I still remember where I was when I heard the Lakers had traded for Pau Gasol. I remember how many texts I received and how universally happy Laker Nation was to be adding another star. And in the process, subtracting an alleged murderer, Javaris Crittenton, and a team murderer, Kwame Brown. It was just in time to compete with the rival Celtics, the NBA's newly-crowned super team.
It was a dream scenario a friend might mention in jest. Only it was real.
Yesterday's scenario was different. There was more to analyze. More to digest. There was more lost and more uncertainty surrounding the future.
Since 2008, the dynamic of the team has changed. The Gasol trade was attached to approximately zero risk. The Lakers weren't a championship contender without him, but with him they were.
But last spring was rough. For the organization and fans alike. We're not used to getting beat. And holy crap, did we get beat. There's usually an excuse to be made (if we'd just had a healthy Bynum against the Celtics...). This time there wasn't. The Lakers got crushed and Kobe looked old and Pau looked disheartened and Artest was Artest and Bynum couldn't stay healthy and Derek Fisher was planning his exit and Phil was getting ready to retire. Just like the Yankees when they don't win the World Series, the Lakers and there fans went into panic mode.
Mike Brown signed on as the head coach, then the lockout happened. And then we had to wait and marinate in our panic.
Months later, the lockout ended. And then we hit the eject button, sending two of the most unique seven-footers to ever play into small-market oblivion.
What we received in return was a brilliant, necessarily ball-dominant, superstar point guard with one good knee and one deteriorating knee. He would play in the backcourt with Kobe Bryant, a brilliant, necessarily ball-dominant, superstar shooting guard with 1,300 games worth of mileage on his body.
Don't get me wrong. I've been wishing for the stork to drop a true point guard in Los Angeles since the departure of Nick Van Exel. I tuck myself in at night hoping to have beautiful, uninterrupted dreams where Derek Fisher is hogtied to a fold-away chair alongside a tranquilized Shannon Brown. Those are the only nights I reach REM sleep.
But a starting lineup that includes Derek Character and Ron Artest/Matt Barnes doesn't appeal to me. An offensive attack where your two best players must have the ball in their hands most of the time and (at least at this point in Kobe's career) aren't athletic enough to be effective in any other format doesn't appeal to me, either. An offensive attack that will be drawn up by Mike Brown (or one of his flunkies), a coach notorious for his inability to properly utilize the game's most devastating weapon, LeBron James.
And then we get to the bench (what bench?). And the luxury tax issues (approx. $20 million over, including Paul, but not including rookie contracts). And the owner's maverick son running the team. And that most of the role-playing free agents that would fit with the Lakers have already been signed.
Look at the roster for yourselves and use your imagination to include Paul and exclude Gasol and Odom. Star power notwithstanding, is this really a championship team?
In truth, if I'd judged the reaction to the trade solely on Facebook statuses, it may have felt like the Gasol trade 2.0. This is anything but a surprise. Every nation of fans has its knowledgeable contingent (small) interspersed with its ride-or-die, just-want-to-cheer-for-Kobe-and-watch-Shannon-Brown-bang-on-someone, then-attend-the-parade contingent (large).
Los Angeles loves a star, and since they're never visible in the sky, we fight rush-hour traffic to watch them play basketball at Staples Center. When the Paul trade was announced, there was a predictable, reactionary glee that swept through Southern California like a Santa Ana wind storm.
And then we started to analyze. Or, some of us did. And what we came away with was this: The Lakers just downgraded.
It's the most elementary of concepts. Gain one great player. Lose two great players.
When we delve a bit deeper, we might remember that the Lakers biggest on-court advantage was that they had three seven-footers with complementary skill sets. In fact, on the occasional night when Kobe looked extra run-down, it was their only advantage.
And if you think that a subsequent trade for Dwight Howard would solve the problem, think again. Dwight has a lot of nice attributes: a marketable smile, an action figure-like physique, super-human leaping ability and is the odds-on favorite to secure any and every rebound.
But he doesn't have Pau's post game. His running hook shots hit the glass harder than a prop bird in a Hitchcock movie. He doesn't have Lamar's ability to handle the ball, either. But what seven-footer does?
I'm going to shift gears for a moment, so try to stay with me.
There is a small portion of my brain reserved for conspiracy theory. It's like a house in a quiet, friendly neighborhood, surrounded by logical neighbors who prefer to soak up all available information, digest it, then analyze it. The folks in the CT house would rather listen to one, semi-plausible theory and believe it. Then regurgitate it in an obnoxious manner, blasting it over a megaphone and plastering bumper stickers on the Nissan Leaf in the driveway.
When the trade was made official (and before it wasn't), my mood ring ran the color gamut. Once it had settled on a dark shade of gray, I found myself sitting on the couch of the conspiracy theorists clutching a megaphone.
With that crappy analogy as a preface, I ask you this: Is it possible that David Stern could have vetoed this trade to help the Lakers?
True. Stern's decision to veto the trade goes against the basic principles of professional sports. True. Some small-market owners wrote angry letters in Verdana font complaining about the fairness of the trade. More specifically, the Lakers obtaining yet another audience draw while knocking off a few bucks from the luxury tax.
*Note: I'd imagine that the same owners complaining about a fair playing field for small-market teams aren't on their podium when it comes to similar economic issues in American politics. Billionaires seem to be a lot more accepting of socialistic philosophy when it benefits their gross income.
**Secondary Note: Small-market owners can't complain that bigger-market teams have more money to spend and then complain again when they don't spend it.
This is how Stern should have responded:
Dear Mr. Gilbert,
Thank you for your feedback. We appreciate you taking the time to share your comments and suggestions about your recent NBA team-owning experience. Feedback from our owners assists us in continuously enhancing the NBA experience.
P.S. From this point forward, written correspondence will only be accepted in the following fonts: Arial, Times, Times New Roman. Size 12, black ink. If you fail to comply with these requirements, the only time we will communicate will be during all-new episodes of Showtime's Gigolos, via FaceTime, per tradition.
But he didn't do that. He caved. But why would he cave?
Since when do small-market teams matter more than the big ones? Isn't it in the league's best interests that the Lakers remain a championship contender? When the Knicks, Bulls and Lakers are in the playoffs at the same time, the league benefits. When they have star players, the league benefits. The Chris Paul trade wouldn't necessarily have altered any of this, but it may have hindered the Lakers enough to make them a middle-of-the-pack contender for the foreseeable future.
Maybe, when Stern was being bombarded with nonsensical complaints, he saw an opportunity.
Maybe, someone whispered in his ear, "D-Blast, the Lakers will sellout, regardless. They have Kobe. But, if this trade goes through, in this fashion, they're going to have a difficult time contending for a title. Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea for you to 'give in' to the demands of these small-market pee-ons."
Is that so far-fetched? He keeps the small-market teams happy while ensuring the Lakers keep their biggest on-court advantage and their most valuable trade chips. It's possible that this could lead to the Lakers conjuring up an even better deal.
I'm not trying to convince you that this is how it went down. I'm not even saying I believe this is how it went down. I'm just saying, maybe.
If Paul does end up in purple and gold, this is all a moot point. But if it happens AND the Lakers end up taking on more salary, like Gilbert wants, and that salary takes the form of a role player, like say, Trevor Ariza or Emeka Okafor—is it still moot? Doesn't everybody win? The Lakers do. Dan Gilbert and The Small Market Quartet do. The league definitely does.
David Stern, the diabolical puppeteer, and keeper of the peace. Maybe.
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