Four years ago this week, Chris Paul was traded to the Lakers until he wasn't. With three cryptic words, "for basketball reasons," David Stern vetoed the transaction.
Stern offered no other explanation and, to this day, has yet to account for this unprecedented decision. Usually, when important people make unpopular, confounding choices, they attempt to justify them. Not David Stern. Toward the end of his tenure as NBA commissioner, the once-beloved Stern seemingly lost all interest in the public's perception of him. Never was this truer than it was in December of 2011.
But Stern's refusal to clarify his reasoning doesn't mean he didn't have his reasons. It's entirely possible that he just didn't want to make them explicit for fear that the possible repercussions might have been far uglier than leaving things mysterious and unspoken. David Stern knew exactly what he was doing. And he may have been right to do it.
To understand the Chris Paul debacle, think back to the NBA of 2011. The Mavericks may have been the defending champions, but the Heat—a super-team convened by the players themselves with the express purpose of consolidating talent to win a title—loomed large. Players were feeling more empowered than ever, talking amongst themselves about potential alliances, trying to orchestrate front office moves, and generally threatening to wrest power away from ownership and maybe even Stern himself.
David Stern has always gotten a kick out of putting the NBA's players in their place, as evidenced by the two lockouts and all the crushing CBA negotiations that occurred under his watch. The former union-buster may famously champion Democratic causes, but when it comes to his workplace, there is a top-down order and hierarchy that must be preserved. Players challenging authority likely did not sit well with the great avuncular despot of American sports.
Certainly, the dream backcourt of Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul would have been a product of player collusion and backchannel communication. But what really irked Stern—the business, not personal part of "basketball reasons"—was what this kind of orchestrated move meant for the product itself.
The Lakers were by no means a bad team in 2011. The nucleus that had won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 was more or less intact. And unlike the 2008 champion Celtics—now rightfully viewed as the proto-Heat—this team had dutifully rebuilt itself after the collapse of the Shaq-Kobe-Phil triumvirate. Granted, acquiring Pau Gasol in what appeared to be a lopsided trade with Memphis—good thing that Marc Gasol kid panned out—and luring Phil Jackson out of retirement went a long way. But for the Lakers, getting better had taken time. It was earned. And it didn't come at the expense of the league's competitive balance.
The Chris Paul trade would have been something else altogether. The two All-NBA guards were both at the height of their powers. The Lakers were willing to give up Gasol and Lamar Odom, the two best players on their roster not named Kobe Bryant, which says a lot about just how highly-regarded Paul was at that moment. Pairing Kobe and CP3 wasn't quite on the level of the Heat, but it was the kind of skewing of competitive balance that likely didn't sit well with Stern, whose autocratic regime emphasized parity and small-to-medium regional markets.
There's a pervasive myth in basketball that when the most visible, most storied teams are winning, the entire league is healthier for it. You could revise this to say that superstars winning titles is good for the NBA. Sure, the Knicks or Lakers can be a distraction from other, more deserving teams; LeBron James getting his chip quieted a lot of needless hot-take noise. But from night-to-night, or over the course of a long season, a top-heavy, predictable league with no surprise teams is a boring one. Parity has long been a problem for the NBA, and the fundamental strength of the all-powerful NFL. In 2011, the players were looking to formalize this dynamic.
So David Stern put his foot down and took a stand against super-sized talent consolidation and, by extension, players taking over the league. He couldn't come out and say it without risking outright conflict. At the time, the issue was just too sensitive. And it was easy to hide behind another conspiratorial smokescreen: In 2011, the NBA was in charge of the Hornets, and losing Paul would've been a major blow to this struggling franchise. It didn't take much effort to see Stern as acting in the interest of a franchise that only theoretically operated as an independent entity.
If you saw Stern as trying to protect the Hornets, well, you were right and wrong. Paul was traded to the Clippers the following week without incident. But the Clippers were a team on the rise, not an instant dynasty in the offing. David Stern couldn't have cared less about the Hornets in particular.
But this line of reasoning actually points right at the less sinister of Stern's motivations: The league as a whole is more important than any individual franchise, no matter how illustrious. Evenly distributed wealth and front offices capable of making good decision make for a sharper competitive landscape. When teams in smaller markets can win games and retain players, the product and its appeal are stronger; there's just more good basketball in the world. Conversely, the web-saturated, borderless culture around the NBA has made market size less important than ever when it comes to player (and team) notoriety. It's not a stretch to say that Stern's veto helped turn the tide in the NBA and get us all to where we are today.
When a team like this year's Golden State Warriors dominates the NBA without contrivance—and with a wholly original, organic template developed over several years of process—the effect is breathtaking. Anyone can mash together All-Stars and win some games. It's far more difficult to build a team that drums up interest in the sport. This was Stern's vision for the NBA and while he may have all been robbed us of some transcendent basketball in Los Angeles—and been a total asshole about it—it's hard to argue with the results.