If you missed it, I spoke to NBA commissioner David Stern yesterday on his role in the nixed trade last December that would have brought center Pau Gasol to the Houston Rockets.
When I asked Stern about his decision to overrule Hornets general manager Dell Demps, he said that he hadn’t ‘overruled’ anybody. I responded that he had ‘revoked’ the trade. Stern then remarked that he hadn’t ‘revoked’ the trade, but rather merely had not ‘signed off’.
If the Rockets are to be believed, Stern’s account of the events yesterday was a bald-faced lie. In this December piece, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle reports that a source with knowledge of the talks stated that Stern had been informed of the negotiations throughout the entire process. In addition, from that same article:
But according to two individuals with direct knowledge of the talks, Demps had assured Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak throughout the day that Stern and other NBA officials had been given all the details of the deal and had signed off on it.
“He said that David was briefed and that it was a done deal,” one of the individuals with knowledge of the talks said. “He (Demps) said multiple times that he briefed both of his local officials, (Hornets president) Hugh Webber and (Hornets chairman) Jac Sperling, and they and Dell at regular intervals were updating (NBA vice presidents) Stu Jackson and Joel Litvin and that they told David himself throughout the day. Also, Hugh and Jac, who were updating the league office, understood it to be a deal.”
If true, then Stern did in fact, in effect, ‘revoke’ the trade and did not merely ‘not sign off’ pursuant to standard protocol, as was his claim in my interview. The Rockets thought they had a deal, the Hornets gave assurance that there was authority for Demps to make a deal, and at the twelfth hour, the deal was turned back, by Stern.
Speculation abounds that the trade was rescinded upon pressure from various owners, particularly Dan Gilbert, though these allegations have not been verified.
Stern then went on to tell me:
“What people don’t understand, particularly you, given the question, is that no trade in this league gets made without the owner’s sign-off and I was the designated person by our owners to either have the responsibility or got stuck with the responsibility, and that’s what I did.”
Given his response in explaining protocol, he clearly believes I was assuming he acted as NBA commissioner in killing the deal from the NBA office. That wasn’t my assumption. I know he acted as ‘the Hornets.’ The issue is that Stern, while acting as appointed de facto owner of the Hornets, was still wearing the hat of ‘NBA commissioner.’ The conflicts of interest, as I pointed out in the interview, are obvious.
David Stern has cited ‘basketball reasons’ as his cause for killing the deal, hoping to protect against allegations of league-centric motives. It can be argued that the Hornets perhaps emerged with a better deal. But no one but Stern himself can know the true motive behind what went down. A team cannot expect to engage in good faith dealing with the Hornets when the NBA’s interests might have some stake in the deal. If not congruent with league objectives, Stern can simply put on the hat of Hornets owner and crush any Hornets deal or use the Hornets as a proxy to meet league objectives. In this case, it was the Rockets who had to pay the price.
Daryl Morey and Les Alexander relied upon that assurance of Dell Demps’ authority in pursuing the Pau Gasol trade. In the process, before David Stern stepped in and killed the trade, time and contingency plans were lost and Chuck Hayes was sacrificed.
Stern is painting the situation as this: he was appointed by the owners to act as owner of the Hornets. He hadn’t made any guarantees. When the deal was brought forward, he didn’t approve it, for the sake of the Hornets.
If all of that is to be believed, I take us back to my original question from the interview: if David Stern was just going to overrule Dell Demps for ‘basketball reasons’, doesn’t that just make Dell Demps unfit to be a general manager? Stern caught the logic and avoided the path.
UPDATED at 4:58PM on 02/09/12:
More from that December 18th, Feigen piece to which I had cited above:
Stern said in a media conference call last week that he was only “generally informed about the discussions with teams.”
Let’s walk through this. The Rockets are claiming that Stern was intimately familiar with the talks and had given approval through every step. Stern says he was only “generally informed” and tells me that he only didn’t sign off on the deal when it was presented. You’re smart enough to not believe that.
Even if we conceded that the Rockets’ claim was false and that Stern hadn’t granted approval, being “generally informed” is at the least enough to know whether you want to kill a deal. At the very least, Stern was privy to the basic particulars being discussed. If you’re the top executive, and the last line of authority, and are “generally informed,” of a deal, you at least know and have given indication to your general manager whether he should proceed. There’s no way a trade suddenly gets to the point where it’s been submitted for approval to you the next morning and you’re like, “oh wow! what a total surprise! I don’t want to do this anymore! I had no idea this is what the deal was.” There’s no way it gets to that point. That could only be the case if you had no knowledge of the talks, but Stern already admitted to having more knowledge than that. And most suspicious, is the fact that he let it reach such a public stage. If Stern didn’t like the deal, why didn’t he kill it on his own internally before it reached the 11th hour? He’s smarter than that and knew there would be backlash. The more you think this through, the more it leads you to believe that he acted on the outside influence of the other owners in the interests of the NBA.
It’s makes my blood boil that he screwed this franchise and then stood there smugly, scolding me with condescension over the semantics of his machinations.