MIAMI – This was the fitting end to one of the darkest, most unseemly episodes in the history of the NBA, the perfect punctuation on the commissioner's manipulation of the sale and salvation of a lost franchise.
The New Orleans Hornets won the draft lottery and get to pick one of the most transcendent prospects in years, Kentucky's Anthony Davis. The NBA-owned New Orleans Hornets, with a 13.7 percent chance, won the lottery. For over a year, David Stern pushed hard to get maximum value for his owners on the re-sale of the Hornets, and Tom Benson gave Stern an asking price and an assurance the franchise wouldn't leave New Orleans.
"It's such a joke that the league made the new owners be at the lottery for the show," one high-ranking team executive told Yahoo! Sports. "The league still owns the Hornets. Ask their front office if new owners can make a trade right now. They can't. This is a joke."
The reaction of several league executives was part disgust, part resignation on Wednesday night. So many had predicted this happening, so many suspected that somehow, someway, the Hornets would walk away with Davis. That's the worst part for the NBA; these aren't the railings from the guy sitting at the corner tavern, but the belief of those working within the machinery that something undue happened here, that they suspect it happens all the time under Stern.
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There's no proof, and there will never be proof. Yet, there's an appearance of impropriety – always an appearance – that marches arm-and-arm with Stern into the twilight of his commissionership, marches right out the door with him.
In New Orleans this season, everyone followed orders. The Hornets feared crossing Stern could cost them not only jobs with the Hornets, but futures in the NBA. They ate that trade for Chris Paul to the Lakers, and dutifully sold the commissioner's story that it was never agreed upon, never completed. The Hornets played Darryl Watkins, Jerome Dyson and Lance Thomas 41-plus minutes in the final game of the season in an 84-77 loss to Houston. They played them until the Hornets bottomed out with six points in the fourth quarter of the loss that left them at 21-45 for the season.
"I bet I could get my owner to tank if I knew the chance of getting the No. 1 pick was 100 percent," an NBA team president said in an email.
Perhaps this is too harsh, but it's how rivals feel; a lot of them. They're suspicious, dubious, and the Hornets' winning the lottery fed all of that in an immense way. Monty Williams had the Hornets playing hard for so much of the season, making the most out of so little. They weren't designed to win 21 games in that shortened schedule, and that's a credit to Williams, one of the NBA's fine young coaches.
This is the problem for Stern, and will always be: Within his own league, they're dubious about him, his underlings, about the centralized power structure in New York. Stern created the mayhem of the Hornets season – the vetoed Paul trade that disrupted the operations and balance of several teams – and the fallout never relented. Here comes Tom Benson now, whose NFL organization is mired in one of the great institutional scandals in pro sports history, walking into New York for the draft lottery with a bad team, in a bad arena, and leaving with a franchise star.
Yes, the Hornets are staying in New Orleans, and that's wonderful news for the people there, for the NBA. All around the league, though, everyone will forever wonder: At what cost?
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