League Set To Buy Hornets, Moral Compass Is Confused

image via Tony the Misfit on Flickr

So much for happy starts and cotton candy Chris Paul MVP trophies.

As if the team’s on court slump hasn’t done much damage to that good-feeling 11-1 start, the situation behind the scenes is even messier. Reports are flowing in by the second, and by all indications, the Hornets will have new ownership come Wednesday, finally free of George Shinn’s reign of terror and luxury tax aversion.

Except, unlike the general consensus of just a few weeks ago, the new owner won’t be Gary Chouest. In fact, it won’t even be a person.

After Chouest withdrew his bid for reasons ranging from lockout concerns to skepticism regarding his ability to manage both an NBA franchise and his existing business, reports came out that the league itself was considering a takeover, planning to somehow manage the team while searching high and low for a bidder. Hopefully, one that would keep the team in New Orleans.

Such a move would be as close to unprecedented as you could possibly get – the only similar case is the MLB’s takeover of the Montreal Expos before eventually selling the team and moving them to Washington. However, since the correlation between yours truly and baseball resembles the correlation between Joel Anthony and not-airballing-dunk-attempts, I won’t comment on that specific move.

As far as the Hornets, though, the situation is a sticky one. All indications point to the takeover as a necessity – Marc Stein’s report at the mothership clearly states that “the cash-strapped Shinn can no longer afford to run the team but also can’t find a buyer”. By all accounts, David Stern prides himself in that zero digit next to “contracted teams under my reign”, and leaving the Hornets with an owner that is not only unwilling to spend extra money, but is financially incapable of running the team day to day, is contraction waiting to happen.

Having said that, and all along clarifying that this is a last-resort measure that the league apparently must take, I have no idea how this works.

Over the span of NBA history, we’ve seen a direct correlation between sound ownership and franchise success. Teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Magic and Mavericks are currently among the league’s elite because of their owners’ continuous ability to go the extra mile financially in order to improve their teams. On the other end of the spectrum, teams like the Grizzlies and Bobcats have been hindered so badly by the inability to pay for success that they’ve been dwelling in basketball sewage for years. While there are obvious exceptions to this rule – the Knicks spend money and suck, the Spurs are financially sound and dominant, the Suns making (ultimately failed) runs at the Finals while their owner sells away rotation players behind their backs – and while money is no substitute for making smart moves, the equation is pretty clear: free spending owner = good team.

The Hornets haven’t had a free spending owner recently. Every year, as the trade deadline looms, NBA fans are overcome with the suspense of trying to figure out which rotation player will New Orleans give away this time. Sometimes it’s a guy as marginal as Hilton Armstrong or Devin Brown. Other times, only a failed physical saves you from gift-wrapping a Tyson Chandler, or you spend an entire year sucking just so you can give away your lottery pick.

And the damage doesn’t stop there. By making sure that the occasional spending spree always goes on aging wing players (the Hornets have given out over 100 million dollars to Peja Stojakovic, James Posey, and Morris Peterson), financial woes have prevented the Hornets from making a move at the sort of elite wing player that would make Chris Paul’s life so easy. Hard to make a move to take on a multi-year, 8 figure contract when you can’t even pay for Bobby Freaking Brown. The front office has remained aggressive in pursuing trades, but has been forced to remain conscientious of Shinn’s dwindling wallet.

The hope was that Chouest makes this change. “You just wait, we’ll have a new owner, and then we will be able to trade garbage for Pau Gasol too!” Except now, the questions loom even loomier.

If you replace the word “Shinn” with the letters “N”, “B”, and “A”, the situation is murky at best. With the league intent on finding a buyer, one has to think they would do their best to simultaneously drive the lure of the franchise up while driving the price of the franchise down. So while Chris Paul won’t be traded, one has to assume big, long term contracts will be avoided. No Gilbert Arenas for us, thank you very much.

Then again…

If Dell Demps runs into David Stern’s office and needs permission to trade Pops Mensah-Bonsu and a box of mints for Rashard Lewis’ poisonous deal… can Stern say no? On what grounds? This isn’t an about an owner concerned about his checkbook, this is about a league that should strive for competitive balance. While financially diverse owners obviously obliterate that balance, that’s something the league has no control of. In this situation, though? When the owner is the league itself? I don’t see how this gets by moral security check.

The alternative, however – giving Demps an open check – doesn’t work either. Say you own the Philadelphia 76ers. You’re tired of underachieving, your team is going nowhere, and the main culprits are Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala, your should-be franchise guys. Suddenly, in swoops Dell Demps, offering you cap relief in the hilarious for of Marcus Banks, David Andersen, Marco Belinelli, and a huge trade exception (forget that this won’t work under salary cap rules, this is for the hypothetical implications). Happily, you send your veterans a-packin, and you waltz all the way to the bank.

Except when you ask the accountant what’s up, she reminds you that you’re still paying Iguodala. And you’re still paying for Brand. As are 28 other teams. Every single franchise, every single owner, is giving money to the league, and by proxy, to the Hornets. The only owner that isn’t on the books for the Hornets’ payroll? The Hornets’ owner. Why? Because they don’t have one. It’s the basketball equivalent of one thirtieth of the population declaring “sorry, we can’t pay taxes anymore”, and expecting the rest of the country to supply them with yachts that have hot tubs with toy yachts in them. If you’re the rest of the population, not only are you outraged by the sheer nerve of those tax avoiding parasites, but you want to see them jailed.

Now, I doubt the Hornets are jailed, but they will indeed become a team run by 29 other owners who want to be better than them. The league will surely do it’s best to keep both the Hornets’ and it’s own interests – already, reports are surfacing that NHL executive and New Orleans native Jac Sperling was tapped with operational control, a shrewd move considering his dual status as NBA outsider-and-employee should serve both sides here. But the conflict remains.

There is a chance that this moral dilemma is solved fairly quickly in the form of a buyer. Maybe Sperling takes a back seat to Demps and current team president Hugh Weber, and business goes by as usual, albeit with an unorthodox boss.

But there is the equally likely scenario of Demps remaining as aggressive as he has been early on, if the Hornets continuing to struggle on the court, and a chance to take a high-cost addition to the roster presenting itself. And if (when?) that happens, David Stern may have to cope with more than just a seemingly impossible sell, the very real chance of the Hornets moving again, or the possibility of terminating the lease with the state of Louisiana if attendance stays down. He may be thrust in the position where he has to flip a coin, and hope it lands on both sides. Which kind of contradicts everything ever.

Noam Schiller

Noam Schiller lives in Jerusalem, where he sifts through League Pass Broadband delay and insomnia in a misguided effort to watch as much basketball as possible. He usually fails miserably, but is entertained nonetheless. He prefers passing big men to rebounding guards but sees no reason why he should have to compromise on any of them.