Lost amid the breathless, still unwarranted — and worst of all, entirely unearned — anticipation of an actual NBA rivalry here, is the injustice of it all.
I say this as someone regularly accused of Laker-hating. No, they’re not always a sympathetic bunch, the Lakers. So feel free to cheer at the prospect of Kobe and Co. being swept out of the 2012 playoffs, too. Understand, however, the Association is better, not to mention more profitable, when the Lakers are very good (which they typically are). Understand, also, what’s happened in the last week or so.
With commissioner David Stern acting as general manager of the New Orleans Hornets, the NBA punished its best and most valuable franchise while subsidizing its worst. After Thursday’s practice, I asked Kobe Bryant if the Lakers were assuming a disproportionate share of the league’s economic problems.
"No question," he said. "We’re getting hammered."
What the Clippers now have in Chris Paul represents an ill-gotten gain. The Lakers, who originally traded for Paul (I didn’t think the deal was so great for them, but that’s not the issue), had a player payroll of $91 million last season. They paid $21 million in luxury taxes (that in addition to whatever league-wide, long-term benefits the other franchises obtain from them being a draw and a national television attraction).
The Clippers, on the other hand, were about $5 million under the cap. That’s nothing new. They have traditionally underspent and underachieved (what with four playoff appearances since they left Buffalo in 1978).
Now Chris Paul is talking about their "history?"
And the Clippers are talking of themselves as "a destination."
Worse still, you’re falling for it?
Whatever you want to say about Jerry Buss’ Lakers, they have always assumed the responsibility and risks incumbent with being a big-market team. Meanwhile, the Clippers, owned by Donald Sterling, pretend they’re a small-market franchise. In reality, they’re merely small-minded.
As for David Stern’s NBA, it’s become an outrageously conflicted proposition. "As players," said Bryant, "we always contended that the lockout was about the owners fighting amongst themselves, which is what you just saw."
He was referring to the various trades for Paul, of course. Paul wanted out of New Orleans, a busted-out, league-owned franchise. He was within his rights, but the NBA had no excuse. It’s long been a clearly demonstrable fact that New Orleans (much as I love the city) can’t sustain an NBA franchise. Just the same, the league devalued one of its greatest assets — the Lakers — to make a deal for its greatest perennial underachiever, the Clippers. The reason owes to both perception and conflict.
Three years ago, when Pau Gasol was traded from the Grizzlies to the Lakers, it was said that the league (read: Stern) made it happen. Now there’s a perception (no less true or false) that the league (again, read: Stern) went out of its way to make sure it wasn’t accused of shilling for the Lakers.
"Probably has something to do with it," said Bryant. "I think other owners did not want to see the Lakers make significant improvements. Chris Paul coming here? The other owners … didn’t want another great player coming here … Los Angeles having another great player that can carry them long after I retire."
Emails and other anecdotal evidence coming out after Stern nixed the original Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers deal strongly support Bryant. The same perception that the league once wanted to help the Lakers now hurts them. Again, I didn’t like the original deal. But if Bryant is correct, and the Lakers were denied another superstar who could possibly carry them beyond his tenure, what would be the long-term cost? Not for the Lakers, but for the rest of the league?
Perhaps they can still get Dwight Howard. In that case, all would be forgotten. But Howard-to-the-Lakers looks less probable than ever, what with the Lakers now negotiating from a position of weakness. The more pressure there is on the Lakers to make a deal, the less likely they are to pull one off. Already, in the aftermath of their stillborn deal for Chris Paul, they basically gave away Lamar Odom, the league’s most versatile player, to the team that knocked them out of last year’s playoffs.
"There’s no explanation for that," said Bryant. "You don’t send Lamar to the Mavericks."
In fact, there is an explanation. It was basically a salary dump.
And David Stern should’ve seen it coming. If the Lakers are dumping salaries, then what’s reasonable to expect from their rivals? It’s not the Clippers he should worry about. They’ve always sucked. It’s the rest of the league.