My first instinct Thursday when I heard that the Los Angeles Lakers were in the process of trading for superstar point guard Chris Paul from the temporarily NBA-owned New Orleans Hornets in a three-team megadeal also involving the Houston Rockets was to groan at the idea of the Lakers acquiring yet another star player.
This isn’t because I particularly hate the Lakers, I honestly don’t. It just gets a little tiring seeing the same few teams sign the biggest players just because they’re in big-market cities. That’s their right though and it’s certainly well within great players’ rights to have an honest chance choose which team they want to play for.
Which is why even I had to wonder what was going on when NBA Commissioner David Stern vetoed the trade later that night. Paul’s clearly not going to be still playing in a Hornets uniform one year from now; why make it more awkward for both him and Hornets fans by forcing him to continue playing there when both sides know exactly what’s going on? Why kill this deal and basically ensure that the Hornets can’t trade Paul so they can at least start preparing to rebuild the team?
And why on Earth would Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert send out an e-mail denouncing the trade when his team isn’t involved. Yeah, LeBron James isn’t winning any PR awards for how he left Cleveland for Miami but neither is Gilbert, who infamously lashed out at James in a letter to Cavaliers fans, complete with Comic Sans font.
How is Gilbert ever going to convince free agents to come to Cleveland or convince recent draft picks like Kyrie Irving to stay in Cleveland after their rookie contracts expire if people expect him to go off the handle every time a major player leaves a small-market team?
Look, I’m all in favor of the concept of competitive balance in sports, or parts of the idea at least. So-called “small markets” outnumber their larger counterparts in all four major American sports leagues so greatly that if teams from New York, Los Angeles et al. were able to pick up every good player they wanted, they’d just blow out the other teams every single time and that would get old after a while. But that doesn’t change the fact that Chris Paul has the right to leave a team he doesn’t want to play for anymore, especially if he’s going to have a better shot at a championship elsewhere.
What’s more, large-market teams have always held more power than small-market ones and yet given a few lucky breaks and the right management, small-market teams have always been able to hang around and even outside the NFl, they still manage to win titles every now and then.
Part of that’s because of the draft, which brought San Antonio David Robinson and Tim Duncan and compensated for Cleveland losing LeBron by giving the Cavs Irving. Part of it’s through free agency, though yes, not as often as larger-market teams. And a huge part of it is through smart trades. It’s what made Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s noteworthy enough to be covered in a best-selling book and a popular movie and what’s allowed the Tampa Bay Rays to keep up with the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East. It’s helped the Phoenix Coyotes stay competitive in the NHL despite being owned by their own league.
And it’s what would have (and if the trade gets re-approved, will) helped the Hornets. Just as the Denver Nuggets compensated for losing Carmelo Anthony last year in a trade to the New York Knicks by taking some of the Nuggets’ best players, such as Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari, by trading Paul to the Lakers, the Hornets would have gained some great players, including Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola AND a first-round draft pick next summer. That would have done a lot more to help the Hornets rebuild than just waiting for the end with Paul.