NBA

Column: The commissioner strikes back - sort of

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(Eds: With AP Photos.)By JIM LITKEAP Sports Columnist

David Stern faces the same problem as the commissioner of every other pro sports league operating in North America, save the NFL.

He's got too many lousy teams - or if you prefer, not enough superstars to go around - and a labor deal that handcuffs him from trying to do anything about it.

So give the NBA boss an `A' for effort by maneuvering Chris Paul to the Clippers for the sake of competitive balance. But also recognize the deal for what it was: a raging conflict-of-interest that could come back to haunt him soon enough.

Trading on his second job as proxy owner of the league-owned New Orleans Hornets, Stern nixed a trade that would have sent Paul to the Lakers and claimed he got a better one when the Clippers jumped in. Maybe so.

The real consequences of the swap won't be known at least until next year's draft picks have played a sizeable chunk of the season, but this much we already know: Stern pulled the rug out from under the Lakers, and didn't do the Rockets and Celtics any favors. The only way this qualifies as competitive is by making more teams bad.

The move makes the Clippers as good as they've ever been, maybe even competitive in the crowded Los Angeles market. Paul drove the Lakers crazy last season in the Western Conference playoff while carrying a Hornets team barely half as talented as the one he'll join with the Clippers. Emerging star Blake Griffin is a perfect complement - the duo has already been dubbed ''Stockton and Malone 2.0'' - and if the partnership lasts half as long, a title for one of the most clueless franchises in any league is within the realm of possibility. That the Clippers got so much better at the expense of the Lakers will only make the rivalry edgier.

This assumes that the team on the other side of town will react the way it always does, but it's been a very un-Laker-like few days. It began with Stern blocking the deal that would have moved Lamar Odom to New Orleans and Pau Gasol to Houston in exchange for Paul, while the Rockets would have sent Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic, and a first-round draft choice to New Orleans. Facing the prospect of an unhappy Odom, the Lakers inexplicably pulled the trigger on a deal shipping him to Dallas for next to nothing.

It was little surprise when Kobe Bryant complained, another thing when Phil Jackson weighed in from retirement. Besides, it leaves the Lakers with the prospect of a grumpy Gasol and no easy choices to retool a lineup that looked old and out-of-sorts at the end of last season.

But the collateral damage in the Paul deal wasn't limited to the Lakers. The Celtics had their eyes on David West while the trade carousel was still spinning and the Rockets, who were also harboring hopes of plying Nene away, are left scrambling to fill their front line. Instead of contenders, both now will be marginal playoff qualifiers.

The sooner Stern gets out of the ownership business, the better. We saw baseball commissioner Bud Selig wearing two hats - for part of his tenure, he remained owner of the Milwaukee Brewers - and remember how that worked out.

Certainly, Stern may have made the Clippers much better and the Hornets more attractive to a buyer in the short run. But like Selig, he can't do anything about competitive balance without real NFL-style salary caps and revenue-sharing agreements. That was clear when the agents for a few of his marquee players began investigating deals even before the ink was dry on the latest collective bargaining agreement.

''It's been a lot of fun,'' Stern said, referring to his stint playing fantasy general manager for the Hornets. ''But I don't get paid to have fun.''

Good thing, too.

---

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at Twiiter.com/Jim Litke

Tagged: Pelicans, Rockets, Pacers, Clippers, Lakers, Pau Gasol, David West, Chris Paul

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