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How's That Competitive Balance Thing Working Out, Silver?

NBA basketball has just suffered through a five month lockout. Twenty percent of the games will not be played, and the season will be fully eight weeks late when it finally tips off. That is assuming of course that the new collective bargaining agreement actually gets written and ratified by both parties by next week.

Among the highest priorities for the owners were competitive balance in the league, and helping small market teams succeed financially and competitively. Oh yeah, and money was something of a priority as well. And here we are, in the first week after the announcement of the deal, and all anyone is talking about is how Chris Paul will force his way out of New Orleans and Dwight Howard will force his way out of Orlando. Oh, and so far they're not demanding to go to smaller markets.

The owners got their money - but it was always clear that they were wasting their time talking about how they were going to improve competitive balance. If LeBron James to Miami and Carmelo Anthony to New York were their nightmare scenarios, well those situations will look comparatively pleasant compared to what's about to happen in New Orleans and Orlando. As for what else the NBA has done for small market teams, well for some reason revenue sharing is one thing that they've failed to release any details about. Which as far as we can tell, leaves small markets more or less exactly where they were, at least in relation to their large market brethren.

As Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated put it, "You cannot legislate market appeal out of the NBA - or friendships, or free will, or smart cap management, or beaches or whatever else." Chris Paul has the leverage in New Orleans, because he's the one that dribbles the basketball, not Dell Demps. No amount of tweaking to the CBA was going to be able to stave off this situation. Some of the new rules may make it a little less lucrative for Paul to leave the Hornets - but James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all took less money to play together in Miami last summer, so we already knew that slight reductions in 8 or 9 figure contacts weren't particularly effective deterrents. And it's clear that a harder cap wouldn't have kept Paul out of New York - the Knicks should have the cap space to sign him in the summer, which is exactly the scenario they want. Nothing the league could have done - nothing legal, that is, in a post-Andy-Messersmith world - had much hope of altering this situation significantly.

Of course this is all of particular interest to the Clippers right now. They happen to be in one of those big markets where players (particularly stars who can make a lot of money in media exposure) like to live. And unlike in years past, they happen to be in a position to be competitive. So Paul or Howard or Deron Williams could conceivably wind up in LA playing for the Clippers - they've got the market, they've got the trade assets, they've got the money, and they've got the team.

Which I guess is a minor victory for competitive balance - but still a big loss for small markets. There is simply no way that market size will ever not matter - not in the foreseeable future anyway. But a bad team can get good with some good decisions and some luck in the draft. Let's be clear - these All-NBA players are expressing some interest in the Clippers in part because the Clippers currently have a bright future. And that future could be bright with or without a major trade. Those assets that the Clippers have that might make a deal possible? Those asset put the Clippers in the driver's seat for any trade scenario for one simple reason - they're really valuable. And they'd be valuable if the Clippers held onto them as well.

Minnesota's unprotected draft pick in 2012 will almost certainly be in the lottery, and will likely be very high. Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu are still brimming with potential at 21. DeAndre Jordan is emerging as a defensive force at 23. Eric Gordon is arguably the best shooting guard under 30 in the league - and he's only 22. If some of these assets are packaged into a trade for an All Pro in his prime, it will be because the team on the receiving end thinks they can be significant players as well. And if no trade happens, they could still emerge for the Clippers. It's not just the market - the Clippers have drafted well in recent years - and of course they got lucky in winning the Blake Griffin lottery.

At this point Paul has told the Hornets that he won't sign an extension in New Orleans and that he wants a trade to New York. Williams has likewise told the Nets that he'll be a free agent at year's end. The situation with Howard is so dire that the rumor now is that Orlando is trying to trade him before the start of the season.

Paul's situation is the most advanced, but could be repeated with the others more or less. If indeed he has specified a one and only one destination - New York - he has put the Hornets in a terrible position. The Knicks have nothing of value to offer the Hornets in trade - unless they want to send Amare Stoudemire or Carmelo Anthony, which would sort of defeat the purpose of the super team concept. New York cleared out their entire cupboard to acquire Anthony last year - they don't even have a tradeable first round draft pick until 2018.

Paul can scare off any other would be trade partners by saying that he will refuse to sign an extension with them, turning any trade into a rental measured in months. That's exactly what happened with Anthony last year. But in Denver's case, New York was eventually able to put together a legitimate offer - a fantastic offer when compared to what they could scrape together at this point for Paul. But even if the trade offer is a joke in terms of Paul's actual value, would the Hornets be forced to take it if it were there only option?

Ironically, in a manifestation of my dear old favorite "Law of unintended consequences" the new CBA rules limiting the length of extend and trade deals and free agents contracts with other teams might actually end up costing Paul nothing. As Lowe points out, if Paul assures the Knicks that he will sign a new deal with them, but does not actually sign an extension, he could take his Bird rights to New York with him in a trade - at which point he'd be eligible to sign just as rich a contract in New York as he could in New Orleans.

Or the Clippers might emerge as the viable alternative in this mess. This would only be predicated on Paul being amenable to playing for the team of course. If New Orleans decides that they must trade Paul before they lose him outright (likely), it's a given that the Clippers can make a better offer than can New York. If no other realistic trade destinations emerge, then it seems likely that Paul will be a Clipper - BUT only if he indicates a willingness to do so.

How long will this all drag on? Who knows? Bear in mind that most pundits thought that Anthony would be traded before training camps opened last year, but in fact he remained in Denver until February. Paul's situation could go on all season - New York has so little to offer that New Orleans could decide to keep him and take their chances next summer. As the season kicks off and moves on, the situation will begin to move. If New Orleans is bad, Paul might feel a greater urgency to leave and relax his destination requirements. If the Clippers play well, they might become a more attractive destination (or conversely, if they play poorly they would become less attractive). If Minnesota loses ten straight to start the season, the draft pick gets more valuable - if they lose, it gets less so.

We're about two days into something that could go on for eight months. And somehow, the CBA didn't magically make everything all better. Go figure.