Here was New Orleans Hornets general manager Dell Demps out on the West Bank of New Orleans, out in a practice facility that Chris Paul has had to march past reptile and bird shows, and government cheese handouts on his way to the locker room. For thousands of hours, Demps had done the job he had prepared his entire professional life: video and statistical analysis, telephone calls, texts, emails and meetings until 3:30 a.m. with his basketball staff.
The job. Demps did the job. His professional career, his reputation, the future of the franchise, hung in the balance of the team's trade of Paul. Demps never had a chance to keep Paul, nor did his capable predecessor, Jeff Bower. The NBA had come to New Orleans because a Bible-thumping owner, George Shinn, had been sued by a Charlotte woman in a sexual assault case. All alone, Shinn destroyed an excellent NBA market in Charlotte and moved the Hornets to New Orleans to find a new city that would treat him like a savior. Katrina was on deck, and the NBA had to live with the consequences.
In so many ways, Demps was working to clean up one more of commissioner David Stern's messes on Thursday. Demps did his job, did it beautifully and out of nowhere, out of the hubris of Olympic Tower in Manhattan, Stern sent word that this three-team deal for one of the sport's biggest stars had been obliterated after the Hornets, Lakers and Rockets agreed upon a package.
Now, Stern has apparently ceded to public backlash, as the three teams re-engaged in talks on amending Thursday's deal in a way Stern could accept, league sources told Yahoo! Sports on Friday. Now, the job of these three teams is to shake up the deal just enough for Stern to be able to save face and approve it. The basketball experts at the league office are mandating the Hornets gather younger players and draft picks for Paul. Somehow, they believe that solidifies New Orleans' basketball future in a better way.
Ideally, it would, if Stern and his wing-tipped tag-a-longs in Olympic tower were qualified to make those judgments. The Hornets could've flipped Lamar Odom and Luis Scola to contenders to secure those kinds of assets, but apparently Stern wants the illusion of a younger player or a pick that he has no idea will ever turn into anything.
On Thursday, there was a long, sordid chain of events that ended with a determined young GM, Demps, overcome with anger and disbelief, feeling like the walls had come down on him Thursday. In the end, Demps was told to wait for Stern to call, but there was no hope he could dissuade Stern and spare everyone this stunning, unprecedented misuse of power. The NBA hadn't taken over ownership of the Hornets to carry out Stern's petty grudges and power trips, but that's what it always comes back to with him.
[ Related: Hornets resume Chris Paul trade talks ]
The curtain has been pulled back on how this league operates, how Stern still sees himself as emperor, as a dictator of what he wants and how he wants it. Back on All-Star weekend in Los Angeles, Stern told those stars in an angry, true moment in the locker room that he knew where the bodies were buried because he had buried a lot of them. He threw that shovel over his shoulder again Thursday and walked away from one more dirt ditch.
After five months of a lockout, after failing to deliver a promise to his owners that he would reform NBA rules to make these superstar hostage crises disappear, another was underway in New Orleans on Stern's watch. Stern doesn't see superstars with the gravitas of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and feels like so many of these owners that he privately despises: Who the hell are these players to dictate terms to him?
This had little to do with the merits of the Paul trade and how it would impact the value for the Hornets' next owner – and everything to do with timing. Some owners were angry with Stern pushing so hard for a Christmas Day return that he relented on several of the rules they wanted to spare themselves from the superstar takeovers. Business started again, and business was unchanged. Long before Dan Gilbert sent that email, his ownership peers were raging to Stern.
For some reason, the end of the labor battle hadn't marked the end of the fight for Stern and the owners against the star players. That's what happened here. Stern deemed the trade unacceptable for "basketball reasons," and that's laughable considering how little that league office knows about basketball, appreciates it, or was even willing to give it a chance to be credible this season with so many games jammed into so few days, with such little preseason.
When the word came to Demps, he sat in his office and let the emotion wash over him. Stern has reduced so many men to rubble as commissioner, forever famous for belittling employees with his temper tantrums. This time, it was different. Stern had to explain the unexplainable, and there's no discussion with the commissioner. There's no reasoning. Everyone's a subject in his kingdom.
[ Ball Don't Lie: David Stern, NBA don't follow own rules ]
Demps was feeling humiliated, embarrassed and a little betrayed, say his friends. He had done his job and had his staff reporting to NBA vice president Stu Jackson's office on the progress of the trade talks.
As a GM, all a franchise can do is make a plan, take a course of action and see how it all turns out. For the NBA to run the Hornets the way Stern promised they would be run – "If [management] recommends it, then we're going to be approving it," Stern had said – then you let them trade Paul when they believe they have the best possible deal, when they can get the full value to a team he's committed to sign with long-term. Now, the Hornets are left with a defiant Paul, who, if he isn't traded to L.A., will probably seek free agency out of spite to Stern. This will cause him to be a rental to most places where he could be traded, and that's not how you get the best value for him.
Rockets executives told friends in the league, "They set us back three years with this." The Rockets had gathered young players, assets to make a move for a star like Pau Gasol, and pair him with a pricy free agent like Nene in the middle. All that could be gone now, lost in the debris, and all the NBA had to do was tell Demps early on the league wouldn't approve such a deal. They owed him the grace to spare everyone the precious time, resources and professional anguish of this mess.
This wasn't about the best interests of the Hornets, the NBA, anyone at all. This wasn't the NBA that Stern promised those owners in a post-lockout league, and they let him have it Thursday. After all those long days and nights negotiating the end of that labor war, it turns out it isn't over and never will be in this NBA. This is the fight to David Stern's ignoble finish as commissioner of the NBA, the fight that'll never end well for the NBA. That's how Stern's going down, and that's how he'll be remembered.
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