When David Stern, in his capacity as the acting owner of the New Orleans Hornets, vetoed the three-way trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers while citing "basketball reasons", it was met with widespread outrage throughout the NBA blogosphere.
After a lockout where Stern was the mouthpiece for the owners’ wildly disingenuous bargaining position, he had little credibility left with most NBA observers. And after Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s absurd open letter against the Paul trade became public, no one was willing to give Stern the benefit of the doubt.
However, his reasoning for vetoing the trade was sound, and five months later, it’s extremely hard to argue the Hornets would have been better off taking the package from the Houston Rockets and the Lakers instead of what they eventually received from the Los Angeles Clippers. In the original deal, New Orleans would have received Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and Lamar Odom for Paul.
The 28-year-old Martin and the 31-year-old Scola were coming off career years and their production fell back to Earth this season: in 40 games, Martin averaged 17.1 points on 42% shooting while Scola averaged 16 points and six rebounds on 49% shooting this season for the Rockets. Odom, meanwhile, never showed up mentally while playing for the defending NBA champions this season; it’s hard to imagine how little value he would have given a New Orleans team fighting for the No. 8 spot. The trade should have been focused on getting younger players, and Dragic is the only the Hornets would have received with any upside.
Houston’s inclusion was one of the more baffling aspects of the three-team deal, as they were getting future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol for two role-playing veterans and a solid young PG. If New Orleans wanted to stay relevant, why even add the Rockets into the deal? Five months later, Martin’s only value as a trade asset is as an expiring contract, while Houston will have a hard time getting close to equal value for Scola, who is still owed $30 million until 2015.
A New Orleans Hornets team with that declining trio as well as Emeka Okafor and Jarrett Jack wouldn’t have even made the playoffs. They would have taken the Rockets place on the mediocrity treadmill: not good enough to contend in the playoffs, not bad enough to get a high draft pick. Houston, currently in line to get the No. 13 pick in the 2012 draft, had the No. 14 in 2011 and 2010.
Instead, the Hornets now have two lottery picks in the 2012 draft, their own as well as the Minnesota Timberwolves, which they received from the Clippers. They also have Eric Gordon, who after missing most of the season with a knee injury, has bounced back in the last few weeks to show why he’s considered one of the top young shooting guards in the NBA. In nine games with New Orleans, the 23-year-old Gordon is averaging 20.6 points, 3.4 assists and 2.8 rebounds on 45% shooting.
Headed into the summer of 2012, the Hornets have a 23-year-old future All-Star as a restricted free agent and two lottery picks in one of the deepest drafts of the last decade. If Stern had gone along with the original plan, they would have been a team going nowhere with a late lottery pick and a roster full of veterans losing trade value by the day. Stern, seeing the big picture, wanted the team to rebuild while the Hornets front office personnel seemed more concerned with winning in the present.
However, how prescient he ends up looking will depend in large part on who New Orleans selects with their two lottery picks. Tanking detractors often point out to the lack of success the strategy has in the aggregate, but that’s because getting high draft picks is only half the battle. You have to know how to use them too; if the Hornets select Harrison Barnes and Jared Sullinger, their entire lost season will have been for nothing.
While the draft will always be a crapshoot in some respects, there are clearly teams who are far ahead of the curve. Houston is one of them, but Daryl Morey won’t get his chance to pick a player until the middle of the round. The New Orleans front office, meanwhile, will pick twice before the Rockets.
Stern has put them in the position to succeed, a far superior position to the one the Rockets are in three years after Morey took over. I would still give the Executive of the Year to Kevin O’Connor because he’s already made the correct draft picks, but Stern isn’t too far behind him.
** Correction: I had forgotten that Dragic was originally part of the trade as well. The article has been updated to reflect that. Thanks to Twitter user AwSki17 for the correction. **