On Thursday night, when Chris Paul's trade to the Los Angeles Lakers was abruptly blocked by comissioner David Stern, many immediate reactions focused on the fact that the NBA -- specifically the 29 owners of its other teams -- owns the New Orleans Hornets. With that sort of control, it made some measure of sense that Stern would intervene, because it's technically his role as head of the corporation that owns the team. However, treating the Hornets as if they were owned by the NBA just as Mark Cuban owns the Mavericks confuses the complicated situation at play here.
For one thing, the NBA only owns the Hornets because they stand a better chance of finding a suitable local owner than the deposed George Shinn. The league has appointed a temporary team president, Jac Sperling, and theoretically allowed Dell Demps to execute trades and free-agent signings as he saw fit. As Yahoo!'s own Adrian Wojnarowski reported in his essential article on the story behind the trade, Demps approached the complicated Paul situation with the belief that he had final say on what his team did:
Hornets general manager Dell Demps is "disconsolate" over the heavy-handed move from the commissioner's office, a source told Y! Sports. Demps considered resigning his job on Thursday, league sources said, and had to be talked out of it. [...]
As one rival executive with strong ties to the league office said, "Stern cared about two things: Selling that franchise for the best possible price; and showing the players that they weren't going to dictate where teams could trade them. But now, there's no way that the league can allow Chris Paul to be traded at all, otherwise Stern is basically deciding where one of the top players in the league is going versus having any fair process." [...]
"We were all told by the league he was a trade-able player, and now they're saying that Dell doesn't have the authority to make the trade?" said an NBA executive who had periodic talks with New Orleans throughout the process. "Now, they're saying that Dell is an idiot, that he can't do it his job. [Expletive] this whole thing. David's drunk on power, and he doesn't give a [expletive] about the players, and he doesn't give a [expletive] about the hundreds of hours the teams put in to make that deal.
This information all makes sense, because there would have been little reason for Demps to reach a deal if he knew he would be neutered at any opportunity. By all indications, Stern exercised an 11th-hour cancellation of the deal simply because he was in position to do so. Whether he did so as overseer of the team's 29 owners or league commissioner is almost beside the point, because he had indicated to Demps that the league's ownership was a formality rather than a hands-on relationship.
Like the watchmaker God of deism, he assigned executives to the franchise and gave them the power to run the team as they saw fit. If he stopped the deal, then he contradicted, on a whim, a system that he'd created. He also did so in a way that ensures Demps, Sperling, and the rest of the Hornets' organization will appear to be a puppet regime instead of an autonomous group.
Yet Stern's reneging on his own Hornets system was not the only contradiction of the day. As Yahoo! staff also reported, legendarily vindictive Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert sent a letter to Stern that impelled the blocking of the trade in the first place:
This trade should go to a vote of the 29 owners of the Hornets.
Over the next three seasons this deal would save the Lakers approximately $20 million in salaries and approximately $21 million in luxury taxes. That $21 million goes to non-taxpaying teams and to fund revenue sharing.
Before this trade went through, Gilbert and the other 29 members of the Board of Governors (including Jac Sperling) passed the new collective bargaining agreement 25-5. By most indications, Gilbert supported the agreement, which quite emphatically does not include a stipulation that allows the league commissioner, whether acting on behalf of the Hornets' 29 owners or not, to block a trade for vague "basketball reasons." What Stern did is quite clearly not standard practice, if not illegal altogether, and it sets a horrible precedent for all Hornets decisions for as long as the league controls the team.
But that he did so after minimal pressure from owners is even worse. If the owners agreed to let Stern choose Demps and others to guide the team as they saw fit, they have no recourse to argue against what those men did with their power. They don't vote on other major issues -- from who the Hornets draft to who Demps hires to help him in the front office -- and there's no reason they should be allowed to vote on any prospective trade involving the team's best player. They created rules, agreed to stand back, and then decided those rules were unfair. It's a childish response to a professional situation that we expect to be handled in an adult fashion. And, on a more general note, the owners can't vote on the Hornets' trades because it constitutes collusion under the CBA.
The NBA has a collective bargaining agreement precisely to avoid occurrences like arbitrarily blocked trades. There are rules, and they matter. For Stern and the owners to change those rules on the same day they signed them into effect is essentially to decide that they have the power to control the league as an oligarchy rather than a partnership with their employees. If Chris Paul holds out, or even sues the NBA, he will do so because his social contract was breached. Would any player have agreed to reform the union and accept this deal if they'd known Paul wouldn't be allowed to change teams?
There are many problems with this situation, but at its root it's a breach of trust. Paul, Demps, and others thought they were operating one way and suddenly learned it was another way. David Stern may not block any more trades in his career, but it's hard to imagine how he can broker a deal with anyone -- from the owners to the players -- with the other party having much confidence he'll hold to it.