It appeared at one point last night that the Hornets had avoided the sort of drama that surrounded the Nuggets last year by trading Chris Paul before the season began. In the three-team trade, as reported by Yahoo, the Lakers would have received Paul; the Hornets would have received Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, and the 2012 first-round pick Houston had previously obtained from the Knicks; and the Rockets would have received Pau Gasol. But less than two hours after the teams reached the agreement, David Stern nixed the trade. The NBA owns the Hornets, remember, which gives Stern the authority to do such a thing.
The immediate assumption was that small-market owners had pushed Stern to nullify the trade. Indeed, Adrian Wojnarowski reports that "A chorus of owners were irate with the belief that the five-month lockout had happened largely to stop big-market teams from leveraging small-market teams for star players pending free agency." Via the Times, some team executives "speculated that the league was concerned that the Hornets’ resale value would plummet without Paul on the roster." And we know for sure that at least one pushed for Stern to take some sort of action: Yahoo obtained an e-mail sent by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that urged Stern to put the trade to a vote of the other 29 owners. Said Gilbert, in part (and hopefully in comic sans): "I cannot remember ever seeing a trade where a team [the Lakers] got by far the best player in the trade and saved over $40 million in the process."
A league spokesperson, however, said that owners didn't kill the deal. From the Los Angeles Times:
"It is not true that owners killed the deal," league spokesman Tim Frank said. "It wasn't even discussed at the Board [of Governors] meeting. The league office declined to make the trade for basketball reasons."
If nothing else, the situation makes it clear how messy such things can get when the league owns a team. At its most innocent, this is a case of the league's commissioner overruling a GM, and deciding a trade isn't fair. And remember the situation New Orleans is in here: They pretty much have to trade Paul somewhere, or else they'll almost certainly lose him for nothing in free agency. And getting fair value won't be easy if Paul won't sign an extension with his new team, which he is under no obligation to do. (Paul has reportedly expressed a preference for New York or Los Angeles.) And New Orleans surely understands how this season could become a circus if Paul starts the season with the Hornets while the rumor mill continues to churn. It's why this is all happening now, and not at the trade deadline. So again, at its most innocent, it's Stern — with the Hornets' best interests and nothing else in mind — taking the chance that Dell Demps will pull off a better trade, perceptions that the league is trying to dictate where Paul plays be damned.
But at its worst, it's all the things mentioned above: The other owners — in a rare position to perhaps influence a trade they have nothing to do with — pushing Stern to veto the trade, for any number of reasons. That scenario pits their wishes against the Hornets', and puts Stern in the position of choosing who to side with, even if he really does look at it purely from a basketball standpoint. And then there's the potential PR hit the league could take if, within hours of the new CBA being ratified — after all the talk of competitive balance — one of the league's premiere teams poached one of the league's premier players.
The teams involved with the trade are reportedly appealing to Stern. According to ESPN, the argument being made to the commissioner is that if the trade isn't allowed to go through, it could force the Hornets to keep Paul on the roster all season and likely lose him for nothing next summer. Because otherwise, according to the argument, it would mean that the league was dictating where Paul play this season. According to that report, by the way, there's no indication yet that Stern would reverse his decision.