By Jim Weber
Six months ago NBA commissioner David Stern was universally panned for rejecting a trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to the Rockets and Kevin Martin and Luis Scola to the Hornets.
ESPN’s Ian O’Conner called it an “outrageous abuse of power” as critics claimed Stern was hi-jacking the trade to block the Lakers from becoming the Miami Heat of the west and to maintain competitive balance that was at the crux of the recent NBA labor deal. Stern’s veto still appears as indefensible now as it was then.
But for residents of the Big Easy, the blocked trade that enraged Hornets general manager Dell Demps has become a Godsend. If the trade had gone through, the Hornets would have been left with two decent players with big contracts and handcuffed the organization for years.
With Martin and Scola, the Rockets were the same team they’ve been the last three years: A .500 club that wasn’t even good enough to make the playoffs. If those two were on the Hornets with a weaker supporting cast, New Orleans wouldn’t have even won that many games and the long-term outlook for the franchise would have playoff near-misses or first-round exits until the franchise decided to blow the roster up (like the Rockets were attempting to do).
But instead, in a trade that passed with the Clippers, the Hornets landed rising superstar Eric Gordon, the expiring contract of Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and the Timberwolves’ first-round pick of the 2012 draft held on Thursday.
Obviously, the Hornets received a fraction of on-the-court production last season in the Clippers deal as the Lakers trade as the team finished an abominable 21-45. But in the long run, Hornets fans will look back on Stern’s veto as the franchise’s turning point.
You see, the sad reality of the NBA is that if you aren’t really, really good (i.e. the Heat, Thunder, Bulls or Spurs), you should be really, really bad in order to build a young nucleus like the Thunder have assembled with high lottery picks. The NBA isn’t like the NFL where a team can come out of nowhere like the San Francisco 49ers did last fall to nearly win the Super Bowl. The Association is built around superstars that form dynasties and reign over the league for years like the Spurs and Lakers have done and the Heat are about to do.
Because NBA rosters are so small and the longevity of players is so long, it’s incredibly difficult to land an All-Star outside the top-five picks. And it’s even harder through free agency that sees few players take less money to bolt town, leaving many franchises annually stuck in the middle of the pack. The worst-case scenario for an NBA franchise is to become the Memphis Grizzlies of the mid-2000s that went 0-12 in three consecutive playoffs appearances before finally deciding to overhaul the roster. The Atlanta Hawks are on their way to matching the Grizzlies’ playoff ineptitude after four straight disappointing postseasons in a row.
And make no mistake, this grey area is exactly the direction the Hornets were headed with Kevin Martin and Luis Scola surrounded by a bunch of inferior talent that would have landed them a poor spot in the lottery.
I’m not going to justify Stern’s indefensible reasoning for blocking the original trade but will say this: It will end up being the best thing that ever happened to a franchise that’s never even been to the conference finals and is best known for trading away Kobe Bryant.
Gordon is one of the best shooting guards in the league, Kaman’s salary is now off the books, Aminu could eventually prove to be a starter and Ricky Rubio’s injury with the Timberwolves also landed the Hornets the 10th pick in Thursday’s draft. It was also a blessing that Gordon played only 14 games after being sidelined for the season with a knee injury so the Hornets had the best chance possible at the No. 1 overall pick, which they landed.
Conspiracy theorists will say Stern’s real gift to the Hornets was rigging the lottery so New Orleans could land Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, but let’s put the tin foil hats down since the Hornets tied for the third-worst record in the league.
Now look at what new Hornets owner Tom Benson and general manager Demps find themselves with: A roster that’s nearly a clean slate without any significant contracts after shipping Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza out of town, plenty of money to re-sign Eric Gordon, the rights to a big man who has the look of a 10-time All-Star and the No. 10 overall selection from which they could pluck the last member of a Big Three to build around.
Considering the importance of an elite point guard in today’s NBA, I’d make that selection North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall in a heartbeat.
Now, don’t be fooled. Those three alone won’t have the Hornets in the playoffs next year. In fact, they will still be quite bad with so much youth and so little depth. But a poor record next season is also a good thing while they gain experience together.
If the Hornets can land another top-five pick and select someone like, say, UNC power forward James McAdoo and then sign a top-tier small forward free agent like Paul George, well, you might be looking at the next Oklahoma City Thunder of the Western Conference as the Hornets ascend the standings starting in 2014.
Of course, there are plenty of questions still to be answered: Will Davis really become the next great NBA big man? Will Gordon stay healthy? Will the Hornets pick wisely at No. 10? Will Benson reach into his pocket book when the time is needed instead of being cheap like the way the Saints – which he also owns – are handling the Drew Brees negotiations?
But if the Hornets become the next great franchise in the Western Conference and are cutting down the nets in 2020, New Orleans fans should look back and thank the commissioner everyone loves to hate.
Jim Weber is the founder of LostLettermen.com. His column appears Monday and Wednesdays.