly every corner of the NBA world, was misguided at best.


With any team, the buck stops with the owner. There is usually a general manager or team president who is in charge of negotiating trades but ultimately the owner has to approve. In the case of the league owned Hornets, the appointed individual acting as the owner is David Stern. And in that capacity as Hornets owner Stern says that “decisions are made on the basis of what is in the best interests of the Hornets.” Stern decided that the proposed trade was not in the best interests of the Hornets and claims that decision was made “free from the influence of other NBA owners.”


Some have argued that there is a conflict of interest because the Hornets have 29 owners (some are individuals, some are groups, some are corporations) and those 29 owners each own another team. That much is true. But that is why a 3rd party – Stern – was designated as the trustee in charge, the acting owner. The other owners each care about their own individual teams but Stern cares more about the league as a whole and, to that end, what’s in the interests of the Hornet’s franchise (the better the franchise does, the better the league does with its investment).


It’s also an odd argument because the conflict of interest is inherent in the situation. A league should not own a team. It happens from time to time (for example, MLB owned the Expos a decade ago) but is a bad situation. But would approving the deal be any better than not approving? The conflict of interest is there regardless of which decision is made. If Stern had given the go ahead then he would’ve done it with just as much conflict of interest. Just approving everything blindly isn’t a good solution, someone does have to step up and act as the owner to protect the franchise and it is Stern’s job to do so.


It’s key to recognize that Stern was not acting as the NBA commissioner but rather as the owner of the Hornets. He did not veto the trade as being bad for basketball but rather as being bad for the Hornets. This sets no negative precedent, the commissioner’s office did not set up a future where it will decide the fate of trades on a whim. This followed a normal protocol where a team’s owner reviews and determines the fate of all major transactions. 


So was it a good trade for the Hornets? The general consensus was yes. Many were saying it was the best they could do. The 3 team deal would’ve sent Paul to LA and brought Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic, and the Knicks’ 2012 first round pick to the Big Easy (I wonder if Shaq ever bestoyed that nickname on a girlfriend). Houston would’ve received Pau Gasol.


The general consensus was wrong. This was a pretty bad deal for the Hornets and Stern was right to veto it acting as owner of the Hornets. The return offered to New Orleans for Paul wasn’t bad as much as it was poorly conceived.


The first problem was that the Hornets sent out the best player in a 3 team deal and didn’t even get the 2nd best player in return.


They instead got the role player pupu platter. That only works if you still have an MVP caliber player left to build around. New Orleans’ best remaining player without Paul was Emeka Okafor. You can build a championship around Okafor, but it’s an NCAA championship. This is the second and bigger problem.


When a team trades a franchise player like Paul, the team’s best course of action is to go into a complete rebuild. Getting a bunch of veteran rotation players would’ve helped New Orleans not drop off a cliff, maybe get a win total in the low 30s, and draft 9th. That’s NBA purgatory – not good enough for the playoffs (much less a title run) but not bad enough for a top pick who could turn things around. On a related note, go Warriors!


The smart plan is the complete rebuild plan. Get cap space, young talent, and draft picks. Scola and Odom are good players but are in their 30s and nothing more than a 4th or 5th option on an elite team. Dragic is younger but his upside is being a good backup. Martin is likely the best of the bunch but he’ll be 29 this year so he’s likely tapped out his potential and is basically a poor man’s Monta Ellis. The pick is unlikely to be in the lottery. Also, New Orleans takes on more salary than they sent out.


In addition, those role playing veterans didn’t even have much trade value. Odom was traded a few days after the Paul deal fell apart. LA got a protected 1st round pick and even had to throw in a 2nd rounder. Odom effectively netted the Lakers a trade exception. He was basically given away for free.


To recap: no promising young talent, no high draft picks, no assets worth much in a trade, and taking on salary. This is just not a good deal for a rebuilding team like the Hornets.


A few days after the Lakers-Rockets-Hornets deal fell through, Paul was dealt to LA. But this time it was to the Clippers and the trade went through. This again flies in the face of the conspiracy theories. The Lakers are a big market glamour team, the Clippers (though also big market) are one of the league’s black sheep franchises. They’ve vacillated between halfway mediocre and completely unwatchable for a couple decades. Their owner is known as a miser and a racist slumlord. This is the franchise Stern chose to help, the franchise for whom he allowed a star player to force a trade in the immediate aftermath of a lockout partially based on preventing just that type of behavior?


So why did Stern approve the Clipper trade? Because it was a good trade for the Hornets. The Hornets received Eric Gordon, arguably the best young shooting guard in the league and not yet 23 years of age. They received young, cheap talent with upside in the person of Al-Farouq Aminu, a 20 year old forward who was the 8th pick in the draft a year ago. Also coming to New Orleans was a Minnesota 2012 unprotected 1st round pick and Chris Kaman – which translates to an extra lottery pick and a solid center who has an expiring contract (which can be used as a trade chip or allowed to expire after the season).


A budding star. Young talent with upside. A lottery pick. No big salary beyond this year. That’s exactly the type of trade you make when shipping off your only franchise player. Stern took a lot of flack, but at the end of the day the Hornets were better off for it. That’s not to say nothing shady happened – as mentioned, there is an inherent conflict of interest here. But at the end of the day, no matter how bitter Laker and Rocket fans are about what happened, Stern claimed he was acting in the best interests of the Hornets and his actions led to the best interests of the Hornets being served. David was right. 



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