During the 1976 baseball season, with full-fledged free agency about to commence for the first time in the coming offseason, Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley agreed to sell Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Boston Red Sox and Vida Blue to the New York Yankees. Though selling players was common in those days (but losing players to free agency was a brand-new concept), commissioner Bowie Kuhn vetoed the transactions, using an obscure "best interests of baseball" clause as his reason. Finley filed a $10 million lawsuit against Kuhn and major league baseball, but lost. And he eventually lost all of his star players without anything to show for it. This past week, David Stern pretty much did the same thing with the Chris Paul trade, but instead of pulling the "best interests of basketball" card from his pocket, he stated it was in the best interests of the New Orleans Hornets, who are, of course, owned by the NBA. So we're just talking semantics now. There have been many cries of "the fix is in" during the Stern era, from the Patrick Ewing lottery drawing to referees making dubious calls in the playoffs and now the commissioner is meddling (or bullying) his way into teams' basketball decision-making.
One of the purposes of the lockout was the owners' attempt to bring competitive balance to the NBA. But has it really been so unbalanced? In the last two decades, the Lakers and the Bulls have dominated the NBA finals. The Bulls, of course, won six titles because they had the greatest player ever to play basketball on their team, but once Michael Jordan left, the dry spell that preceeded him began again. And the Lakers have always put together powerhouses, whether it was the George Mikan '50s, the Jerry West/Elgin Baylor/Wilt Chamberlain '60s/early '70s, the Showtime '80s or the Kobe Bryant/Shaquille O'Neal or just-Kobe-era Aughts. The small-market San Antonio Spurs won four titles, the Houston Rockets two, the Dallas Mavericks one (things have been pretty good in Texas), the Detroit Pistons one, the Miami Heat one and the Boston Celtics one. That big-bad, big-market Northeastern trio of the Celtics, New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers combined to win one championship in the last 20 years.
The Lakers, Celtics, Knicks and other big-market, high-profile teams equal a ratings bonanza (as much as the NBA can conjure up a ratings bonanza these days). Dream Teams not only sell merchandise but they can become the perfect villain, as we saw last spring, when the country came together as one to root against the Heat and make the Mavericks America's Team. When small-market, Cinderella-type teams reach the pinnacle of their sport, it may make for a great story, but often no one is watching the games. If we look to another sport, such as baseball, in 2008 when Tampa Bay finally broke the stranglehold of the Yankees and Red Sox and made it all the way to their first (and only) World Series, it was a ratings disaster. No one cared. Competitive balance and hope for every team is obviously good for sports, but should a commissioner dictate who plays where? Was the original Chris Paul trade so lopsided? Didn't the Hornets actually do pretty well for themselves? Not wanting to face the possibility of receiving nothing in return for their star point guard, who clearly wasn't planning on going back to his team next season, New Orleans was Bowie Kuhn'd by Stern.
The balance of power in all leagues goes in cycles. And money, of course, doesn't always buy success. Sure, the Yankees outspend every other professional American team and they contend every year, but they're not exactly unbeatable, as they have one championship in the last 11 years to show for their high payroll. And where has James Dolan's lavish spending habits gotten him? One year the Marlins are begging for handouts while the New York Mets go on a spending spree, but things can turn around as fast as you can chant Jose! Jose! Jose!, with the Marlins doling out $100 million deals while the Mets shop in the bargain bin. Large market teams have a natural advantage, but smart, efficient management and decision-making usually trumps big spending.
Once the rules of engagement are set, whether it's the NFL with their almost-perfect situation where a team from tiny Green Bay can be on even footing with the New York Giants, or the NBA, with their latest deal just signed off on, let nature take its course. If the powers that be for the Hornets feel they made the best deal possible, let it be. It's not as if they tried to sell Paul to the Lakers and replace him with a ballboy. Stern's decision has thrown three teams into turmoil.
Didn't the Lakers and Celtics save the NBA in the 1980s? As much as commissioners try to cram square pegs into round holes (see: Atlanta and Phoenix hockey), and as much as pundits, fans and others cry "unfair!" when it comes to deep-pocketed, big-city franchises, with the exception of an occasional underdog team that captures the nation's imagination, the powerhouses are what people want to watch, and when they're sucessful it's good for the league as a whole. Didn't the New York Rangers do wonders for the NHL in 1994 (until the league shot itself in the foot with a work stoppage as soon as Mark Messier put down the Stanley Cup)? Isn't Stern craving a relevant Knicks team? Now that their acquisition of Tyson Chandler is official, with Ronny Turiaf being sent to the Washington Wizards and Chauncey Billups waived, they should at least be an Eastern Conference contender, if not a Dream Team. And Dwight Howard has been given permission to talk to the Lakers, Mavericks and New Jersey Nets, unless Stern feels having Howard and Kobe Bryant or Dirk Nowitzki or Deron Williams on the same team is ethically wrong.
No one wants to see the same two teams win over and over, decade after decade, but the basketball world, and sports world for that matter, has not been like that lately. Let the Dream Teams be constructed. At least it gives fans someone to loathe. If the team they love can't climb to the top of the mountain, they might as well have teams that they deplore so they can bask in the hatred.