The Lakers and the Clippers will be facing off for the third and final time in April, assuming they don't meet in the playoffs. The two teams are currently tied for the season series at one game a piece. The fact that this is a challenge and that the Lakers even care about winning is a significant paradigm shift in the Los Angeles sports landscape.
Before this season, the Clippers were an irrelevant afterthought in the NBA. At one point declared by Fox Sports as the worst franchise in sports history, the Clippers have been notoriously awful, winning only two playoff series in the franchise’s 41 years and never making it past the second round. They’ve made terrible, borderline incompetent moves with their staff and players, and have been the running joke in the NBA for decades.
So what has changed to make this series important? How, after decades of irrelevance, did the Clippers suddenly become an elite team in the NBA?
Their owner, Donald Sterling, is a notoriously frugal alleged racist bogged down by controversy and has a proven history of failing to make strong moves to improve the team, so we can count out his cunning as the reason. They did draft Blake Griffin two seasons ago and he has turned out to be a star, but they had him last season and were ineffectual as ever.
So, how did the league’s most lackluster franchise manage to attract one of its biggest young stars? Two words: David, Stern.
To say this off-season was a tumultuous one would be a vast understatement. The future of the league was up in the air and the relationship between fans, owners and players was in utter disarray. There was no collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and it was looking as if the NBA would lose at least one season to stubbornness on both the players’ and the owners’ parts. Fans had all but given up when David Stern pulled a rabbit out of the hat in November and managed to get a new CBA ratified.
The players caved and forfeited a large amount of money and contractual concessions to the owners. Owners felt they had successfully returned competitiveness to the NBA landscape, giving small market teams the same chance of landing superstar players as large market teams and effectively ending the ability for players to collude and join each other in a city like L.A. or Boston. The goal was to end the era of super teams, and the commissioner, along with small market owners like Dan Gilbert, felt they had succeeded.
The season was on pace to begin and business as usual could resume. That business included the pursuit of eventual free agents such as Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, both of whom had made it clear they had no intention of staying with their current franchises and wanted to chase a championship.
Enter Lakers stage right.
The Lakers put together a solid package to offer the New Orleans Hornets for Paul. Working with the Houston Rockets to facilitate a three team deal, the Lakers would send Pau Gasol to the Rockets and Lamar Odom to the Hornets while the Rockets sent Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragi, and a first-round draft pick to the Hornets as well. The Hornets in exchange would send Paul to the Lakers.
This seemed to work on all sides. Every team got what they wanted. The analysts agreed, the Hornets were getting fair value for Paul and really couldn’t expect a better deal. The Rockets got a premier seven-footer and the Lakers got their young point guard – something they hadn’t had in many years. Things were looking roses. Then the rug was pulled out from under it all.
David Stern vetoed the trade. He insisted he was acting in his role as owner of the Hornets and not in his role as commissioner. Instead he made a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers that sent Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and an unprotected first-round draft pick from Minnesota to the Hornets in exchange for Paul. Stern agreed to this deal and the move was made.
Stern explained that this deal got them better players for the present and the future. Analysts were split as to whether or not that was true.
Much depends on where the Minnesota Timberwolves end up this year and where their pick goes in the draft. As of now, their record is 10-12, which is poor but nowhere near the bottom of the NBA and will almost certainly not result in the first overall pick as Stern implied when the deal was done.
And what about the other pieces the Hornets picked up? Were they better than what the Lakers and Rockets had to offer? The Hornets have been rumored to have Chris Kaman on the trading block, deciding he didn’t fit their system and wanted to make room for the younger talent. So he’s clearly a bust in the Hornets’ eyes.
Eric Gordon is admittedly a fantastic young player who has all-star potential and is an up-and-comer in the league. Unfortunately for the Hornets, after the trade was announced it was evident that Gordon was unhappy with his new home. Now he is refusing to sign an extension, choosing instead to be a free agent (albeit a restricted one) at the end of this season. He sounds like a dead end for the Hornets as well.
Aminu is the final piece that the Hornets picked up. While he is a nice bench player with potential for the future, he is not a significant acquisition in terms of increasing the number of wins for a franchise or chasing a championship.
It doesn’t look like the Hornets got a better deal from the Clippers than they would have from the Rockets and Lakers.
So if the personnel wasn’t better, what was the motivation to block the Lakers trade and instead architect the move with the Clippers? All one has to do is look at the landscape of the NBA at the time to find the answer.
Small market owners were furious with the environment in the NBA. Large market teams were bringing in two and three superstars and leaving nothing for their smaller neighbors. Stars didn’t want to sign in cities outside these major metropolitan areas. When a small franchise was able to draft or trade for a superstar that player promptly left when their contract was up to chase a championship.
This sentiment was made clear when Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cavaliers, sent a letter to Stern after the Lakers trade was presumed done. In the letter he compared the four or five large franchises to the Globetrotters and the rest of the NBA to the Washington Generals.
The smaller market franchise owners rallied together and did their best to change things with the new CBA. Stern touted the agreement as the step to returning competitiveness to the NBA. So when the largest of franchises looked to be snatching one of the grand prizes of players demanding a trade, he snapped into action vetoing the trade for “basketball reasons,” a term nobody had ever heard before or since, and one that has still yet to be properly defined.
Stern had a public relations nightmare on his hands as the entire NBA cried foul. Even fans of opposing teams thought his intervention into the trade negotiations was inappropriate at best and downright illegal at worst. He made a tactical decision however: upset fans for a few weeks or upset owners for years. Fans have short memories, owners whose money is tied up in the game have much longer ones. He quickly looked around the NBA for a different trade that he could deem better in terms of “basketball reasons.”
Enter Clippers stage left.
The Clips are the perfect franchise for Stern to set up as the poster boys of the new CBA. They were in a large market with plenty of fans to attract but viewed by the public as a small market franchise. He quickly entered negotiations, feigning a chance it might not happen, demanding the entire Clippers organization and rights to several players’ first born as well, but eventually settling for the trade outlined above.
It gets even more suspect.
Stern needed to escape the disaster he’d created with the vetoed Paul trade. Even Paul was furious, threatening legal action. He needed to appease a superstar in his league, millions of fans, the media and the owners.
The Clippers were slow to include Eric Gordon in their trade for Paul, but Gordon had to be included for Stern to be able to say it was a better offer than the Lakers/Rockets. Luckily for him there was a “blind” auction occurring elsewhere in the league for one Chauncey Billups.
Billups had been waived by the New York Knicks and teams were free to bid for his services.
Suddenly the team with the worst personnel history in the league was making the highest bid for a veteran guard? Nobody can be certain but the situation reeks of indiscretion. Whether it was Stern or one of his lieutenants like Stu Jackson, who can say for sure that someone in the NBA league offices didn’t leak to the Clippers the highest bid. It will never be proven but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that points in that direction.
So the Clippers get Billups and are willing to trade Gordon now that they have a replacement with championship experience at a less expensive price. Once Gordon is freed up for trade, Stern has his deal that he can point to and declare is better than the original Lakers/Rockets offer because of youth. Unfortunately Gordon won’t stick around so there’s no future for the franchise there, and Kaman is on the trading block so he’s no help to the Hornets. Aminu and a first round pick are better than Odom, Dragic, Scola, Martin and the Rocket’s first round pick? Seems odd that the commissioner of the NBA could look at that and make that deduction.
In the end it will only hurt Stern’s beloved league. There is a correlation between the success of the NBA and the success of the Lakers. The Lakers are by far the league’s most popular team and when they are playing well the league tends to flourish and receive higher ratings. When they are playing poorly the league’s numbers diminish. Seven of the top twelve watched games since the Jordan era have included the Lakers. Since Jordan left, Neilson ratings have plunged when the Lakers don’t make the Finals and jumped when they do. So it seems counterproductive to the health of the league to undermine the NBA’s biggest boon in the Los Angeles Lakers.
And to hand such a gift to the league’s most despicable owner, Donald Sterling, is hard to stomach. Sterling has been marred with scandal after scandal in the media. He has been accused of racism inside of the Clippers’ organization and out. He has been recorded as saying he wants to chase out non-Korean tenants from the apartments he owns in Los Angeles, focusing in particular on Blacks and Latinos. He’s been sued by NBA legend Elgin Baylor for freezing his salary while increasing his “white” coach’s salary. He’s stated he wants to sign “poor black boys from the south and a white head coach.”
This is the same owner who refused to pay for a $70,000 out-of-network surgery for his coach who was suffering from cancer after allegedly dropping more than twice that on a weekend of partying. The same man who took out an ad in the LA Times and claimed to be building a large center near Skid Row to cater to the homeless population there and provide them with food and shelter. He pledged in 2005 to spend $50 million to develop it and nothing has even been started as of publication. He was even heard on the sidelines heckling his own players.
How can David Stern in good conscience even allow a man so bogged down in controversy to continue to own a team in the NBA? He’s been a thorn in Stern’s side for years.
Despite all these horrible character defects Stern went out and did Sterling a massive favor in delivering not only Chris Paul but Chauncey Billups as well. And now it has been announced that the Clippers have signed Kenyon Martin to a one-year deal. How appalling.
All this was done so that Stern could point to the Clippers and say, “See? The new CBA is a success!”
Unfortunately for him, it hasn’t changed a thing in many respects. Paul still was able to demand a trade and at some level dictate where he would go. Dwight Howard is across the country doing the same exact thing. He is even announcing to the press where he is willing to go and where he won’t. Superstars will still choose free agency to chase a championship in a large market. Large market teams will still spend more than small market teams. The Lakers just penned a 20-year deal reportedly worth better than 3 billion dollars. That money will go to paying luxury tax fees in order to sign quality talent to continue to make championship runs.
The only thing Stern has changed is the fortunes of several teams. The Lakers suffer, the Hornets suffer, the Rockets suffer and the Clippers benefit tremendously. All these changes in fortune are not due to the successes and failures of the respective teams or even the hard work of their general managers. Instead, they are due to the whims of one arrogant man with a Napoleonic need to display his power. Sometimes, it seems, even when the power isn't actually his to wield.
The NBA hasn’t changed, just Stern’s perception of it. Hopefully, the fans’ perception of Stern has changed.