NBA owners revealed themselves to be vindictive, onerous, agenda-driven and spectacularly petty Thursday night when they complained to the point that David Stern, in a completely gutless move by all involved, essentially vetoed a perfectly legitimate trade.
It's a move that smells rotten 100 different ways, and the players have no stink in it. The owners and the people who run the league ought to be ashamed of themselves for being so foul as to big-foot a basketball swap that appears to, yes, help the Lakers, who would get Chris Paul, and still help the Hornets get something for him. Everybody and his mama knows Paul plans to leave New Orleans after the upcoming season.
Instead of letting the Hornets get on with their business and make the best deal possible so as to avoid the disaster of an unhappy superstar playing out a lame duck season (as was the case with the Nuggets and Carmelo Anthony last season), Stern has apparently vetoed a deal that would have sent Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic and a draft pick to the Hornets, and Pau Gasol to center-desperate Houston.
The problem with the deal? It'd send another star to a big-market team, the Lakers, a trend the small-market owners had in their sights to stop during the recently concluded lockout. Small-market teams screamed bloody murder about stars migrating to big-market teams, as if this hasn't been the case all the way back to, say, the mid-1970s, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forced his way out of Milwaukee and to Los Angeles. The deal ratified just Thursday night was supposed to address those concerns.
But since the league re-opened for business, what have we had? Paul saying he wanted to go to New York to play for the Knicks, reports of the Lakers putting together a deal for Orlando's Dwight Howard, then Howard and/or Paul. It sure sounds like business as usual, NBA-style.
And the owners, probably a third of whom didn't like the deal but voted for it anyway in order to not miss the entire season, whined and stomped their feet and made Stern make the deal go away. The owners apparently think the NBA can legislate where players go when they're free agents or about to be free agents. See, Bryant Gumbel probably had it right when he talked about a plantation mentality at the top of the league, but perhaps he shouldn't have confined his comments to Stern. Perhaps he should have been a lot broader and included some owners as well.
Unless the appeal filed by the teams involved in Thursday's proposed trade (or a lawsuit reportedly being considered by Paul) reverses the decision, the league now apparently will allow free agency only as long as enough players to its liking are willing to sign up to play in Portland, New Orleans, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, etc. You think Stern would have stopped this trade had Paul been dealt for essentially the same package to, oh, Indiana? Or Memphis? Or Oklahoma City? There isn't a chance in hell.
But what stopping this trade does is prevent New Orleans from getting players who can help that small-market franchise not only recover, but move on. Odom is one of the most versatile frontcourt players in the NBA. Scola averaged 18 points and eight rebounds per game last season. Martin can get you 20 points a night. Dragic is a suitable backup. What's wrong with this deal? Nothing, except the Lakers made it. This isn't a heist; it's a deal that's easy to defend if you're looking at it from the Hornets' viewpoint. What's more, executives from the Lakers and executives from the Hornets made it. Club officials.
Problem is, there are owners like Cleveland's Dan Gilbert, still whining like a 2-year-old over the departure of LeBron James, who want some sort of guarantee that small-market teams will get their share of free agents.
Well, there aren't any guarantees. The NBA, with the majority of its players being African-Americans from uber-urban areas, is and will likely always be a league dominated by big-city teams. Players gravitate toward them. Even players such as Paul, from a small town, dreamt of playing on the big stage. The best attempt to even things up, even a little bit, is the college draft, which is how teams such as San Antonio and Utah (and now Oklahoma City) got top players, and in their cases developed and held onto superstars.
We're sure to hear about a conflict of interest, what with the Hornets being run by the league and dealing a great player to Los Angeles. So, it would be OK for the NBA to trade Paul to a dreadful team, say the Timberwolves? The NBA knew there could be the appearance of a conflict when it made the decision to run the Hornets. Why should Paul play in New Orleans indefinitely? Because management there was incompetent, which it was? Because the Knicks -- talk about the pot calling the kettle black -- don't like the trade? Since when do owners not involved with a trade get to lobby against it? Where in the NBA rules does it say other clubs get to whine that the Lakers will be too good again? And who stands up to them and says, "Hey you MORONS, it's quite possible the Hornets made a good deal here."
If, as many suspect, owners are still angry because they didn't think they got a good enough deal and they didn't want to ratify something that didn't do enough for small-market clubs, they should have had the guts to say no to the new CBA. But if, as a group, the owners accepted it, then they should have the decency to live with it, which is surely what the league and owners would tell the players.
What eats at many NBA owners is this: They aren't NFL owners. They don't share a big enough cut of the revenues. They don't have an unending stream of television money. Their arenas aren't at about 95 percent capacity. They aren't a national obsession. And their small-market teams aren't flush, in most cases, like the Packers or Steelers are. They can't just cut players and get rid of their salaries, which aren't guaranteed in the NFL. They want control, big control, like the NFL teams have and they don't. They don't want the LeBrons and D-Wades hooking up on their own terms.
And after a lockout that was supposed to drive this point home, they damn sure don't want Chris Paul forcing his way out of New Orleans to go to New York or Los Angeles. Don't these players understand why they were locked out all that time?
So where does the league go from here? Does the vetoing of the Paul trade mean big-city teams can't deal with small-market teams anymore, unless a certain number of owners or Stern find the deal to their liking? Do players have to check their free-agent destinations with the league for approval? You can go to Orlando or Charlotte because they're smaller and in need, but not the Lakers or Bulls or Celtics because, you know, they've got enough already in the way of assets.
None of this even deals with how in the world the teams involved are going to re-incorporate the players they just tried to deal away. It doesn't even deal with another eventuality: Chris Paul is going to have to be traded somewhere. Would Stern like to tell him where he can sign for the next five years?
The NBA, from the commissioner's office to a great many of its owners, is so envious of the NFL that it wants the same kind of parity. It wants its small markets to matter in the same way. But the fact is, the NBA's popularity, its very brand, was successfully built, yes, on the participation of a lot of teams but on the brilliance of a few, notably the Lakers and Celtics. Parity might have been a worthy goal for Pete Rozelle and the NFL, but it has never amounted to a hill of beans for the NBA. Neither has some socialist-style spreading of wealth.
Make no mistake (and somebody ought to stand up in a room and shout this in the faces of the shortsighted owners who whined over this deal): It's the Lakers and Celtics and the ability of their top executives to make deals decade after decade that not only have kept those franchises at the top of the pyramid but also allowed the NBA to matter as much as it has.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.