When National Basketball Association owners and players salvaged a good portion of the current season with a new collective bargaining agreement, sports-labor experts were split over whether or not it would fix the main problem it set out to address: inequality between small-and large-market teams.
Now, little more than a week after that Nov. 28 announcement, NBA Commissioner David Stern has intervened dramatically to promote the let’s-level-the-playing-field idea, experts say.
Mr. Stern vetoed a three-team trade that would have sent Chris Paul – a point guard who many consider the most dynamic since Magic Johnson – from the small-market New Orleans Hornets to the Los Angeles Lakers, a perennial contender.
The move is being vilified by many sports analysts, who say the decision is autocratic and, in the end, not even in the Hornets' best interests.
In the trade, the Lakers would have had to give up two top players for Paul: forwards Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol. Odom would have gone to New Orleans and Gasol would have gone to the Houston Rockets, who in turn, would have sent forward Luis Scola and guards Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic to New Orleans, in addition to a first-round draft pick.
From a sports perspective, it was considered a fair trade. Paul will be a free agent at the end of the season, and he has said he will not re-sign for the Hornets. By trading him now, the Hornets at least would be getting a significant haul in return. By holding on to him through the end of the season, they might get nothing at all.
Yet it would still clearly be a case of the rich getting richer. That issue, long problematic, has been underscored in recent years by the flight of small-market stars such as LeBron James (Cleveland) and Carmelo Anthony (Denver) to Miami and New York, respectively. It suggests that, even more than in the past, top players are leaving less-glamorous locales at a competitive disadvantage, some say.
“The fact that this trade was vetoed by Stern is very much influenced by the issue of small-market teams versus large-market teams, since that was such a big issue in the talks,” says Mark Conrad, associate professor of law and ethics at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business in New York.
While the three-team trade would not have technically violated any equality principles, he says, Stern “wanted to keep the spirit of the trend to make it easier for smaller market teams to compete with larger ones. Having just closed a major labor contract, he didn’t want to appear inconsistent.”
There could also be another factor involved. The NBA currently owns the Hornets and is trying to sell them. The franchise surely looks more attractive – and might be worth more money – with Paul on the team, rather than in Los Angeles.
For these reasons, some reject the rationale given by league spokesman, Tim Frank, who said, “the league office declined to make the trade for basketball reasons.”
Stern “is being criticized for explaining his move as ‘basketball reasons,’ but that is just the rubric used for ‘in the best interest of the sport,’ ” says Marshall Babson, labor partner at Seyfarth Shaw, a law firm in New York.
Small-market owners reportedly gave Stern an earful when word got out about the impending trade. Now the question has become: How much meddling from league leadership can we expect in the future?
“What’s really salacious about this killed deal is that the trade on paper is very good for New Orleans," says Fordham's Mr. Conrad. "They got a lot in the deal.”
Moreover, Stern can't stop the trend toward super teams, others say.
“It was [Stern’s] way of continuing to assert control over the players, but he hurt New Orleans more than he helped them,” says John Hancock, a collective-bargaining specialist in the law firm of Butzel Long in Detroit. “Attempts to create super teams by collusion of players or machinations of owners will continue, but it is going to be more difficult, and Stern has shown his willingness to step in when he believes it is in the best interest of the league “
Some see the move as capricious.
“You don’t get to run a league this way,” writes Zach Lowe at SI.com. “You don’t get to ratify a collective bargaining agreement that allows for a particular move and then quash such a move when it happens. The league should have let the Paul deal proceed, and now it has trapped itself in a situation where it must either let it pass on appeal or face any number of consequences – Paul bolting in free agency for nothing, the Hornets accepting a worse trade down the line, and other stuff atop the chaos and bitterness already uncoiling throughout the league.”
Yet there is an underlying consistency, says Mr. Babson, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency charged with remedying unfair labor practices. By agreeing to the new collective-bargaining agreement, the NBA was making a bet that the league would be healthier if more smaller-market teams had leverage to keep them in competition with big-city teams.
He says: “This latest move is a way for the NBA to send a huge message that they are sticking with that bet.”