The coincidence was uncanny: Blind bidding on the amnesty waiver wire, several teams with a chance to claim Chauncey Billups, and somehow the Los Angeles Clippers made the highest offer. All these years owner Donald Sterling was the bane of the commissioner's existence, and now David Stern needed him in the worst way. All the times Stern let the creep slide on professional and personal indiscretions, the NBA knew the Clippers were the final, most legitimate suitor still standing to bail the league out of its own self-created Chris Paul debacle.
So, yes, the Clippers bid just north of $2 million on Billups, and the NBA has left everyone justified to wonder about the purity of that process. No one blinked. No one voiced a grievance. Nevertheless, this is the fairest question of the post-lockout NBA: From Stern to deputies Adam Silver, Joel Litvin and Stu Jackson, how can anyone ever be sure – despite denials to the contrary – that someone didn't tip Clippers management to make sure they placed the highest bid?
After all, Stern and his lieutenants were no longer playing commissioner and bureaucrats, they were playing basketball God in the NBA. This isn't to charge them with fraud, but to simply say: There's an appearance of impropriety that ought to be unsettling to everyone.
Under a different circumstance, we could simply give a nod to Clippers general manager Neil Olshey for such an astute move, but these are unprecedented times in the NBA and facts are facts: Until Billups was a Clipper, the Clippers were sluggish to include Eric Gordon into the trade for Paul. The uncertain deals behind this deal should forever haunt the NBA.
Make no mistake: The amnesty bids were shuttled through the same office – the same desk – as the bidding on the superstar point guard. Whatever the outcome the NBA truly wanted, the assignment of Billups played a critical role in the outcome of the trade. It doesn't matter that the NBA muscled a better deal than the one Hornets GM Dell Demps negotiated with the Los Angeles Lakers. Pro sports are forever a results-oriented business, but this time it's different.
The process matters.
The process was everything.
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"That's our problem as a league now," one NBA general manager told Yahoo! Sports. "Everything they do gets thrown into question now, because they have conflicts everywhere. It all got exposed in this one – all came out in the public."
The NBA pushed aside a standing general manager, Demps, and the league office led by Stern (the commissioner), Litvin (an attorney) and Jackson (the failed GM of all GMs) ran the trade talks for the Hornets. They were no longer spectators to the machinations of the 30 teams' movements, but active participants, controlling the destiny of one of the NBA's major talents.
Jackson was the professed basketball man here, and he happens to go down as one of the worst GMs in the league's history. From signing Bryant "Big Country" Reeves to a $62 million extension to drafting Steve Francis when it was clear Francis would never play in Vancouver to trading the rights to the eventual No. 2 pick in the 2003 draft for Otis Thorpe, Jackson's run as GM stands as one of the most inept ever.
Now, Jackson was engaged in the Hornets' trade talks, helping peddle deals for one of the NBA's franchise players.
Demps wanted the Lakers trade to lift the Hornets into the playoffs, wanted a team of talent and made an initial deal that included Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic and a draft pick. The Clippers had a young package on the table, but Demps believed it was important to win games, to sell tickets and get back to the playoffs again.
Demps had come from San Antonio, and he believed something strongly: He didn't want a bad team. He wanted to win. He owed it to his talented young coach, Monty Williams, to the fans buying season tickets in a small market. He wanted to trade Paul and still make the playoffs. That's considered a sin in this NBA, where small-market cap space and vague draft picks create an illusion of success in today's bottom-line financial climate.
For Stern to get on a conference call and force Demps, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and Rockets GM Daryl Morey to listen to him say, "Dell never thought the deal to be done," is beyond disingenuous and insulting. Stern can say it, and Demps, the Lakers and Rockets can't ever challenge him. Demps made the deal because no one had ever told him of the league's mandate to receive young players and picks for Paul until after they killed the initial Lakers trade, league sources said.
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It never mattered to Stern the hundreds of hours that those teams and the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers invested into deals that Stern wouldn't have allowed anyway. All Stern ever cared about was freeing himself of lawsuit liability, keeping the NBA from another super-team perception with the Lakers and selling the Hornets for every final dollar. Everything else was someone else's mess to clean up.
The NBA let the deal reach fruition, and then abruptly canceled it. It wouldn't be long until Stern's underlings started to pass word onto league personnel that Demps hadn't been forthcoming to the league office on the Clippers offer, that he couldn't be trusted, that the NBA had every right to take over the talks. If Demps wants to keep a job in the NBA, you'll never hear him explain his side.
"Dell's problem was that every time he forwarded something to the league office, he felt it got leaked within an hour," said one friend of Demps. "That's why I think he became more careful of that."
The ripples of the NBA holding up the Paul trade have impacted teams beyond the Hornets. The Houston Rockets had worked for two full years to get into position to make a deal for an elite player like Pau Gasol. While the Rockets were stuck in this web, trade partners were falling off the board, committing to free agents and leaving the market. Had the Rockets been able to make the deal for Gasol, they would've had the space to sign Nene to the $67 million deal Denver gave him. Suddenly, the Rockets would've been a 50-, 55-victory team again and back in Western Conference contention. Now, they're reeling.
Once the initial trade was canceled and the whispers out of New York began to damage Demps' good name, teams soon became reluctant to deal with the non-decision maker of the process. The Hornets tried to revive the three-way trade with the Lakers and Rockets, but when the NBA contradicted what Demps told L.A. and Houston about what needed to change to complete the deal, those teams knew he had been rendered irrelevant.
"Once it was the NBA running things, it was no longer a negotiation process," one official said. "It was a shakedown."
The Hornets told trade partners it was likely they could accept the Rockets' and Lakers' packages with minimal changes: a first-round pick from the Lakers and minor assets from the Rockets, perhaps a second-round pick. As it turned out, the NBA demanded Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson be added to Houston's offer. Now, the Rockets had been told five of their top six players were needed to get Gasol in a trade.
The Rockets would've walked anyway, but the Lakers beat them to it. One league official says owner Jerry Buss' attitude basically was the NBA had gone too far, and he pulled his team out of the talks. Soon, the Lakers sent Lamar Odom to the Mavericks and it became clear: The NBA's machinations and maneuvering had dramatically impacted the Western Conference's balance of power.
In the end, Stern wouldn't allow the NBA to walk away without claiming a victory. This is Stern's NBA, where he's always believed the end justifies the means. For 30 teams competing, that largely should be the case. Yet, this wasn't the Hornets competing to make a deal. This was the league office forcing itself into the trade market, dictating NBA winners and losers and leaving too much carnage, too many questions, in its wake. Once the commissioner entered the fray, the embarrassment of losing was never an option.
The league insists this was a normal negotiation process, but it was nothing close. As an institution, it is easy to renege on a deal for a top-five player and seek out a better one because you never have to negotiate with these people again. That's an unfair advantage for the NBA, and purely destructive for those left in the job in New Orleans.
For all the suspicions those inside and out of the league have about the motives and agendas of those running the NBA, this was an episode to turn the cynical downright despondent. You win, Clippers. You lose, Lakers and Rockets. You win Chris Paul, you lose Dell Demps. The NBA waved its wand, and everyone else lives with the consequences. This was wrong, and Gordon and Minnesota's draft pick will never, ever make it right.
One minute, the Clippers wouldn't budge on trading Gordon and the 2012 first-round pick, and the next, the deal was done. Across Stu Jackson's desk, there passed the trade packages for Paul and the so-called secret amnesty bids for Billups. Always a nice, tidy completion for Stern.
Perhaps no one will ever know the truth about how Chris Paul became a Clipper, about perhaps where the lines blurred between a negotiation and a shakedown. Nevertheless, the star point guard gets to throw lobs to Blake Griffin in Hollywood, Demps gets to repair his credibility in the draft lottery, the Lakers and Rockets get shafted and Stern and his unforgiving, unrelenting Olympic Tower gang reminds the NBA once again: Our league, our whims.
"Let's not talk too much about how the sausage was made," Stern said late Wednesday.
All these years, all the episodes, and something never changes: David Stern never wants that curtain pulled back.
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- David Stern