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Former NBA commissioner David Stern granted Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard a wide-ranging interview (insofar as an interview with Stern can be wide-ranging), and despite telling the writer he hasn’t written a memoir because that would be “too self-important” and “I don’t do war stories,” he spun one cocksure narrative that all but declared battle against a still-active NBA general manager.
It began with a question from Ballard about Stern’s oft-criticized decision to veto a trade that would have sent then-New Orleans Hornets star Chris Paul to Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers in 2011, an unprecedented ruling that drew heavy criticism at the time and altered the league’s history forever.
“I didn’t do a great job of explaining it at the time,” Stern told Sports Illustrated. “There was a trade that [New Orleans general manager] Dell Demps wanted us to approve and I said heck no, but he had told [Rockets GM] Daryl Morey and [then Lakers GM] Mitch Kupchak he had authority to do it and he didn’t. I said no. We just settled a lockout and you want me to approve a basketball trade?”
What was David Stern’s explanation at the time?
The NBA cited “basketball reasons” for the veto in 2011, when Stern clarified his stance in a statement:
“Since the NBA purchased the New Orleans Hornets, final responsibility for significant management decisions lies with the commissioner’s office in consultation with team chairman Jac Sperling. All decisions are made on the basis of what is in the best interests of the Hornets. In the case of the trade proposal that was made to the Hornets for Chris Paul, we decided, free from the influence of other NBA owners, that the team was better served with Chris in a Hornets uniform than by the outcome of the terms of that trade.”
Leading up to the post-lockout agreement, according to Marc Stein, then of ESPN, “the commissioner insisted for months that Hornets general manager Dell Demps and the rest of the team’s front office had autonomy over basketball decisions. Sources close to the situation said Demps and teams that have pursued Paul had been assured the Hornets had the clearance to trade Paul as they saw fit.”
Details of the deal were well-documented at the time. Paul, who had informed Demps that he did not intend to re-sign with the Hornets in 2012, was bound for the Lakers, with All-Star Pau Gasol going to the Rockets and a package of bona fide NBA contributors in Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and Lamar Odom headed for New Orleans, along with a 2012 first-round pick from the New York Knicks (via Houston).
Looking back, that’s not such a bad deal for a soon-to-be free agent star. Martin and Scola averaged a combined 42 points per game for the Rockets the previous season, Odom was coming off a Sixth Man of the Year campaign, and the Knicks pick landed just outside the lottery, where any number of future foundational players were still on the board (and the Rockets eventually gambled on Royce White).
Today’s equivalent of that deal might be something like a three-team deal that would send Eric Gordon (2018 Sixth Man of the Year), Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari (38 combined points per game last season) and a mid-first-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for soon-to-be free agent Jimmy Butler.
In an email to the commissioner following the nixed deal, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert called Stern’s actions “a travesty” and called for a vote from the league’s 29 other owners, all of whom had a stake in the Hornets after the NBA purchased the team for $300 million in December 2010.
But Stern did settle a lockout and approve a basketball trade
Instead, Stern soon approved the trade that days later sent Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers for Gordon, 2010 All-Star Chris Kaman, 2010 lottery pick Al-Farouq Aminu and the 2012 first-round pick that became Austin Rivers. That deal probably worked out best for New Orleans, if only because Gordon got injured, Kaman’s production fell off a cliff, Aminu wasn’t ready, and the Hornets were bad enough to land Anthony Davis with the No. 1 pick. Neither trade is really worth writing home about, since Paul continued his ascendance en route to one of the greatest careers ever for a point guard.
‘Dell Demps is a lousy general manager’
Yet, here’s Stern in Sports Illustrated, seven years later, trashing Demps for his work then and now:
“But Dell Demps is a lousy general manager and none of those players are currently with the team anymore, and he may lose Anthony Davis.”
“I did it because I was protecting the then-Hornets. … To this day everyone always asks me, ‘Well why did you keep Chris Paul from going to the Lakers?’ I didn’t keep him. I didn’t approve the trade. No team sells or trades a future Hall of Famer without the owner signing off, and I was the owner’s rep. But I wasn’t going to hand up Dell Demps.” After this, Stern goes on for a bit before returning to what he sees as the irony. “Now when DeMarcus Cousins signs with Golden State, then the great unwashed Twitter says, ‘Adam Silver should be like Stern and stop him from going.’ Oh, O.K., guys, that’s great! Right? That’s ridiculous. Step up, strap on a set. It’s stupid.”
Well, then, now I want to read that memoir.
The Pelicans released a statement on Tuesday night responding to Stern’s comments, too, calling them “inappropriate and inaccurate.”
“We are very disappointed to read the inappropriate and inaccurate comments from the former NBA Commissioner regarding the New Orleans Pelicans,” the team said in a statement. “Our organization has the upmost confidence in our General Manger, Dell Demps. He is part of our family, the NBA family. We are excited about the direction of our team, the 3-0 start of this season, building on the success of the 2017/18 playoffs. Finally, our organization is excited and proud to be part of the NBA with the progressive and innovative leadership of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.”
Stern goes against the NBA family
Demps is still working as the GM for the Pelicans. He has long been criticized for failing to provide Davis with a supporting cast capable of contending, but New Orleans did reach the second round of last year’s playoffs thanks to a series of fortuitous moves by the front office. Davis signed with agent Rich Paul (no relation to Chris) this past summer, sending a smoke signal to the league that he could be orchestrating an exit from New Orleans leading up to his 2021 free agency, but Davis and New Orleans are both sticking by each other for now, and the Pelicans are undefeated through one week.
Stern, it seems, has his doubts.
Stern’s faith in the Pelicans’ ability to keep Davis is neither here nor there, although we should wonder why the ex-commish couldn’t persuade Paul to stay in New Orleans if it were so easy. At any rate, the real story here is that Stern, who then served as Demps’ de facto boss for the Hornets, is openly bashing a GM whom he kept in place through the team’s sale and who is still working today.
For their part, the Pelicans did not immediately return a request for comment from Demps.
Kobe Bryant disagrees with David Stern
Bryant has lamented the vetoed trade ever since, suggesting he and Paul would have won multiple titles together. The Clippers emerged as a contender for a handful of years, before Paul orchestrated his way to contention in Houston, and none of that may have happened had Paul joined the Lakers instead. The Rockets would have looked awfully different had they landed Gasol back then, and they eventually flipped Martin in the deal for James Harden. Had Martin gone to New Orleans with Odom and Scola, the Pelicans might have played their way out of contention for the No. 1 pick, and Davis would already be somewhere else. In other words, Stern’s decision is still altering the NBA landscape.
“Everything that was done with that lockout was to restrict the Lakers’ ability to get players and to create a sense of parity, for the San Antonios of the world and the Sacramentos of the world,” Bryant told GQ magazine in 2015. “But a funny thing happened, coming out of that lockout: Even with those restrictions, the Lakers pulled off a trade that immediately set us up for a championship, a run of championships later, and which saved money. Now, the NBA vetoed that trade. But the Lakers pulled that s— off, and no one would have thought it was even possible. The trade got vetoed, because they’d just staged the whole lockout to restrict the Lakers. Mitch got penalized for being smart.”
Both Stern and Bryant want NBA history to be written their way.
Oh, one more thing from Stern’s interview with Sports Illustrated:
Stern has long had a complicated relationship with the media. He tells me he once got a writer fired from USA Today because he wrote “the most horrible things about some of our people.” Recalls Stern, “He said, ‘You got me fired didn’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, and I’m proud of it. I’d do it again.’ There is a family. We call it the NBA family and we really, we live it.”
Tell that to Dell Demps.
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