The NBA Is Back — With a Brand-New Trading Disaster

As the season begins, Chris Paul is not a Los Angeles Laker, and David Stern is the most-hated man in basketball.

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Mark J. Terrill / AP

On Thursday, the NBA and its players ratified a new collective-bargaining agreement. Practices began today. Pro basketball is back, officially! So what are people saying about the start of the 2011-2012 NBA campaign?

“This thing is a mess,” says a sports investment banker, who wanted to remain nameless for fear of damaging any potential future business with the NBA. “The players are not happy, the fans are going to be up in arms, you just keep going – it’s a mess.”

What’s the mess about? Chris Paul is not a Los Angeles Laker. So at the very start of new labor agreement that will last at least six years, animosity towards NBA commissioner David Stern will be at an all-time high.  On Thursday, the New Orleans Hornets were set to close a three-team deal which would have sent Paul, the Hornets’ All-Star point guard who has every intention of leaving New Orleans as a free agent this summer, to the Los Angeles Lakers. Lakers center Paul Gasol was headed to the Rockets, and the Hornets would have received Lamar Odom from the Lakers, Louis Scola, Kevin Martin, and point guard Goran Dragic from the Rockets, and a 2012 first-round pick that Houston had acquired from the New York Knicks.

(MORE: The Long-Term Impact of the NBA Lockout)

But the NBA actually owns the New Orleans Hornets, and Stern killed the deal. “We decided, free from the influence of other NBA owners, that the team was better served with Chris in a Hornets uniform than by the outcome of the terms of that trade,” Stern said. A year ago, the league bought the debt-ridden franchise from former owner George Shinn. So Stern, and the NBA’s other 29 owners, have every right to approve or disapprove of any trade. Their money is funding the team.

The league’s ownership stake in the Hornets, however, puts the league in an impossible position. If Stern signs off on a deal sending another All-Star to play with Kobe Bryant, a segment of the fans will moan that the NBA is rigged in favor of large-market teams like Los Angeles. And wasn’t the new collective bargaining designed to restore competitive balance anyway? If Chris Paul is going to wind up with the Lakers on the day the agreement was signed, why did the owners lock the players out in the first place?

And if the Stern nixes the deal? Well, then it looks like he’s rigging things against the Lakers, and we’re left with the current dust-up. So under any outcome, Stern comes across as a nefarious puppet master with too much control over the players and the NBA in general. Indiana Pacers forward Danny Granger tweeted: “Due to the sabotaging of the LA/NO trade by david stern, and following in the footsteps of my athlete brethern Metta World Peace and Chad Ochocinco, I’m changing my last name to “Stern’s Bi#&h” #effectiveimmediately

The NBA, however, could have avoided much of this current backlash. The league needed to handle the trade in a more competent manner. “My only issue with it was the communication gap between New Orleans and the league office,” says one NBA team executive. If the Hornets had kept the NBA abreast of the workings of the deal, and the league had objections, Stern should have squashed it before it got to the point where it was about to be consummated. If the Hornets did not adequately keep the NBA informed of the details, they deserve blame too. Because now, players are reporting to teams that just tried to trade them. Awkward.

“Someone dropped the ball on this thing,” says the sports banker. “It’s a total f— up.” Welcome back, NBA.

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