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Power move by Stern raises major concerns

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 11, 2011
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It’s astounding that NBA team owners did not wait for the ink to dry on the new collective bargaining agreement before they began to exert their power over the players. Encouraging commissioner David Stern to block the three-team deal that would have sent Hornets guard Chris Paul to the Lakers was an unprecedented move.

For those unaware, the Hornets were sold by owner George Shinn to the NBA, which has decided to run the franchise - financed by the other 29 owners - while it prepares for a sale to what is hoped will be a local owner.

Paul has an opt-out clause after this season, and he intends to exercise it and continue his career in a major market. Flash back to last summer when LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade collaborated to sign with the Heat. Smaller-market owners were determined to ensure that impending free agents didn’t collude again with a similar purpose.

So when Paul indicated that he did not want to return to the Hornets, neophyte general manager Dell Demps went to work on a deal that would help New Orleans’s chances of competing in the Western Conference and allow Paul to spend the last year of his contract with a championship-caliber club.

Demps was poised to extract Lamar Odom from the Lakers and Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, and Goran Dragic from the Rockets in a three-team deal that many observers felt would have benefited the Hornets. But Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert - who is quickly transforming from a sympathetic figure after losing James to free agency last year into an angry, bitter spokesman for mismanaged small-market teams - sent an e-mail to Stern joking that all but five NBA teams should rename themselves the “Washington Generals.’’

Stern vetoed the trade Thursday night, leaving Paul and the other players to consider whether or not to report to their training camps. Odom, who appeared disillusioned and unresponsive at times during a radio interview, did not report Friday.

The move left three teams in limbo and many general managers and executives wondering how far-reaching Stern’s control is despite his promise to retire in the next few years.

Demps now must attempt to move forward, unsure whether he can execute anything more than a minor deal without Stern’s approval. And it seems he may lose two key pieces - Paul and free agent forward David West - and have little to replace them with next season. Demps wanted to add veterans and then use the team’s cap space next summer to attract a major free agent.

Stern believes there is better opportunity to sell the Hornets with Paul on the roster; he referred to “basketball reasons’’ as his motivation for blocking the trade. Yet in 2008 he allowed the Grizzlies to send PauGasol to the Lakers for Kwame Brown (draft bust) and Javaris Crittenton (currently out of the league and facing trial on a murder charge), which created salary-cap space for the Grizzlies.

Stern trusted Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace enough to flip those assets into lucrative contracts to build a competitive team, which he did. Obviously, Stern doesn’t have the same trust in Demps.

Stern heard mostly criticism over the next 24 hours and felt inclined to release a statement, which is significant because he generally does not acknowledge outside opinions with formal responses.

“Since the NBA purchased the New Orleans Hornets, final responsibility for significant management decisions lies with the Commissioner’s Office in consultation with team chairman Jac Sperling,’’ said the statement.

“All decisions are made on the basis of what is in the best interests of the Hornets. In the case of the trade proposal that was made to the Hornets for Chris Paul, 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.’’

The precedent Stern has set is unclear, but he is walking down a dangerous path. The Players Association must have missed the provision that allowed the commissioner to force players to play for certain teams.

The three teams involved have lobbied to resuscitate the trade, and it’s going to be an ugly situation if the players who were initially dealt have to play the rest of the season with their current teams.

The lockout and this power move are adversely affecting Stern’s legacy. Pacers forward Danny Granger lashed out against the commissioner on Twitter, and other players, including the Celtics’ Jermaine O’Neal, are privately angry at how the owners handled the labor situation.

Stern’s comments after the collective bargaining agreement was ratified Thursday were curious, given that he blocked the Paul deal hours later.

“I believe in free agency,’’ he said. “We have a deal where a player who has completed his time at a team under a contract has a right to go someplace else.

“And then there are potential judgments to be made by teams about whether there’s a time when they want to consider getting something more for that player in the event he will leave than if he stays.

“So nothing has changed about that. That dynamic is the same. But, yes, this is going to be a more competitive league over time.’’

What Demps was trying to do was get adequate compensation for Paul in a way that wouldn’t derail team chemistry this season. There is no way Stern can mandate that Paul remain in New Orleans for the entire season and risk zero compensation for the Hornets, so the question is, when will he clear Paul to go?

This is a case of a commissioner doubling as a general manager, and that involves too many responsibilities, even for Stern.

FADING MAGIC

Issues for team in transition

If it’s true that Dwight Howard has asked to be traded to the Nets (and who would have ever thought a player would choose New Jersey over Disney World?), then it is the latest unfortunate occurrence for a team that reached the NBA Finals in 2009.

The Magic officially pronounced the trade that netted Gilbert Arenas a monumental failure by declaring amnesty on the $60 million remaining on his contract. Earlier in the week, chief executive officer Bob Vander Weide abruptly stepped down after a mysterious late-evening phone call to Howard in which the Orlando big man believed the CEO may have been inebriated.

The Magic then acquired Glen Davis from the Celtics for burly forward Brandon Bass and signed Davis to his long-awaited extension: four years and $26 million. The Magic are a team in transition, especially if Howard wants out.

Arenas is gone and Jason Richardson is a free agent, leaving Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick as the team’s core. That hardly sounds like an Eastern Conference contender, and even if Howard plays this season, he will do so under the cloud of impending free agency and questions as to whether he is headed for New Jersey or Los Angeles.

“Our objectives don’t change,’’ said general manager Otis Smith. “It’s to keep 12 [Howard] here for a long time. We are moving toward that end. There’s really no contingency plans because he’s going to be in [an Orlando] uniform.’’

Why does Howard want to leave Orlando? In many ways, his situation is similar to that of Shaquille O’Neal 15 years ago. Howard wants more off-court exposure to maximize his brand. Also, the Magic are not a young team and haven’t surrounded the perennial All-Star with younger talent. Smith tried acquiring players such as Vince Carter and Arenas who had faltered with other clubs hoping they would respond in more meaningful games.

It didn’t work.

Said team chairman Dan DeVos: “We’ve talked about it internally. We think this is the right place for Dwight, and we’ll do everything we can to prove that to him.’’

Vander Weide was asked to explain the nature of his late phone call with Howard and whether it came after a few drinks. The question, asked by an Orlando television reporter, was awkward but necessary.

“It was a social event,’’ said Vander Weide. “I had a couple of glasses of wine.

“I had received texts and phone calls from Dwight and thought it prudent still to return the call. I was not drunk. I had two, maybe three glasses of wine over two hours.

“That phone conversation has not changed my relationship with Dwight. We like each other. We even love each other as people. He’s always reached out to me. That phone call has not changed his feelings about this organization.’’

ETC.

Robinson just cannot fit in

It’s been a difficult year for Nate Robinson, who finally appeared to understand the complexities of the Celtics system and also matured last season as he earned a rotation spot.

Robinson is an exceptional athlete who probably should have played defensive back in the NFL. He sparkled in his one-year football stint at the University of Washington and is the son of Jacque Robinson, who was MVP in the 1982 Rose Bowl and 1985 Orange Bowl.

Robinson, however, has been dogged by attitude issues, and his focus has been questioned. And when he was thrown into the deal that sent Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder, it was apparent from the beginning that Robinson’s style and skills weren’t a fit for that club’s system.

Oklahoma City already has a reserve point guard in Eric Maynor, and there isn’t room for a 5-foot-8-inch guard who likes to shoot and isn’t a very productive distributor.

Robinson was under the impression that he was going to be bought out of his contract, according to an NBA source, and Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti released an eloquent statement Thursday expressing the Thunder’s stance and their decision to allow him to stay home while his situation is settled.

“In collaboration with Nate Robinson and his representatives, we have mutually agreed to continue working toward clarifying his future status with the Thunder,’’ said Presti. “Nate is an accomplished player, but with the current composition of our roster, it will be unlikely he will have an opportunity to contribute on a nightly basis.

“Given the compressed period of time that we have been given to work through the current situation, it has been decided that Nate will not attend training camp while we work with his representatives to resolve the situation.’’

So Robinson will be available as a free agent when he is waived or released. Since the Celtics are in desperate need of roster players, especially those who know the system, would Robinson be a fit back in Boston on a minimum contract? Not likely, because the Celtics just acquired Keyon Dooling as a backup point guard and need to give Avery Bradley more seasoning.

Robinson is 27, a three-time slam-dunk contest winner, and as the Celtics learned during their 2010 playoff run, an effective player in the right situation. But teams are taking fewer chances on players with attitude issues and those who could fracture a locker room. Robinson was accused of both in Boston.

Robinson could be an immensely effective player. He scored 41 points against the Hawks as a member of the Knicks after Mike D’Antoni had benched him for a month. Perhaps he got an unfair shake in Oklahoma City, but on his next stop he will have to exhibit patience. That hasn’t been the case throughout his career.

Battier a bargain

Shane Battier decided to become his own media outlet, announcing on Twitter that he had signed with the Heat. Battier gives the Heat a good defender, a perimeter threat, and someone without the injury history of Mike Miller. It is believed that Battier took the team’s mini mid-level exception of $3 million, something the Celtics could have offered. The Heat are in the same luxury-tax neighborhood as the Celtics but slyly convinced a player who earned $7 million last year to take less than half that.

Brought to his knees

After a press conference last week in which it was announced that he would compete for a starting slot, Trail Blazers guard Brandon Roy (above) instead is expected to announce his retirement because of degenerative knees. Roy was a three-time All-Star and Portland’s franchise player after being drafted in 2006, but knee injuries derailed his progress and turned him into a reserve with little explosion. Roy signed a maximum contract and will receive all the remaining money from his deal, mostly paid by insurance. Roy, 27, was limited to 45 games and just 12.2 points last season.

Layups

Former lottery pick Rashad McCants showed up at the Lakers facility to work out before training camp officially began, seeking an invite. McCants told the Globe in an August interview that he would return to the NBA only if he could play with the Lakers and Kobe Bryant . . . Greg Oden has committed to the Trail Blazers for one more season but the 2007 No. 1 overall pick will be a hot free agent if healthy next summer. Celtics president Danny Ainge has always been fond of Oden, and Boston will have the salary-cap space to pursue him. Oden likely won’t demand top dollar because of his injury history. His knee has been surgically repaired but it could take him a while to return to form . . . The Rockets emerged as the front-runners to sign Denver unrestricted free agent center Nene, but the Nuggets, Pacers, and Warriors have entered the competition. Meanwhile, the Nuggets are hoping that Wilson Chandler and J.R. Smith are allowed to get out of their contracts in China and return to the States. Both committed to staying with their teams until the regular season ends in March, but that was when it looked as if there would be no resolution to the lockout. Chandler would draw major interest as a restricted free agent. Smith is unrestricted but comes with baggage because of years of attitude issues in Denver . . . Ex-Celtic Brian Scalabrine is back in the US after a stint with Benetton Treviso in Italy and is looking for NBA work after playing with the Bulls last season . . . The Bobcats have invited former Notre Dame Prep (Fitchburg) and Iowa State guard Will Blalock to training camp. Blalock, 28, played in 14 games with the Pistons in 2006-07.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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