Why the NBA Killed the Chris Paul Deal

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The owners acted against their own economic self-interest in barring the Hornets point guard from joining the Lakers

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I'm not religious. But I'm an Old Testament guy. By which I mean: I believe that there's a more powerful human force than love, or even the love of money: our intrinsic desire for justice.

Which brings me to the Chris Paul trade that wasn't.

By now, you probably have seen the news: New Orleans Hornets star point guard Paul was set to join the Los Angeles Lakers yesterday in a three-way trade involving the Houston Rockets. As detailed elsewhere, the swap was a potential win-win-win from a basketball standpoint, essentially fair, with each club standing to lose and gain something:

* Los Angeles would have received one of league's 10 best players in Paul; lost a pair of talented big men in Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom; risked taking a step backward via Paul's surgically-repaired knee and/or a shorter, less effective front court;

* Houston would have received Gasol, one of the game's top centers, with cap room left to chase other free agents; lost high-scoring guard Kevin Martin and rugged forward Luis Scola, two solid starters;

* New Orleans would have received three to four quality NBA starters, instead of getting bupkus when Paul departs as a free agent next offseason.

Shake hands, sign the necessary paperwork, voila. Done deal. Right? Wrong. The NBA nixed the arrangement, actively acting against its own economic self-interest. The league cost itself money—potentially big money—by saying nyet. How so? The Hornets are currently owned by the league. Which is looking for a buyer. A buyer willing to shell out hundreds of millions to either prop-up and/or move a financially shaky operation. A franchise that soon is going to lose its most valuable asset in Paul anyway.

What looks more attractive to prospective buyers?

(a) The Hornets without Chris Paul;

(b) The Hornets without Chris Paul, but with a credible group of players that includes Martin, Scola, Odom, Goran Dragic and a future extra No. 1 draft pick—a group of guys who can actually play, right now, or be flipped for youth/more picks in a future rebuild.

If you answered "A," congratulations: You now understand why you can't afford an NBA franchise in the first place. In essence, the league just decided they didn't want to bother with cleaning, repainting, adding a bit of crown molding, and otherwise fixing up the house they're trying to unload; instead, the NBA is doing nothing—and by doing so, deliberately and willingly costing itself money. 

To put things another way: A sizable number of the league's 29 owners— reportedly the small-market faction —decided on purpose to reduce the future sale value of the Hornets. They acted against their own bottom line. (They also acted to undercut the credibility of their entire joint venture, but that's another column entirely).

What's the matter with NBA owners?

I think I know the answer. And I think it goes back to the portion of the Good Book that deals with the Big Commissioner Upstairs eschewing other-cheek-turning for smiting and slaying and otherwise putting the smackdown on all those who have displeased him. It goes back to human nature. It goes back not so much to our desire for revenge—many observers have suggested the small-market owners vetoed the deal because they were unhappy with the new collective bargaining agreement—but to our desire for fairness. For justice.

In short, the small-market owners felt the Paul deal—like every deal in which a star free agent abandons ship for a big-market club—was screwing them. And doing something about feeling screwed was more important than money.

Understand: I'm not saying the owners are right to feel this way. (To the contrary, I think they're being massively hypocritical at best and downright un-American at worst, operating as unregulated monopolies and then getting torqued when employees exercise collectively bargained rights). I'm just saying they do feel this way. Or really, really seem to. Exhibit A: Cleveland Cavs owner Dan Gilbert's latest exercise in instantly regrettable missive writing  in which he complained that if the Paul deal (and presumably, others like it) was allowed to go down, the majority of the league would end up looking like "the Washington Generals."

(Point of order: "Washington Wizards" would have been more apropos; Point of Order No. 2: Utah, San Antonio, Memphis and 10-plus years of utter New York Knicks sucktitude don't exactly support that diagnosis, Dr. Gilbert).

The small-market owners cut off their economic noses to spite their faces, and did so happily, because in cases of perceived unfairness, spite feels so damn good. And that's just how human beings are wired. It's why the Tea Party threw a fit over TARP and why Occupiers rail against income inequality in Zuccotti Park. We hate unfairness. Can't stand it. Have a visceral, emotional reaction to it. Only don't take my word. Ask science: in behavioral experiment after behavioral experiment, people will sacrifice personal gain to block another individual from receiving a superior reward.

Take the classic "ultimatum game." Two people are asked to divide a pot of money. The first person decides the split. The second person can accept or veto; if they veto, no one gets anything. Guess what research shows: the more the first person proposes a lopsided split in their favor, the more the second person tends to say no. Even though they end up with nothing instead of something. 

I think this explains why the Paul deal went poof. Small-market owners may not have been acting in their economic self-interest, but they definitely were acting in their emotional self-interest. And that, sadly, is all too understandable. An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind? Fine. I'll take two. As long at the other guy gets the same.

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Patrick Hruby is a culture writer for The Washington Times. His work has appeared on ESPN.com, ThePostGame, ESPNw, The Guardian, and in The Best American Sports Writing.

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