For three hours, three exciting, terrifying, insane, surreal hours, Chris Paul was a Los Angeles Laker. And then he wasn't. Not because somebody failed a physical, not because one of the three teams in the deal got cold feet. Instead, David Stern, with at least an assist from Dan Gilbert (and probably a few other owners), decided it was in the league's best interests to turn the clocks back a few hours, so he rejected the deal. Since Stern apparently has access to this time machine, he might as well have gone back a few weeks, back to when the prospects of an NBA season looked grim.
In no way was this decision fair. It isn't fair to the teams involved in the trade, all of whom negotiated in good faith. The Lakers were made stronger by the deal, which would have sent Pau Gasol to Houston and Lamar Odom and a slew of Rockets to New Orleans, but that Laker strength was of the future variety; for the current season, it left them in a weaker position to compete, reducing front court depth from a big strength to a glaring weakness in a league in which size is usually paramount to success. It is widely held that the New Orleans Hornets made out pretty darn well, with three high quality starters, another player with some potential, and a first round pick too. Houston was really the only team for whom the deal seemed a terrible idea, but they desperately wanted to bring in an All-Star big man to fill the void left by Yao Ming's deteriorating health, and no player in the league is better suited to fill Yao Ming's exact skill set than Gasol. The veto certainly wasn't fair to the players involved. Chris Paul might have lost millions of dollars in a contract extension he can no longer sign, and is rightfully considering legal action. Lamar Odom was devastated by the trade, and now has to return to the team that caused the devastation. Pau Gasol and half the Rockets' roster are going through similar, though perhaps less intense, plights. All three teams are in significantly worse position than they were yesterday by having been forced back to square one. That's not fair.
Fairness has nothing to do with this. Fairness has everything to do with this.
David Stern made this decision because the world isn't fair. Los Angeles is a destination where most players, especially superstar players, want to play. The Lakers are a franchise steeped in successful history, and that success has created an environment that only promotes further success. The Lakers are virtually immune to the market factors that normally force sports teams to go through cycles of success and failure. They have financial resources far beyond most of the rest of the league, and unlike the Mark Cubans and Paul Allens of the world, Jerry Buss is able to utilize those resources without cutting into his bottom line. The Lakers paid more money in luxury tax than any other team last year, and yet were one of the few that reported a profit. They've been to the NBA Finals 50% of the time the Finals have been held, and they've won 25% of the league's championships. With Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant on their team, and the potential of Dwight Howard on the way, there would be no end in sight to the Lakers' period of success. David Stern had to block this trade to maintain the illusion of fairness, of competitive balance, that he and his brethren just spent 5 months carving out of the players' backs.
There's just one problem ... the owners traded away that fairness for the chance to line their pockets with a few extra billions. And on the far side of Stern's decision, I can't see how the players can continue to abide by the arrangement.
The owners were within their rights to stage the lockout. The desire to make the NBA a more competitive league top to bottom is a noble one, even if it would force me and my fellow fans to become better acquainted with concepts like the "lottery" and "rebuilding." The owners also have a right to demand a higher percentage of the revenue brought in by the game, just as the players have the right not to accept those demands. If both sides can't agree, then both sides suffer. That's business, in its most simplistic form. With two main issues on the table - overall finances and player movement/competitive balance - the sides had the ability to choose one issue as more important to them. The owners chose the money. The players chose the freedom. Now the owners have effectively taken both.
It's a shocking development, although in retrospect, perhaps it shouldn't be. Throughout the lockout process, the owners have repeatedly jerked negotiations around by making concessions one day and returning to a hard line the next. This is no different, except that the owners had the audacity to actually put the agreement in writing before enacting exactly the scenario that they want. And now that they have reneged on their side of the bargain, they expect the players to maintain the arrangement. That they pulled this stunt on the very day the new CBA was ratified by both players and owners was all the more bush league. Sam Amick, among others, has pointed out that there's no way the players would have passed the CBA if Stern had pulled his power play before the vote. Nor should they have. You don't get to make "compromises" in a negotiation and then Godfather your way past those compromises.
And if the players' opinions on the CBA are any different today than they were yesterday, they should man up and take action. For that matter, since it is the owners who are beginning to realize just how toothless their new CBA is, it really is they who should once again lockout the players. So here is my message to them:
If competitive balance is important enough to you to threaten the integrity of the league, then go back to the table and get it right. Demand a hard cap. Create a Franchise Tag. Get rid of the sign and trade. Do whatever you think is necessary to ensure that the Milwaukees and Indianas of the world have as much a chance of landing, and keeping, a superstar as the Lakers do. And be prepared to give up some of the financial concessions the players made to you in order to maintain the system you clearly believe is untenable. Be prepared for the consequences of those actions. Be prepared for the fact that the players might decide they are better off without you and create a new league of some kind. Be prepared for the fact that some of your fellow owners don't give a shit about competitive balance through revenue sharing, and when push comes to shove, would rather just remove your crappy small market team altogether so that the free market provides the balance. Be prepared to take all of these considerations into play and come up with a plan to leave the league in a place that you can live with.
Otherwise, feel free to eat all the cake you want. Just have the decency to realize that once you've eaten it, it will be gone. That's how the world works. That's fair.