When somebody writes the definitive David Stern biography, I’ll pre-order it and devote a weekend to reading it cover-to-cover. It would be the fitting response to a book devoted to a man who was commissioner of the greatest professional association of the greatest sport on this planet for more than a quarter-century. It’s not giving him enough credit to say “he rules with an iron fist” — that’s how Roger Goodell runs the NFL and while that works for him, that league has virtually unlimited leeway with its customers because the NFL is as much an ethos as it is a sport. The reason why Stern has been such an enduring success in his job is that he’s not only more stronger-willed than everyone he takes on, he’s also smarter, more experienced, quicker-witted, and… and here’s what I think almost everyone fails to understand about him… he also loves the NBA as much as anyone on the planet.
From what I’ve been able to glean, Stern hasn’t been particularly forthcoming about how he feels about being put in charge of the New Orleans Hornets while the league seeks the ideal billionaire to purchase the team. Did he relish the outrage he provoked when he vetoed the three-way trade that would have made Chris Paul a Laker? Hard to say, but he has to feel pretty smug now that he’s managed to improve on the Hornets’ return from the original package that would have netted Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic and the Knicks’ 2012 first round pick. That wasn’t a horrible deal by any measure, but most of those players are probably at or past their peaks with contracts that are not exactly conducive to selling a struggling franchise.
Today’s deal netted the Hornets a probable future All-Star in shooting guard Eric Gordon — who is still on his rookie contract and will turn 23 years old later this month — along with Chris Kaman’s $12.7 million expiring contract, athletic sophomore Al-Farouq Aminu, and the Timberwolves’ unprotected first-round pick in what promises to be a stacked 2012 draft class. In terms of young talent with upside, salary cap flexibility and maximizing the Hornets’ appeal for a potential buyer, I can’t imagine a trade that could have worked out for them better than this one.
With all of the boneheaded moves that NBA general managers have made during Stern’s 27 years as league commissioner, I have to wonder if he didn’t enjoy the unusual opportunity for him to show them how to really drive a hard bargain. I won’t name names, but I read a lot of NBA columnists and bloggers over the past week complain that Stern killed the best possible deal the Hornets could have negotiated. One particularly prominent NBA opinionist made a point of spinning a narrative that depicted Stern as a doddering old man who wasn’t equipped to deal with this new breed of new-money owners and me-first players.
If I’ve understood anything about David Stern during his regime, it was that he would never stick around beyond the point where he wasn’t still the smartest, most cold-blooded player in this game. Everyone is still reeling from this trade and its ramifications, but when all of you come to your senses, don’t even try to front that Stern didn’t make the best possible deal for the Hornets in the end.
If you can’t bring yourself to give the old man credit, distract yourself with dreams of Paul-to-Griffin alley-oops and move on to your next concocted outrage about how you deserve a discount on your League Pass or whatever. Through all your complaining, you’ll keep watching and opening your wallets unless you have much more willpower and much less passion for the NBA than I do. Improbably, this is shaping up to be an even more compelling season than the last one. And I predict that David Stern will walk away from his job with the league in better shape than it’s ever been in — whether or not you want to give him credit for that is irrelevant.