Four big questions surround the NBA's purchase and resale of the Hornets. (This is apart from questions about their roster: How interesting was it to hear Marc Spears of Yahoo! ask Stern how he'll approach the impending free agency of All-Star forward David West, even as Stern is in negotiations with West's union over a new collective bargaining agreement? "That's a bridge that we're not planning to cross today," replied Stern with a detachment unusual among team executives.) Here are the assessments -- in most cases there can be no firm answers -- of those questions as they stand today:
• Will they stay or will they go? The Hornets are essentially a free-agent franchise: They can opt out of their lease should they average fewer than 14,213 fans over a span of 13 home games from Dec. 1 to Jan. 17. Through the first two games of this window they were averaging a scant 12,443.
The 13-7 Hornets currently rank No. 27 in NBA attendance at 13,860 per game.
I asked Stern if the value of the franchise could rise based on the team's ability to move? "I guess that raises the value of the franchise no matter who owns the team," said Stern. "That's just one factor. I think the lease itself, without that clause, doesn't run beyond 2014, which is going to be here before you know it."
Stern said the league will seek from Gov. Bobby Jindal a more accommodating lease, similar to the lucrative deal Louisiana has provided the NFL's Saints. The commissioner made it clear that his first choice is to keep the team in New Orleans, and that he'll use the remainder of the season to investigate the financing and management of the team to discover whether there is a future in remaining in one of the league's smallest markets.
The hiring of New Orleans native Jac Sperling to serve as caretaker of the team is another sign that the league will be focusing on the local market. But the market itself will take care of this. Unless a prospective owner steps forward with the goal of keeping the team in Louisiana, the NBA can't afford to cut short its options. Its ability to move to a larger market is one of the most attractive qualities of this franchise, and the NBA isn't going to reduce the value of a franchise -- which would hurt the value of the league is a whole -- in order to keep the Hornets in a city it has called home for only seven years (including this season). Based on the league's brief affiliation with New Orleans, the argument can be made that no franchise would have an easier time saying goodbye and moving elsewhere than the Hornets.
Stern added that a sale may not be completed until after a new collective bargaining agreement has been reached with the players. This would make sense as franchise values are expected to climb under the next deal.
• Where could they land? Look at it this way: If a new owner is willing to spend more than $300 million -- the value assigned Monday by Stern -- on an NBA franchise with the understanding he can place the team wherever he pleases, then New Orleans becomes one of several options. The new owner will relate his options to those of LeBron James last summer: James was tied in every way to the Cleveland area, but after his Cavaliers contract expired he came to view his hometown less sentimentally and more clinically, resulting in his business decision to take his talents elsewhere.
Unless fans swarm to the New Orleans Arena in order to keep their franchise at home for the shortterm, the new owner of the Hornets will place New Orleans in a pool among larger available markets, including Chicago, Anaheim, San Jose and Kansas City. There hasn't been a lot of talk elsewhere about Chicago, but it is the third biggest market in North America and it has only one NBA team. New York will have two franchises when the Nets move to Brooklyn in two years, and Los Angeles has two. In suburban Chicago near O'Hare Airport, the Allstate Arena could serve as a temporary NBA home until a new arena could be built, depending on the resources of the new owner.
If the Hornets are able to escape their lease, then New Orleans will have to compete with other cities to serve as home to an NBA team.
• Who will buy them? The NBA will look for local ownership, but George Shinn wasn't able to find a candidate beyond minority owner Gary Chouest, who after a long courtship withdrew from negotiations to take over the team.
Two big-picture goals for Stern are to (1) raise the values of his franchises and (2) do so by encouraging foreign investment. Will both of these ambitions be married by the sale of the Hornets?
An oil-rich buyer from the Middle East could purchase the Hornets from Stern himself, then move them to a more prosperous market. I don't mean to keep harping on the potential of Chicago, but it has to be the most alluring location on the crowded North American map; if a Saudi billionaire were to move the team to Chicago then he could eventually build himself a new arena, much as Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov is doing for the Nets in Brooklyn.
Stern said he just so happens to have a meeting scheduled next week with potential international investors.
What does this mean for Chris Paul? He won't be traded while the league is in possession of the franchise. Thereafter his future will depend on the identity of the next owner and the site of the Hornets' home. A rich owner in an attractive market could entice Paul to remain a Hornet (or whatever the franchise happens to be called) for the remainder of his career. In that sense, this chain reaction of events heightens the possibility -- one of many possibilities, for sure -- that Paul will remain with the franchise for the longterm. The real question, of course, is whether he and the team remain in New Orleans.
The other time Dirk Nowitzki made more than half of his attempts from the field, he shot 50.2 percent and finished as league MVP in 2006-07. The early signs in Dallas right now are almost as promising: Nowitzki is a scorching 55.3 percent and the 16-4 Mavericks have won nine in a row to challenge the 17-3 Spurs for the league's hottest start.
Dallas ranks No. 2 in field-goal defense, thanks to the arrival of hyperactive center Tyson Chandler, whose movement and energetic signal-calling from the back have bonded the Mavs at that end of the floor. The Mavs should grow even stronger with the anticipated return of 6-foot guard Rodrigue Beaubois, who will give them a driver to exploit the spaces created by Nowitzki and the other Mavs' shooters.
"Roddy is a big factor for us, but we've got to keep doing what we're doing," said Nowitzki. "I really like how we compete, and if we keep defending we're going to give ourselves a chance to compete every night. We've got to keep on working to get Roddy healthy, because sometimes we get stagnant and predictable, but with his game being so all over the place he can give us explosiveness offensively."
The Mavericks are seeking their 11th-straight season of 50-plus wins around Nowitzki, which is a remarkable streak considering all of the roster changes that have been made around him. Dallas has presented a variety of approaches and yet has always remained in contention. "I think we all agree letting Steve p[Nash] go in [as a free agent in 2004] was a mistake," said Nowitzki. "[Stuff]happens in this league that sometimes you can't take back. We basically didn't give Steve a contract because we thought he was going to break down, and he hasn't broken down yet and he's 37. So I think we all agree that we made a mistake there.
"Other than that it's just trying to improve the team every year. One year we're right there, and then we're struggling for a bit; then we got Jason Kidd and he's a great influence for us. Now we've got Tyson. Just trying to find a way to get back to the Finals, that's our big goal."
At 32, Nowitzki has shown a stubbornness and toughness that wasn't often acknowledged early in his career, when he was known as a finesse shooter who created mismatches on the perimeter. He is favored to make the All-NBA teams for the 11th straight year and he has never missed more than five games in any season.
"I'll be proud of myself when my career is over,'' he said. "Right now I'm still chasing my dream, so I'm not slowing down or thinking about anything. I want to get my goal. I don't want to retire not having a ring, so that's my focus in basketball. If that means I don't play in the summer [for Germany] to keep my energy high, then that's what I've got to do. But for at least four more years I want to leave it out there like I always have and we'll see how far we can go."
There was no finer gentleman in the NBA than Phil Jasner, the excellent Philadelphia writer who passed away Friday. I never remember seeing Phil in foul temper, even while he spent 11 years covering Allen Iverson. When others would respond with anger or argument, Phil's response, sooner or later, was to smile. Sometimes the smile was thin, because there is only so much anyone, even Phil, can take, but he wore a smile all the same. His perspective on what was important and what was unimportant in the NBA defined Phil Jasner, and in this era of bluster and kneejerk reaction we have lost a giant among us. He loved the game, and yet he cared more for so many people around the game. He wrote many fine words and yet it says everything about a man who spent his entire career in print that I remember his stubborn, optimistic, ingratiating smile most of all.