Given the weird circumstances surrounding it, the controversy over the Chris Paul trade veto is not going to go away fast.
The NBA owns the Hornets, and the veto of the initial three-team trade that would have sent Paul to the Lakers had major ripple effects on several franchises. During a conference call last Wednesday night announcing the trade of Paul to the Clippers, commissioner David Stern and several Hornets officials explained that the veto was business as usual — that Stern was acting as any owner would in wanting the best trade package possible, and that he never approved the three-team deal in conversations with Hornets general manager Dell Demps.
But it is becoming clear that executives close to the Lakers and Rockets are not buying that narrative, though none have put their names to their skepticism so far. One such source told ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin on Friday that Lakers owner Jerry Buss has privately questioned one key plank of Stern’s story:
Stern told reporters on a conference call Wednesday night that New Orleans Hornets general manager Dell Demps never believed the trade between the Lakers, Houston Rockets and Hornets was finished before Stern stepped in to kill it.
“That’s a flat-out lie,” said the source with knowledge of Buss’ thinking.
Let’s be clear: This anonymous source is merely saying Buss thought that Demps believed the three-team trade was completed. That takes us three degrees away from Demps, the guy whose beliefs are at issue here. The source is not saying small-market owners persuaded Stern to veto the trade, or that the commissioner explicitly accepted the deal before vetoing it.
Over the weekend, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle unearthed two anonymous sources who said similar things about what Demps appeared to believe regarding the initial three-team deal:
But according to two individuals with direct knowledge of the talks, Demps had assured Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak throughout the day that Stern and other NBA officials had been given all the details of the deal and had signed off on it.
“He said that David was briefed and that it was a done deal,” one of the individuals with knowledge of the talks said. “He (Demps) said multiple times that he briefed both of his local officials, (Hornets president) Hugh Webber and (Hornets chairman) Jac Sperling, and they and Dell at regular intervals were updating (NBA vice presidents) Stu Jackson and Joel Litvin and that they told David himself throughout the day. Also, Hugh and Jac, who were updating the league office, understood it to be a deal.”
And then this:
Told of Stern’s description of the negotiations and communication prior to his decision to not allow the deal, the person with knowledge of the talks that day said: “That’s an outright lie. Dell said the deal was done.”
There is nothing in these anonymous accounts about an uprising among owners persuading Stern to kill the deal. Taken together, the sources may just be describing a massive miscommunication blunder — Stern saying something to Demps or relaying a message to Demps through another NBA official, Demps taking it the wrong way and then transferring that misinterpretation to enough people in Houston, Los Angeles and New Orleans that news of a “done” deal leaked to the NBA’s most plugged-in reporters. The only thing we can safely conclude is that officials in Houston and Los Angeles thought the deal was done.
A communications mishap of this magnitude is on its own an embarrassing mistake that has now affected several franchises. Even if the story stops here, with a huge misunderstanding, it is still a bad story for the NBA, one the league invited when it purchased the Hornets.
But the story won’t stop. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban spoke about the Paul trade in a 10-minute interview with TMZ (yes, TMZ) over the weekend. Cuban’s comments start at the 2:40 mark, and his remarks about Paul begin at the 10:45 mark. Some highlights:
“David Stern owning a team kind of threw us all under the bus. You know, we went through a long lockout, and one of the things we were trying to gain was that small-market teams could have confidence they could keep their star players. … And within two weeks of the new collective bargaining agreement, the smallest-market team, which is owned by the NBA, threw up their hands and said, ‘We can’t keep our star player.’
“So it’s not about Chris Paul. It’s more about the fact that the NBA kind of gave up on the CBA before giving it a chance, and to me, that made them hypocritical, very hypocritical, and that didn’t sit well with me.”
And about a minute later:
“[Star players] have to make a decision: Do they want to stay with their existing teams and make the most money, or leave on their own terms to wherever they want to go with cap room and make less money? My personal belief is that 90 percent of the time, players are going to take the greater money, which means that Chris Paul could have, would have, or any star player could have, would have wanted to stay in the smaller market. And you’ve got other teams that are making the conscious decision to, you know, to stick it out like Orlando is doing [with Dwight Howard].
“You would think the team owned by the NBA and run by the commissioner would be the first to stick it out, and they weren’t. And to me, it’s hypocritical, and they threw a lot of us under the bus.”
These are similar comments to those Cuban made on ESPN Radio more than a week ago, and people have interpreted them in different ways. An ESPN piece on Cuban’s comments painted them as supportive of vetoing the Paul trade. The TMZ comments would seem to indicate not only support for the veto but also the belief that the Hornets should have held on to Paul on principle and forced him to face the choice of re-signing in New Orleans or taking less money.
Cuban is obviously not a neutral party, though it’s hard to read any real biases into these comments. On the one hand, he appears to have benefited from the Paul veto; the aborted trade upset Lamar Odom, who would have headed to the Hornets, and the Lakers, apparently unnerved by Odom’s reaction, flipped him to Dallas for nothing but a trade exception. On the other hand, allowing Paul to enter free agency would have given the Mavs a chance to sign him next summer, when they could have max-level cap room; they no longer have that chance.
Cuban joins Charlotte’s Michael Jordan and Cleveland’s Dan Gilbert as owners who have publicly opposed the first Paul trade after the fact (or had their opposition leaked, in Gilbert’s case), though Gilbert worded his leaked email as if he believed Paul could still be on the way to the Lakers. All of these comments surfaced after Stern had made the call to veto the trade; they are smoke, not fire, and all but Gilbert’s email, famously time-stamped after the Stern veto, came in response to fair questions from prodding reporters. Still, this is a lot of smoke.
There is just so much we don’t know, and it may be a long while before any of the participants with first-hand knowledge talk publicly about the deal — if they ever do. Houston GM Daryl Morey has declined comment on the advice of counsel, and he’s not joking about it. Even the plugged-in Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports has surrendered at least a bit to the unknown:
Perhaps no one will ever know the truth about how Chris Paul became a Clipper, about perhaps where the lines blurred between a negotiation and a shakedown. Nevertheless, the star point guard gets to throw lobs to Blake Griffin in Hollywood, Demps gets to repair his credibility in the draft lottery, the Lakers and Rockets get shafted and Stern and his unforgiving, unrelenting Olympic Tower gang reminds the NBA once again: Our league, our whims.
“Let’s not talk too much about how the sausage was made,” Stern said late Wednesday.
The sausage is done, but expect the search for truth to continue — even if all we have here is a disastrous communication breakdown. And that’s all we know for sure right now.