Has the NBA commissioner forgotten the importance of appearances?
“A man who is used to acting in one way never changes; he must come to ruin when the times, in changing, no longer are in harmony with his ways.” – Machiavelli
It’s been a brutal year for David Stern’s reputation, and therefore, his legacy.
The seemingly insurmountable strife between the players union and the owners which resulted in the lockout appeared too great to be overcome, but was – the season was shortened, but it still occurred. By the time the two sides had come to an agreement, though, too much blood had been spilled in the streets. Neither side could really claim victory, nor could fans relinquish lingering resentment that the lockout happened in the first place. Despite the Players’ Union descending into chaos, with charges of nepotism levied at union head Billy Hunter and comical ineptitude at Derek Fisher, Stern was still unable to capitalize and appear to be the “good guy” for getting a deal done and saving basketball in 2011-12.
Part of that had to do with the fact that the NBA assumed ownership of one of its franchises, the New Orleans Hornets, in December of 2010. Immediately, cries of a “conflict of interest” plagued the league. When the team traded Marcus Thornton for Carl Landry the following March, other NBA owners (who technically had a 1/29th stake apiece in the Hornets) cried foul, as a team in “dire financial straits” was adding salary while under league control.
None of that compared to December of 2011, however, when David Stern personally overturned a trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers and brought a return of Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin and Luis Scola. At the time, that was thought to be three-fifths of a very good starting five – but Stern declined, and instead accepted a package from the Clippers for Eric Gordon, Al Farouq-Aminu, Chris Kaman and the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick (which the Clippers owned due to a trade from nearly a decade ago). Fans questioned whether Stern ought to have that much control over the day-to-day operations of one of his sport’s franchises.
Fast forward to Wednesday evening, when the ping pong balls spat out the New Orleans Hornets as the owners of the number one overall selection in the 2012 NBA Draft. Conspiracy theorists have since had a field day – a franchise that is still technically owned by the league (a new owner is in place) happened to win the first selection of the NBA-sponsored Draft Lottery. All kinds of scenarios are being tossed around – most notably the idea that Stern rigged the order to make it appear as though he had made the right trade in the beginning.
Funny thing is, there were actually four teams near the top of the Lottery that had ready-made conspiracy theory angles in place; the Hornets were just one of them. The other three are as follows:
Nets – Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who bought the team in 2009, has invested a lot of his personal fortune in moving the team to Brooklyn. The organization has also attempted to acquire Dwight Howard from the Magic, but to no avail. In an attempt to persuade current star Deron Williams to stay with the team, the Nets traded a top-three protected Draft Choice to the Blazers for Gerald Wallace in March. The conspiracy theorists would have contended that Prokhorov, a ruthless business man, would have either rigged the Lottery or was rewarded for his sizable investment via the top choice in the NBA Draft.
Cavaliers – The team Lebron James stabbed in the back on national television two summers ago would have won its second straight Draft Lottery had the ping-pong balls fallen their way. Conspiracy theorists would’ve emphatically stated the Lottery was rigged as a way to make it up to that forlorn franchise.
Bobcats – Michael Jordan runs the Charlotte Bobcats. Jordan and David Stern are buddies… and the Bobcats desperately needed the pick… and probably had to get it in order to save professional basketball in Charlotte. Not wanting to be stuck with another potential relocation / league ownership of a team situation, the League would have given the top selection to the Bobcats, a team that went 7-59 in 2011-12. Or so the conspiracy theorists would have said.
David Stern has been said to carry the most power of all sports commissioners; while Roger Goodell grabs headlines and appears to rule with an iron fist, behind the scenes insiders like to claim that Stern is the one who actually behaves like a despot. He rules his kingdom from the league offices in New York City, a calculated, shrewd, successful businessman – yet maintains the countenance of a feeble old man who is just trying to do the right thing.
So why does he risk his credibility with the Draft Lottery? Many proponents of the Lottery system argue that it is in place as a means to discourage tanking – but anyone who watches the NBA in March and April knows it doesn’t work. Conspiracy theorists would argue the Lottery exists so the NBA can place top prospects where it wants – a la Patrick Ewing to the Knicks in 1985, Lebron James to his hometown Cavaliers in 2003, or Derrick Rose to the Chicago Bulls in 2008. Believing the tin-foil wearing bloggers is a fool’s errand – the notion that the league owners, general managers and even high-ranking NBA officials could pull off such an elaborate hoax is ridiculous.
But why allow such doubt to fester? Why not get rid of the Lottery system and reward Draft choices the way every other sports league does – as the inverse of team’s records the season before? In only 4 of 28 years the Lottery has been in place has the league’s worst team secured the number 1 overall pick. The breakdown of which team has gotten the top choice looks like this:
# of Lottery winners
The 5th worst team in the league, historically speaking, has a better chance of grabbing the top selection in the Draft than, you know, THE WORST TEAM IN THE LEAGUE. It feeds into the idea that Stern could be some sort of puppet master, pulling the strings from his office, placing players on the teams (and in the markets) he wants, fairness be damned.
In 1985, the first year of the Draft Lottery, there was no internet, ESPN was not yet the 24 hour sports news behemoth it is today and every shut-in who liked sports a little too much (like… me) didn’t have a public forum to spread his ideas. Some people believe the NBA fixes the Draft and some of its playoff games – so be it.
But as someone whose fondness for the sport is growing at an exponential rate, I wish Stern would do what he can to cut down on the negativity where he can. Ending the lottery system – at least in its current form – would shut some of these conspiracy theorists up. Because while their ideas are far-fetched, the mere fact the perception exists ought to be troubling enough. It’s time for Stern to emulate Machiavelli and remember the importance of public opinion. Ending the Lottery system would be a great start.
BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!