Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dr. Naismith, Please Call Drs. Smith, Marx and Keynes

National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern cost his bosses, the guys who own NBA teams, a lot of money Thursday night. In fairness to Stern, it must be pointed out they wanted him to do it.

Stern's voiding of the three-team trade that was going to send Chris Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to the Rockets, and Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin and a host of others back to the Hornets in return for Paul was one of those rare managerial actions that was wrongheaded to the point of idiocy from whatever perspective one chooses to look. The perspective that will bat cleanup some months from now is the one that could cost Stern the job to which he is megalomaniacally attached.

We'll dispense with the easiest perspective first, the lie Stern told yesterday and which he is advised not to repeat during the discovery process that seems sure to follow in this affair. Stern said he voided the deal in his role as steward of the NBA's trusteeship of the Hornets while it tries to sell the franchise because he thought they could a better trade for Paul.

Stern might not be lying. If so, he really must think Rajon Rondo is the berries, the next Isiah Thomas at least. But at a conservative estimate, everyone else who watches enough NBA ball to have an opinion believes the Hornets made out in historically fine fashion in that most difficult of activities, trading a superstar with one year left on his contract.

This statement also makes it very difficult for the Hornets to pursue trading Paul somewhere else. Why should other teams do business with a front office whose words are meaningless? What if their trade makes Dan Gilbert remember how mad he is at LeBron James, too?

And of course, if Paul is traded to, oh, I dunno, the Indiana Pacers, for LESS value than the Hornets got from the Lakers and Rockets, then general manager Dave Demps can look forward to the delightful experience of being asked to defend it; to the media and fans for sure, under oath perhaps.

Now for the real reason Stern blocked the trade. The NBA owners went through the lockout so that star players couldn't go to star franchises. One week after ending what cost many of them real money, they found out they hadn't accomplished that goal. So they're angry. Stern doesn't want them to be angry. So he acted.

Stern is also demented. The love of power has corrupted him beyond repair. He likes pushing around young extremely strong men who could, if it came to it, crush his skull with the shock waves in the air created by flexing their biceps.

Most of all, Stern and the owners have been self-destructive. Spite often works like that. In their effort to punish the Lakers for being successful, smart, and located in Los Angeles, they have damaged the value of the Hornets franchise they all own. Worse, they have damaged the value of their OWN franchises.

Hard as this is to believe, there ARE rich people interested in purchasing the New Orleans Hornets. The NBA has been dawdling because Stern, like fellow commish Bud Selig, is more interested in having the team owned by a compliant crony than in basic business principles. One has to believe those parties are recalculating their bids right now -- downwards. A basketball team whose best player is now likely to be out the door next season with no compensation, a team headed for 60 loss seasons as far as the eye can see, well, that team's not as attractive a proposition.

NBA teams, like all pro sports franchises, are an asset that exists in what's called a thin market. Transactions are rare. Many far larger companies in regular businesses get bought and sold each month than sports teams are in a year. The sale of any franchise helps set the market. That is, no matter how much the Boston Celtics are worth in theory, if the New Orleans Hornets get sold at a marked-down price, the Celtics' market value suffers. Maybe not dramatically, but suffer it will.

It's pleasant to contemplate how Dan Gilbert and his fellow spiteful rich fools have screwed themselves. It's almost sad to realize that they did so in the pursuit of a chimera. The so-called small market (the Clippers exist in an LA of an alternate universe) franchises will never achieve their goal of competitive balance, i.e., wins and money without working. Basketball won't let them.

I said for years, back during the last lockout in '98 in fact, that the owners were caught in a trap. The more restrictions they placed on player salaries, the more the players would decide what teams they wanted to play for on non-monetary grounds, such as sunshine, tax avoidance, and most of all, being on good teams. The Decision of LeBron was an economic inevitability. If it hadn't been him, it'd would've been some other superstar playing his own GM.

There is NO economic system short of slavery that'll allow for competitive balance in pro basketball. Look at history. The league has ALWAYS had one, two or at most three dominant teams, with all others having precisely no hope of ever winning a title. When the NBA had the reserve clause in the '50s and '60s, and players had no rights, the competitive imbalance was worst of all, as a glance at the ceiling of the Garden makes plain.

Basketball has five players a side, least of all team sports. Ergo, the importance of the best individual players is far greater than in any other sport. There's no system that'll prevent the team with Wilt, Russell, Kareem, Bird or Michael from beating your brains out.

And since those bygone days, superstars have always found ways to choose who they played for. Wilt was a master of making his employers wish he was elsewhere. Rick Barry averaged a lawsuit a franchise in his prime. The financial hurdles the owners want to place in front of free agents will be cleared easier than Edwin Moses used to do it.

No power on earth short of a gun is going to make players stay Cleveland Cavaliers longer than their rookie contracts make them. Or Sacramento Kings, or, well, you get the idea. Better the owners should've pursued the Lost Dutchman gold mine than competitive balance. More chance of a payoff. Or they could buy an NHL team. Always plenty of those on the market. Ask the Phoenix Coyotes what competitive balance does for them.

I've saved the best/most apocalyptic possibility for last. The NBA is now a partnership where some partners, the successful ones, now know they can't trust their other partners. That's not a situation that often ends well, but it does often end.

If I owned the Celtics, the Lakers, Knicks, or one of about seven other NBA teams, I'd be discreetly sounding out my fellow big-market partners on the following thesis: Do we really NEED these guys? Our teams drive the finances of the league. Why not just be our own league, and eliminate the free-riding panhandlers we find so irritating at meetings?

This almost surely won't happen. Sports team owners, by and large, are nowhere near as ruthless and creative in the sports business as they were/are in the businesses where they got rich to buy teams in the first place. But the distrust and resentment between partners Stern has created IS real, and it will have unforeseen consequences. Not totally unforeseen, mind you. We know they'll be bad ones.

In a way, I applaud Stern's move. It's a case study in the decline and fall of American capitalism. The NBA's capitalists would rather feed their ids with rage and spite than make money. Explains a lot about the front page of every morning's "Wall Street Journal."


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