Cuban wrongdoing case not what NBA needs right now

It would be easy for the NBA to downplay the insider trading allegation against Mark Cuban if not for that nefarious referee Tim Donaghy.

In essence, Cuban is accused of doing the same thing Donaghy went to prison for: using information available to a select few people for his own financial gain.

The major, major difference, of course, is that Cuban is not accused of compromising the integrity of the Mavericks or the NBA. But now that there has been a breach in the public's trust, the league can't afford to have it expand any further. Ethics are in play more than ever before.

If the government's accusations are true, a referee who cheats and an owner who cheats would be separated by a thin line. When it comes down to it, the stock market is legalized, glorified gambling. Donaghy combined his early look at the officials' schedule with his take on grudges between certain officials and players/coaches/teams, along with whatever injury updates he picked up in the arena corridors, to help out his co-conspirators in the betting ring. Cuban is alleged to have taken information from the CEO of Mamma.com about a value-depressing share offering and sold his stake in the company to cut potential losses.

Cuban, in a statement, said the lawsuit "had no merit" and "the government's claims are false and they will be proven to be so."

I wouldn't mind that at all, because the NBA needs more owners like Cuban, not less of him. You might not like his courtside-seat histrionics, but you can't say he hasn't improved the Mavericks. Under his reign they have gone from a joke to a playoff mainstay with a modern arena. Few owners have his combination of financial resources and willingness to spend them on his team. He ignores the luxury tax the way most people ignore speed limit signs, treating it as an advisory more than a steadfast rule. And he sets the standard for locker room amenities.

Even if Cuban lost this case he wouldn't be a criminal, because this is a civil suit. It's just that the NBA, ever sensitive to perception, might have to break with its pattern of staying out of civil matters and do something serious. David Stern didn't penalize any of the Madison Square Garden honchos who were found liable in Anucha Browne Sanders' sexual harassment lawsuit. Can he keep showing this pattern of leniency for owners and draconian punishment for players?

For a potential precedent, Stern may want to consider that
in June the NHL suspended Anaheim Ducks owner Henry Samueli indefinitely after he pled guilty to lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission (a criminal charge) during an investigation into a stock-option backdating scheme.

That's a lot tougher than the NBA was on Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss after he was caught driving drunk in the summer of 2007. Buss got a $25,000 fine and a two-game suspension. (In other words, getting behind the wheel while impaired earned the same suspension as an extra-hard foul by Matt Barnes and a retaliatory shove by Rafer Alston in the Suns-Rockets game last week.)

The irony is that Cuban had set himself up as the opposite of an insider. Cuban has been giving away market observations and business insight for free on his blog for years. For basketball fans the blog was much more entertaining when he used it to rail against the NBA and its referees. But for the past year or so it's been like an online economics tutorial. In fact, he even explained why he bought stock in Mamma.com and later talked about why he sold it. He just didn't do so in a timely enough fashion to keep the feds at bay. Surely the other shareholders would have liked an earlier heads-up that Cuban wanted out of Mamma.com, because when his sale was finally revealed, it caused the stock price to drop 9.3 percent.

We don't spend much time worrying about white-collar criminals in our society. The media and pop culture teach us to fear the people hanging out on the corner, but I'd rather get mugged for my wallet by some street hoodlums than have Enron-type crooks wipe out my retirement savings.

But sometimes the feds get caught up in the show, hoping to perp-walk a big name, when all that happened was a rearrangement of accounts in places you and I will never see. I didn't celebrate the upholding of justice or feel any safer when Martha Stewart spent five months in prison for lying to federal investigators about the circumstances of a stock sale.

Yes, it's unfair that the rich and well-connected get benefits that aren't available to the general public. It's also commonplace. If you've ever tried to get in on an initial public offering you know what I'm talking about. Good luck to Mr. John Q. Public or Joe T. Plumber who wants to buy at the low, early price.

But at this moment, post-Donaghy and in the midst of an economic meltdown, the last thing anyone in the NBA needs to be connected to is something that smacks of inside info and stock market manipulation. It could be, if nothing else, that Cuban's -- and the NBA's -- punishment is the timing of this announcement.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.