When he visits NBA arenas during the season, David Stern often makes a grand entry into each team’s locker room before the game to mingle with the fellows, perhaps giving them a brief but very inspiring pep talk and showing them the king has his common-man side.
Usually, the commissioner is welcomed with smiles and handshakes and appreciation. When you have a leader who helped the average salary balloon north of $5 million, it’s only proper to be respectful. Plus it’s always a treat to be in the presence of royalty.
I would say the possibility of that warm and fuzzy scene happening this year, however, is about the same as Donald Trump adopting Michael Jordan’s hair style. After a brutal, litigious and often angry labor negotiation, Stern made the second worst move in his 28-year tenure as commissioner when he disallowed the trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers last week, and if you have seen a quote from a player who thought it was an intelligent decision, please forward it to me.
It was a decision of such overpowering absurdity, in fact, that Stern and the league looked foolish trying to defend it. Stern’s decision came on the same day he received a scathing e-mail from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert saying it would be a “travesty” to approve the deal.
As that e-mail was published, the league came back with a weak response that the trade was denied for “basketball reasons.” There was even a diversionary tactic of saying the trade had not been discussed at the Board of Governors meeting in New York on Thursday, but that was silly. Obviously Gilbert is not going to be sitting at the meeting with a laptop and e-mailing the commissioner while they are in the same room. But no one denied the commissioner had received the email.
Still, when he finally got around to issuing a press release, Stern felt the need to say his decision was made “free from the influence of other NBA owners.” That was so unusual and awkward that you had a feeling he had his hand behind his back with his fingers crossed.
Stern should have done the opposite – say the 29 owners jointly own the team, and they have the right to decide if a trade is good or bad.
The “basketball reasons” excuse was overwhelmingly mocked with Steve Kerr, the respected TNT analyst and former Suns GM, saying on ESPN radio that vetoing the trade was “one of the dumbest things the league has ever done.”
The idea that Hornets general manager Dell Demps did not get the best deal he possibly could was ludicrous. It was no secret Paul wanted to be traded, and it had to be to a contender because Paul has one year left on his contract. So that rules out a team like Gilbert’s Cavaliers, who are bad with young players and potential high draft picks. Why would any team trade for Paul for 66 games without a guarantee of him signing a new contract?
Demps judged the deal to bring Lamar Odom (32), Luis Scola (31), Kevin Martin (28) and Goran Dragic (25) along with the Knicks’ 2012 No. 1 draft pick to be the best deal he could get. It certainly gave the Hornets a better chance to compete for the playoffs than the deal they are reportedly getting from the Clippers – a reserve small forward, an injured point guard (but, hey, they’re young, which is what the league said it wanted!), a center who has missed 133 games with injuries the last four years and a No. 1 pick.
Yes, the No. 1 pick from Minnesota in 2012 will result in a good player – but better than Martin or Scola? And that No. 1 pick is likely to be 19 years old, and by the time he is ready to help a team win regularly, the Hornets could be contracted or playing in another city.
Preventing the deal was a mistake. But it was different than the biggest mistake Stern ever made as commissioner – having no idea that former referee Tim Donaghy was betting on games he officiated and giving information to gamblers. That eventually led to two felony convictions and jail time for Donaghy.
The NBA had received reports of aberrant behavior by Donaghy, who was reported to have been in a feud with neighbors, had yelled obscenities at the wife and was accused by the neighbors of setting fire to their tractor and driving a golf cart into a ditch in 2005.
The NBA responded by suspending Donaghy for the 2005 playoffs and threatened to fire him if something similar happened again. Obviously, in retrospect, Donaghy should have been terminated, and given the chance again, Stern undoubtedly would do that.
By disallowing the original Paul deal, Stern had a major impact on the fortunes of the three teams. He made the Rockets worse because they were going to get Pau Gasol, and maybe Nene, too. He made the Hornets worse and he penalized the Lakers, although there was a strong feeling throughout the league that in giving up two 7-footers for a point guard, the Lakers actually did not make a good deal.
So why hurt those teams and help another such as the Mavericks, who sent a mere trade exception to the Lakers for Odom? That’s not the job of the commissioner.
After his recent performance during the nasty lockout and the controversy of the original Paul decision, some have ventured to reassess Stern’s tenure as commissioner. Stern claimed to not care, saying last Thursday, “I don’t believe in legacies.” After hearing that, close advisers were thankful Stern was not burdened with the Pinocchio curse because his nose would have grown six inches.
I would say that two terrible decisions do not damage all of Stern’s accomplishments. But the latest has adversely affected his relationship with players. If he does decide to walk in the locker room before a game this year, perhaps he will be greeted by smiles, but they will be ones of sarcasm, not sincerity.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. His columns appear every Tuesday on SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.