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BILL PLASCHKE

David Stern's decision leaves Lakers in disarray

NBA commissioner may have done Lakers a favor by vetoing a trade for Chris Paul that might have weakened the team. But it was the wrong thing to do, an abuse of authority that throws Lakers into chaos.

December 09, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Lakers guard Kobe Bryant answers questions from the media after the team's first practice on Friday.
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant answers questions from the media after the team's… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

This was not competitive balance. This was chaos.

This was not a Lakers team that had been reprimanded. This was a Lakers team that had been rolled.

Judging from the surreal scene at the Lakers' first practice Friday, the NBA's weak-kneed commissioner, David Stern, did more than just veto their trade for New Orleans star Chris Paul.

He vetoed their strong sense of team, their legendary sense of calm, and even, briefly, Metta World Peace's sense of humor.

"I heard what happened, but I'm still lost on the situation," he said, shaking his head.

Despite sweating together for more than four hours at the Toyota Center in the first focused team activity in eight months, the Lakers all seemed lost, some of them literally.

Pau Gasol, one of the two Lakers supposedly traded, showed up and then walked out.

Lamar Odom, the other Laker supposedly traded, showed up late and then walked out.

There were only nine players on the floor to being a practice that could not be completed without dudes from the D-League.

"It was kind of crazy," Andrew Bynum said. "We were making up drills."

By the time that practice ended, some of the players were not only sweat-stained, but glassy eyed and confused, with the only absolute truth reportedly being uttered by General Manager Mitch Kupchak to the team in a morning meeting.

"He said it was an awkward moment," Bynum said.

The awkwardness was caused, of course, by Stern, who committed treason against the office of commissioner by killing Thursday night's deal in which the Lakers used Odom and Gasol to acquire Paul, a point guard who would give them the backcourt speed and athleticism they have long craved.

Was it a good deal? No. I had written an entire column ripping the deal before Stern canceled the trade and killed the story.

The Lakers were essentially ripping out the healthy heart of a frontcourt that helped them to two championships and three Finals appearances for a single All-Star point guard. The Lakers were basically attaching their entire inside burden, with tape and ice, to the balky knees of Bynum.

Paul has the sort of skills that dazzled us all last spring, but was he really worth both Gasol and Odom on a team whose only other legitimate big man has missed an average of 31 games in each of the last four seasons?

Sounds like a Jimmy Buss special, doesn't it? I was immediately critical of the trade, and was publicly wishing the Lakers hadn't made it.

But that didn't give Stern the right to later veto it, especially after it was already announced, which put the Lakers in a far worse position than if they had made the deal.

Supposedly acting in the best interests of basketball while representing the NBA's ownership of the Hornets, Stern claimed it was a bad trade, which made no sense. The Hornets were to receive a strong core of players including Houston's Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Odom while the Rockets were to get Gasol to replace Yao Ming.

The deal was questionable only for the Lakers, yet it was the Lakers' involvement that led many of the league's small-market owners to complain. They were upset with the idea of another great player being allowed to choose his trade destination, and angry that the Lakers were smart enough to make a move that would lessen their luxury tax, which is basically paid to — guess who? — all those lame underachievers.

That Stern caved in to the little guys' whiny wishes at the expense of the league's integrity is a dereliction of duty unmatched even by some of the worst commissioners in pro sports history, and will affix to his legacy a black mark that will follow him into retirement.

Meanwhile, Friday afternoon, the Lakers were left to clean up the mess.

It was so weird, Kobe Bryant seemed almost speechless at times.

"I've been here 16 years and seen a lot of crazy [things]," he said, shaking his head.

It was so strange, Derek Fisher's playing time might have been temporarily saved by Stern's veto, but he opposed the veto because of his union sensibilities.

"I disagree with the commissioner holding up a trade," said Fisher, the players' union president. "It flies in the face of the months we spent negotiating a collective bargaining agreement."

It was so raw and unsettling, Bynum openly wondered if he was going to be traded next.

"If I'm here tomorrow, it's going to be great," he said. "If I'm not, it's still going to be great."

Even by Lakers standards, this was off the charts, especially for a new coach trying to run his first practice with two of his best players refusing to play because they have been unofficially unwanted.

Mike Brown did his best to lighten the mood, even leaving the court at one point to wade into a huge media crowd with a bucket of bubble gum, shouting, "Bazooka anyone? Bazooka?"

Actually, that was pretty strange, too.

When asked about his first day, Brown said, "Oh man, I don't know where to start."

The Lakers can start by refusing to pursue the trade and moving on. Gasol and Odom are two of the most sensitive players on the team, and don't need any more public uncertainty and embarrassment. Bring them back to practice, announce the deal is off, trade the bafflement for basketball.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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