December 18, 2011
The New Battle of Los Angeles
Chris Paul should have been a Laker.
Now, let me get this straight: Beyond wishing well for Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, I am by no means a Lakers fan. I am not biased towards or against the Hornets or the Clippers, and although Paul may arguable the best pure point guard in the game today, I'm a bigger fan of Derrick Rose and Deron Williams in the PG department.
This is more than a plea of ordinary fandom and more than a mere bitter reaction. This is a matter of principal.
With the players and owners agreeing to the new agreement, the NBA Lockout - the worst summer for an NBA fan - was officially over. On the same afternoon, the Lakers finalised a three-team trade where they would lose Pau Gasol to the Rockets, Lamar Odom to the Hornets and gain Chris Paul from the Hornets. The Rockets would also send underrated but solid starters Kevin Martin and Luis Scola to New Orleans, as well as sending Goran Dragic the Hornets way. All three teams were happy: the Lakers got their star point guard, the Rockets got a solid big man in Gasol to build around, and the Hornets, destined to lose Chris Paul for nothing anyways, get three solid starters to build upon.
That same afternoon - in one of the rare turn of events in NBA history - Commissioner David Stern and the NBA Office called the trade off, citing the vaguest of all excuses, "basketball reasons".
So Chris Paul was a Laker and then not a Laker. Dell Demps, the GM of the Hornets, had put a peaceful end to any Paul-related melodrama before it even began, and then the drama REALLY began.
All of a sudden, we were in unprecedented space. To give you a little perspective on 'how the hell did they just do this?', you must know that, until a suitable buyer is found, the Hornets are the only team in the league currently owned by the NBA itself. This is where the contradiction lies: when does the NBA perform an action for the Hornets' interest and when does it perform one for the interest of the NBA? As time passed, rumours trickled through the day confirming what many already believed: that the trade wasn't nixed for simple 'basketball reasons' alone; it was nixed because small-market owners in the league opposed it, because they were tired of seeing NBA stars like LeBron and Carmelo dictate their own future about where and when and how they want to play. A letter from Dan Gilbert, Cavs' owner, calling this proposed trade a travesty sprung up. Small markets rejoiced and big markets - especially the Lakers - grumbled. Perhaps the NBA had had enough of the Lakers' dominance: after all, their proposed trade allowed them to retain Andrew Bynum, who could've later become a valuable asset in bringing Dwight Howard to LA. Kobe-CP3-Dwight in the Lakers may make haters squirm, but if they did it the right way, they deserve it.
The NBA wasn't going to let Chris Paul become another superstar leaving a 'small market' for a big one. They weren't going to let the Lakers - who pretty much robbed Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies in 2008 - get away with a fair trade for Paul.
And yes, all said and done, it was a fair trade. Hornets receiving Odom, Scola, Martin, and Dragic in return for Chris Paul was more than fair.
But - lo and behold - what happens about five days later? After briefly flirting on-and-off with them, the NBA agrees (not Demps, the NBA) to send Chris Paul to the Clippers in return for young star Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a 2012 1st round pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Hornets get less reliable star-power, but more potential for the future. Better trade? That's depends, especially on how good the draft pick next year - one of the deepest drafts in history - could turn out to be.
But what is not debatable is the farce of now seeing Chris Paul in a Clippers jersey. Yes, the same Clippers who play in a big market city of Los Angeles, where the Lakers play. The Clippers who share the same arena - the Staples Center - as the Lakers.
Fans of competitive balance will be delighted with this deal, excited to see Chris Paul and Blake Griffin emerge as strong new competition for the Lakers, the Celtics, the Bulls, Mavs, Heat, and Knicks. But take a step back and you will see that the NBA and it's bitter small market owners have managed to achieve exactly what they didn't wish for: Chris Paul, a MVP caliber star, went from being the flagship and hero of a small town basketball team, the New Orleans Hornets, to just another star getting his wish to play for more fame and higher stakes in the big city of Los Angeles. What more, he got sent to a team known for making historically awful decisions, the kind of decisions that sent leagues into lockouts. And in the middle of all this the Lakers and the Rockets got screwed over.
Yes - get this right - despite their lack of success over the last three decades or so, the Clippers play in every bit of a 'big market' city. With the right players on their roster, they will get as much hype as the Lakers will. And when the league's best passer starts to throw lob passes for alley-oops to the league's best dunker, rest assured that the Clippers will become the most exciting team in the league.
It still feels strange to say that. Since their inception in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves, they are the oldest NBA team in NBA history to not appear in the Finals. They are also amongst three teams (which include the Memphis Grizzlies, formed in 1995) and the Charlotte Bobcats (formed in 2004) to have never won an NBA, Conference, or Division championship. In their 40 year history, where they went from the Buffalo Braves (1970-78), San Diego Clippers (1978-84), to the Los Angeles Clippers (1984-present), they have made the playoffs just seven times. Since they came to Los Angeles, they have gone past the first round of the playoffs only one time (back in 2006). No wonder then, that through our news archives, we discovered that Sports Illustrated magazine named the Clippers as the worst ever franchise in any of the major American sports.
And you know how they managed to remain being so awful? It wasn't because of a small-market disadvantage - just like Miami was to LeBron and New York was to Carmelo, the Clippers have long played in a city which attracts the same kind of lifestyle a star might wish for that the Lakers attract. No, it was because of management disadvantage, and the 'Clipper curse' that had haunted the franchise for decades. The Clippers have long had one of the worst owners in NBA history and an even worse string of luck. The Clippers brewed a distasteful cocktail of bad lottery picks, awful contracts, and an injury hex that refused to go away. Even Blake Griffin, their 2009 #1 pick, didn't play a second of NBA basketball due to injury in his first season.
But, just like the tide turns for every team in the NBA (small market or large), it turned for the Clippers last year. Blake Griffin was healthy, exciting, and efficient enough to win Rookie of the Year. Eric Gordon became a star and a valuable trade asset. And last week, one of the NBA's best point guards joined them.
The ups and downs of a franchise, the good and the bad luck, the good management and the bad, happen ALL THE TIME in NBA, a league still designed because of the draft and the salary cap for competitive balance. This is why the Spurs, with some draft luck and excellent management, were the most consistent team of the last decade. This is why the Seattle Sonics couldn't survive because of economical issues in Seattle, became the Thunder in another small market, build smartly around their superstars, and now are an elite squad. This is why, despite being basketball's biggest market for the last 70 years, the Knicks have only won two championships and haven't been to the Finals in 12 years. For the Thunder and the Spurs, good management made them strong even in a small market, for the Clippers and the Knicks, even a big market has been unable to undo the failures of bad team owners.
But the Clippers may have finally won some luck at the expense of their next-door neighbours. When the NBA Office pulled against the Lakers-Paul deal, they set up a dangerous precedent: who would want Chris Paul now? Which team wants to deal with what the Lakers and the Rockets dealt with? Will the Hornets be the biggest losers of this, left without anything in return? It was in response to these questions that a Chris Paul trade was crucial, and the Clippers, an unsuccessful team in a big city, came calling.
As it stands now, both the LA teams are looking fearsome. The Lakers still have the nucleus of Kobe-Gasol-Bynum-Metta, while the Clippers now feature Paul-Griffin-Butler-Billups. Both have a good supporting cast around their star players, but the Lakers' role players are obviously more experienced. The new battle of Los Angeles is set to begin: it's rare, but this season, both teams playing home games at the Staples Center will be feared. If LA is a big city like Milan, and the Staples Center is the San Siro, the Lakers and the Clippers have become basketball's Inter & AC Milan. The Clipper-side of LA doesn't have the history or the heritage to be compared with the champion sides, but what they will soon have are bandwagons of fans excited to adorn their red and blue colours.
Exciting stuff, indeed, but somewhere within me, no amount of Paul-to-Griffin alley-oops will erase that uneasy feeling of the whole situation, as if the natural course of history has been ruthlessly averted. Chris Paul should've joined the Los Angeles Lakers: they made a fair deal for him, they made it first, and it was accepted by the Hornets.
Instead, history was revised forcefully and although Chris Paul found himself in LA, he was wearing a red-and-blue jersey instead of a purple-and-yellow one. This revised history is now the real world, and in the real world, the Battle of LA is set to begin...