When it comes to running franchises, David Stern is doing a great impersonation of Ted Stepien.
Stepien owned the Cleveland Cavaliers in the early 1980s and spent most of his time firing coaches, overpaying mediocre players and trading away so many draft picks that the NBA instituted the “Ted Stepien Rule,” which now prevents teams from trading first-round picks in consecutive years.
Stepien’s mismanagement of the Cavaliers had to be fixed by the NBA. But the NBA – led by Stern – owns the mess that has become the New Orleans Hornets. So who fixes them?
The NBA has mismanaged the Hornets to a state of embarrassment. It vetoed a trade of superstar Chris Paul that would have netted four rotation players and a first-round pick while making the Hornets a legitimate playoff contender. Then it approved a second trade of Paul that landed empty assets – highlighted by an unsigned Eric Gordon – that could mire the Hornets in mediocrity for years to come.
The Hornets are at the bottom of the league in both performance and attendance as they continue to ask a dispassionate fan base to be patient. At the same time, they have been somewhat less than forthcoming about the state of their team and players.
On Monday, Jac Sperling – the man chosen by Stern to broker the sale of the Hornets – said the team’s future is very positive. He is right, because comparatively speaking, it cannot be any worse than the present.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, never one to pass up the chance to tell Stern and his sidekicks when they are not the smartest guys in the room, summed it up best earlier this week.
“Bad management gets you bad results,” he said.
Stern’s job is to make the league profitable as a whole while doing the same for as many individual owners as possible. The extent of his evaluation of players does not go beyond handing out punishment in extreme cases or selecting the occasional All-Star injury replacement.
But he scuttled the deal to send Paul to the Lakers primarily because it sent Paul to the Lakers – scant hours after reaching accord on a new collective bargaining agreement that was supposed to give smaller market teams a chance to keep their superstars.
Had the first deal been approved, the Hornets would have landed four proven players in Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Lamar Odom and Goran Dragic, plus a first-round pick from Houston.
At that point, Stern turned over all matters regarding Paul to operation executives Joel Litvin and Stu Jackson. Yes, that Stu Jackson, who may be as responsible as any one man for relocating the Grizzlies from Vancouver to Memphis. During his days running the Grizzlies, he gave Bryant Reeves a maximum contract extension, drafted Steve Francis and traded him for a bag of hammers and dealt a future first-round pick for Otis Thorpe that nearly became LeBron James.
So Litvin and Jackson went back to the drawing board and redirected Paul to the Clippers and immediately resigned the Hornets to a much longer and riskier path back to respectability.
The second deal landed Gordon, the expiring contract of Chris Kaman and Al-Farouq Aminu, plus an unprotected first-round pick that originally belonged to Minnesota.
There is no denying that the NBA’s intent was clearing long-term expenses off the books of the Hornets and making them more attractive to a prospective buyer. Scola and Martin have long-term eight-figure deals, and Odom has a pricy team option. Meanwhile, Gordon and Aminu are still on their rookie contracts and Kaman’s eight figures come off the books this summer.
But what may be attractive on paper forces you to look away when it is on full display. Instead of being in position to seriously contend for a playoff spot, the Hornets are by far the worst team in the Western Conference and headed for 50-plus losses in a 66-game season.
This was the starting lineup for the Hornets in Monday’s rare win over the Jazz: Trevor Ariza, Gustavo Ayon, Kaman, Marco Belinelli and Greivis Vasquez. Off the bench were Aminu, Xavier Henry, Lance Thomas and Donald Sloan.
This could have been their lineup: Ariza, Scola, Ayon, Martin and Dragic, with Odom, Belinelli and Vasquez off the bench.
As a fan, GM or prospective buyer, which lineup would you rather see on the court?
The Hornets unquestionably have been hit hard by injuries this season; Neither lineup includes rotation players Emeka Okafor, Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry and Jason Smith. But whatever your opinion is of Scola, Martin, Odom and Dragic – and we think pretty highly of all of them – they are healthy and making measurable contributions to their current teams.
It is obvious that the NBA has decided that the Hornets should shed payroll, take their lumps and build through youth to attract a buyer. Except that buyer hasn’t materialized, because people with enough money to buy a sports team know a dog with fleas when they see one. The NBA paid $310 million for the Hornets. In January, Forbes Magazine valued the franchise at $285 million.
Stern has said that a local individual or group would come forward by mid-season. That’s next week, folks.
Sperling was at practice Monday and twice referenced a “new owner” to local media but had no specifics. Meanwhile, there is a collective plea to a dispassionate, disenfranchised fan base to remain patient while being disingenuous on several fronts.
Despite making the playoffs in three of four seasons since returning from their displacement to Oklahoma City in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets have finished better than 23rd in attendance just once. This season, they are 27th at 14,302 per game. One of the teams they are ahead of is the Nets, who are a nearly as bad and also a lame duck in Newark.
And if you want your fan base to remain patient, it might be a good idea to not mislead them.
Kaman was acquired because of his attractive cap slot, but the Hornets gave him a forced vacation for six games while it explored trade possibilities. Finding nothing overwhelming appealing, they returned the big man to active duty.
What exactly was the purpose of that? Were the Hornets looking to trade Kaman for players who could provide immediate help, which the first Paul trade would have done? Or were they looking to deal him for another expiring contract, which we like to call “trading sideways”?
The handling of Gordon has been even worse. One of the NBA’s best young shooting guards, he was clearly the centerpiece of the return package for Paul and the foundation of the team’s rebuilding plans. He could have been signed to a contract extension that would have shown fans that the plan is under way. Instead, GM Dell Demps – with input from the NBA, of course – refused to give him a maximum four-year, $62 million deal.
If you really want the guy, you don’t nickel-and-dime him – unless, of course, you know more about his knee injury than you have told your fans. Gordon has been limited to just two games this season due to what was originally said to be a bone bruise but ultimately required surgery.
The original prognosis was three weeks. After four weeks, Gordon was not close to returning, and the team revised his return window to as much as six weeks. As that window began closing last week, Gordon was found to need arthroscopic surgery that will keep him out another six weeks.
It could be April before Gordon is ready to return. He becomes a restricted free agent July 1 and should be in no hurry to get back on the court for the Hornets this season – or maybe any other season. The Hornets already have refused to max him out once; it is not outside the realm of possibility that they could pass on him again should he receive a huge offer from the Mavericks or his hometown Pacers. Or he could sign a qualifying offer, spend one more season in the NBA’s self-made purgatory and be free as a bird come 2013.
So to sum up, here is what the Hornets now have to offer a prospective buyer, thanks to the smartest guys in the room:
- A truly awful team in a city that has a history of difficulty in supporting it.
- Aminu, the eighth overall pick who has shown next to nothing compared to other recent No. 8 picks Brandon Knight, Rudy Gay and even Channing Frye. He is better than Joe Alexander, though.
- Gordon, whose next game probably will be in late October 2012, possibly will not be with the Hornets, who have some serious damage control to do with their prized possession.
- Kaman, whose cap slot of $14 million almost certainly will have to be spread among multiple players or used to overpay a middling player. No established star in his right mind would want to be part of a team whose purse strings are in the firm grip of the folks at Olympic Tower with a massive rebuilding plan on tap.
- Minnesota’s unprotected first-round pick, which isn’t going to be anywhere near the top of the draft and could actually end up being worse than Houston’s pick. Even if the Timberwolves were as bad as the Hornets, a duo from the collection of teenagers Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Harrison Barnes would still beg a tremendous amount of patience.
Nice job, Dave.
Stepien would be proud.
Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Wednesdays and Sundays. You can follow him on Twitter.