A Tale of Two L.A.’s

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of Chris Paul-to-Blake Griffin-for-the-alley-oop, it is the age of Kobe’s forced jumpers as his trust for his teammates all but crumbles, it is the epoch of Clipperdom, it is the epoch of the End of Lakerdom, it is the season Little Brother surpasses Big Brother, it is the season Big Brother becomes Old Brother, it is the spring of contentment, it is the winter of resentment, LA has its shining future before it, LA has no future before it, they are all going direct to something truly special, they are all going direct the other way – in short, this period was so far like the last 30 years, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, as the defining moment between small market and big.

Minutes after the dumbest work stoppage in sports history, (Seriously.  The owners locked the players out largely due to the small market owners wanting some sort of revenue sharing system – a problem that has precisely 0.00% to do with the players.), the LA Lakers, Houston Rockets, and the NBA-owned New Orleans Hornets agreed to a deal that would send Chris Paul, a top 3 point guard in the NBA by any argument, to LA.  Pau Gasol, the most skilled big man in the league, would have landed in Houston, where the Rockets had been preparing themselves for three seasons for just this opportunity.  The Lakers would have been building for now and the future, which is rare.  Most importantly, perhaps, the Hornets would have received 3 starter-quality veterans (Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, and Lamar Odom), along with Goran Dragic, a decent guard who is surely a rotation guy for a good team, along with a first round draft pick.  Many experts projected the Hornets as the real winners of the trade, citing the fact that they lost a great player but got three quality players back instead of watching Paul leave after the season ends.  That’s more than the Lakers got for Shaquille O’Neal way back when.

But, after the second seemingly-drunken letter authored by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert in as many offseasons, NBA commissioner/ de facto New Orleans Hornets owner David Stern nixed the deal.  Gilbert’s email ranted about how the lockout was supposed to stop the rich from getting richer, and how this had to be the moment that the league stops the all-stars from migrating to the “big markets.”  How could the Cavs ever hope to compete with the New Yorks and LA’s of the world?

Commissioner,

It would be a travesty to allow the Lakers to acquire Chris Paul in the apparent trade being discussed.

This trade should go to a vote of the 29 owners of the Hornets.

Over the next three seasons this deal would save the Lakers approximately $20 million in salaries and approximately $21 million in luxury taxes. That $21 million goes to non-taxpaying teams and to fund revenue sharing.

I cannot remember ever seeing a trade where a team got by far the best player in the trade and saved over $40 million in the process. And it doesn’t appear that they would give up any draft picks, which might allow to later make a trade for Dwight Howard. (They would also get a large trade exception that would help them improve their team and/or eventually trade for Howard.) When the Lakers got Pau Gasol (at the time considered an extremely lopsided trade) they took on tens of millions in additional salary and luxury tax and they gave up a number of prospects (one in Marc Gasol who may become a max-salary player).

I just don’t see how we can allow this trade to happen.

I know the vast majority of owners feel the same way that I do.

When will we just change the name of 25 of the 30 teams to the Washington Generals?

Please advise…

Dan G.

Sort of like Jerry Maguire’s memo mission statement, only way more whiny.  What doesn’t get quite as much play in the media is Gilbert’s crying that the trade would bring the Lakers under the league’s luxury tax, a dollar for dollar fine for being over a certain salary number.  That tax gets divided among the owners under the salary cap.  Gilbert took something that normally sounds like good money management and turned around into something bad for the league.  Stern released a statement the next day citing the reason for canceling the deal.  “Basketball reasons,” he called it, as if to say “This is definitely, positively, not because Dan Gilbert cries himself to sleep every night while cradling a LeBron jersey.  No one believed Stern.

Next came the awkward time.  The players involved in the deal had to report to the teams they knew tried to trade them just the night before.  Most notably upset was Lamar Odom who was so distraught over almost being dealt that he asked to be traded anyway, a request which the Lakers obliged in a deal with the Dallas Mavericks.  Pau Gasol, another famously emotional player, reported to camp with that awkward “I just got the voice mail you left when you drunk dialed me last night.  Let’s just pretend it never happened.” look on his face.

Rumors surfaced that the three teams were tinkering with the deal in an attempt to gain the league’s approval, but that was quickly followed by the league nixing the deal a second time.  LA and Houston dropped out of trade discussions.  The deal was dead.

Days later, the NBA Hornets finally dealt Chris Paul to LA.  Only, it wasn’t the Lakers that got the Greatest Pure Point Guard of All Time according to Bill Simmons, but the Clippers.  The league negotiated the trade, bypassing the general manager they had put in place and given full autonomy to.  That statement can’t be read with more weight.  The League negotiated a trade with another team.  I’ll take “Conflicts of Interest” for a thousand, Alex.  Just like that, Chris Paul teamed with Blake Griffin to form one of the most exciting point guard/power forward combos since ever.  Just like that, the LA Clippers were the talk of the NBA for the first time in its existence.  Just like that, the LA Clippers are as hot if not a hotter ticket than their Staples Center roommates.

Just like that, David Stern closed the window on this current incarnation of the Lakers.

Oh, the Lakers will have their shot to win another title before all is said and done, but their margin for error is so slim that the wrong matchup in the playoffs will spell disaster for them.  Kobe has no lift in his step anymore.  Pau Gasol is not Shaq in his prime.  There are no easy baskets on this team, and easy baskets is how you preserve your stars for when the going gets tough.  Dirk’s Mavs, Durant’s Thunder, and yes, even Paul’s Clippers should have an easier time scoring than their Laker brethren.

The average person hears of the Lakers’ misfortune and asks “so what?” After all, shouldn’t the rest of the league have a chance at the sustained greatness that only the Lakers have embodied for most of the past 30 years.  Consider this.  Since Magic Johnson’s Lakers ruled the NBA, the Lakers have signed exactly one mega star free agent, Shaquille O’Neal.  Everyone else was drafted by or traded to the Laker franchise.  The Lakers are not the Yankees, stealing talent from less fortunate teams by paying the players more money.  They are simply one of the best-run organizations in the NBA, and have been so since the modern age of the NBA began (1979 – present).

And that’s what schmucks like Gilbert don’t seem to understand.  This isn’t about market size, this is about how well a team manages itself.  Yes, LeBron bolted from Cleveland for Miami.  But he also chose the nation’s 8th largest market, passing on offers from the 1st (New York and New Jersey), 2nd (LA. The Clippers met with LeBron.), 3rd (Chicago), 4th (Dallas), and 6th (Houston) largest markets in the process.  Some of those big market teams were good, and some were bad.  In the end, all that really mattered was the Heat foreseeing LeBron’s desire to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.  They managed their cap situation to get themselves in position to make the only offer LeBron wanted.  Market size did not matter.

Gilbert was upset that Lakers were primed to trade for Chris Paul and still have enough in the war chest to trade for Dwight Howard.  Read that sentence again, carefully.  The Lakers weren’t going to sign these guys away from their teams, they were going to trade for them.  All that requires is the assets to get the deal done, something the Lakers have that the Cavs don’t.  The Hornets had agreed to the trade, which means their front office was satisfied with what it was receiving in return for Chris Paul.  LA managed itself into position to acquire a young star to bring the franchise into the next decade, and Dan Gilbert was crying to mommy that he never had a fair shot at being successful even though he had LeBron James on his team for 7 years.

And so a new chapter in LA basketball history is being written.  It tells the tale of the all-too fragile Lakers who will have to defy every obstacle to win again in the face of Father Time, as well as the upstart Clippers, a team stockpiled with young, athletic, eager bodies ready to run and jump their way into the annals of NBA history.  For the latter franchise, their legend -if there is to be one- can’t be written without parenthetical qualifications, paragraph-long footnotes, and an asterisk next to the name of the point guard who got them to the mountaintop.

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