Does this trade make David Stern eligible for executive of the year?
Fair's fair, and after all of the criticism of recent days it needs to be pointed out that Stern wound up doing better in the long run for the Hornets franchise -- and the demands of the NBA overall -- by trading Chris Paul to the Clippers than to the Lakers.
The original three-team trade with the Lakers and Rockets would have provided the Hornets with Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic a first-round draft pick and an unhappy Lamar Odom, who wanted no part of being in New Orleans and would have added to the local fans' dissatisfaction of losing Paul. All the same, that looked like a good deal at the time for the Hornets, since they appeared to be operating from a position of weakness based on the certainty of Paul's departure as an unrestricted free agent next summer.
The subsequent trade with the Clippers, which was brokered Wednesday to Stern's liking, is a stronger deal that suits the needs of the Hornets. It provides the Hornets with gobs of upside and cap space via emerging star Eric Gordon, center Chris Kaman, second-year forward Al-Farouq Aminu and an unprotected first-round pick from the Timberwolves in June. This kind of potential-heavy package is usually sought by a franchise that is on the market. Now that labor "peace" (such as it is) has been assured for at least six years, the NBA can move forward with a sale of the Hornets to an individual buyer.
When an NBA team is up for sale, the seller invariably seeks to slash payroll in order to offer the new buyer the equivalent of an unfurnished home in mint condition. That's exactly what Stern has accomplished with this trade. It wouldn't be surprising if he has an idea who is likely to buy the Hornets -- whether it's former minority owner Gary Chouest or someone more mysterious -- and that this deal was executed with an understanding of the interests of that buyer. In any case, Stern has been brokering franchise sales for decades and understands better than anyone that a new buyer isn't going to want to introduce himself to his fans by trading a beloved star like Paul. So the commissioner has offered himself up as the bad guy, and absorbed enormous heat over the past week, in order to make the Hornets more saleable.
Stern was deserving of that heat. The league had enabled owner George Shinn to move the Hornets to New Orleans even though he lacked the means to succeed there, and then the NBA obviously appeared to be caught off-guard by the terms of the trade that was negotiated with the Lakers.
After the trade with the Lakers was vetoed, I wondered whether the NBA could afford to send Paul elsewhere at the risk of creating a long-term conspiracy theory. Think about the endless rumors of a frozen envelope and a rigged lottery that followed Patrick Ewing's delivery to the Knicks as the No. 1 pick in the 1985 draft. Accusations of rigged outcomes would have grown louder if Stern had sent Paul to a rival of the Lakers for terms that were comparable to those offered originally by the Lakers and Rockets.
But it's hard to complain reasonably about a deal that gives the Hornets hope of finding a replacement All-Star in the draft while slashing their payroll. Rival owners had reason to complain about the loss of luxury-tax revenue they would have suffered if the Lakers had acquired Paul in a trade that would have saved money for L.A. Not only did these rival owners assume the financial liability of buying the Hornets from George Shinn one year ago, but now they were going to lose tax revenues while dealing the Hornets' best player to the Lakers. None of those considerations are in play any longer.
The key parts of this deal put into perspective the trade Stern vetoed last week. That deal was going to add money to the Hornets' payroll. While it would have left the Hornets with a respectable rotation of players, they would have been launching their new era with no All-Stars -- which would have created more distress for the Hornets' 10,000 season-ticket holders, who had grown used to watching Paul and David West over the last several years.
Understand that the Hornets are headed to the lottery this season. As a result of this deal, their starting lineup figures to revolve around Kaman, Aminu, Trevor Ariza, Gordon and Jarrett Jack. Were they going to make the playoffs based on the Lakers' deal? Probably not, based on the absence of star power.
The fans were never going to be happy about Paul's departure, but this deal with the Clippers could enable their depression to be short-lived. Unless the Timberwolves undergo an entirely unexpected renaissance, the Hornets will have two lottery picks in what promises to be one of the most talented drafts in years. The pool of talent includes big men Anthony Davis of Kentucky, Andre Drummond of UConn and Jared Sullinger of Ohio State, along with North Carolina small forward Harrison Barnes.
If the NBA or the new owner chooses to put Emeka Okafor out to amnesty, the Hornets can enter the summer with $40 million in cap space with which to sign their two high picks as well as to re-sign Kaman and Gordon, the restricted free agent who starred for USA Basketball in the 2010 World Championships. Even if they can't lure big-name free agents to New Orleans, they can trade solid players into their abundant cap space.
The Hornets will be seeking an improved lease from the state and a buyer who will commit to keeping the team in New Orleans. In the meantime, other NBA franchises will be applying some of the highly successful methods used by the Hornets to increase their season-ticket base to more than 10,000, which is a remarkable achievement for a city that one short year ago was bracing for the worst. It was understood that Paul was likely to leave, and there were well-founded fears that the franchise may move to another city as well.
Now Paul is gone, but the future is not so dark as it appeared to be one week ago. By draft day next summer, the Hornets may yet be in surprisingly strong health.