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Stern's last stand -- the most powerful commissioner is flexing his muscles one final time

David Stern will soon step down as the NBA commissioner, the last NBA Final of his tenure ends tonight -- and he has decided to step certain stage one last time in vetoing the agreements between the Clippers and Celtics.

What does Stern have against Chris Paul?
What does Stern have against Chris Paul?
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

I have never liked David Stern. He's an imperious, self-important, condescending man who has almost unlimited power within his NBA realm which he wields indiscriminately. And he likes it far too much. He then has the audacity to act as if he's upholding the law and to belittle anyone who would question his actions.

The Clippers-Celtics saga is not yet over, and I happen to be of the opinion that eventually the deal will get done. Both parties want it to happen, and so far as anyone can tell, the only entity that objects in any way is the league. If they can clearly state their objections, I assume the Clippers and Celtics will be able to structure things in a manner that will pass muster. Even now, the plan appears to be to acquire Rivers first; and let's face it, the coach piece is the complicating factor here. Although I personally would rather have Garnett and Shaw and a first round pick than Rivers and Jordan and no pick, it's still smart to isolate the most complex piece first. If the Clippers and Celtics go to the league and say, "Here, this is what we worked out over Doc Rivers', it has nothing to do with any other trade, approve it or deny it" the league will be forced to either approve it or be clear about why they won't. (Oh, that's right, it's the NBA, they don't actually have to be clear about anything, but I can hope.)

Eventually, I think this is going to get worked out. And it probably doesn't even make Stern's greatest hits CD. It doesn't really compare to the Stoudemire suspension, or the dress code, or the synthetic ball. But still, it's all very Stern.

Stern has the amazing ability to present his position as being perfectly consistent and reasonable, all the while completely ignoring multiple contradictions, even when those contradictions are self-evident.

When he handed out suspensions to Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw during the 2007 playoffs, he continually referred to the "red letter rule" of leaving the bench during an altercation and insisted he had no other choice -- while ignoring the video replay of Tim Duncan leaving the bench during a separate altercation in the same series.

When he fined Gregg Popovich and the Spurs earlier this season for not playing their top players in a regular season game against the Heat, he simply ignored the precedent that had been set when Popovich had done the exact the same thing countless times in the past and went unpunished.

And in this case he is shocked -- SHOCKED -- to discover that NBA teams sometimes skirt the rules of the NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement to complete mutually beneficial transactions. This is the same league office that in the not so distant past allowed Dallas to unretire Keith Van Horn to complete a trade and raised no objections when the Lakers unretired Aaron McKie -- who was on the coaching staff of another team at the time -- to complete a trade of their own. Talk about flouting the rules! In those cases, they even forced Van Horn and McKie to maintain the charade of reporting to their new teams -- where they were waived without ever playing a game, as everyone knew they would be.

I don't pretend to understand what goes on in Stern's head, but let's try at least to understand where this deal ran afoul of the league office. There are two applicable rules here.

First, a coach cannot be traded -- period. This makes some amount of sense of course. There's a strict salary cap that governs player transactions that does not apply to coaches or other assets. You also can't trade a player for a washing machine. It's impossible to consistently enforce the cap rules if trades involve non-applicable items -- makes sense.

Second, you can't have two separate transactions that are contingent on each other; there can be no side deals. This rule also exists to help avoid the circumvention of the salary cap. The best example is the Timberwolves-Joe Smith scandal where the Wolves signed Smith below market value, with the express understanding that they'd give him a richer contract later. That's a no-no. The Clippers-Celtics deal is an apple to the Joe Smith orange, but one understands the reasoning behind the rule.

While I understand the issues in play here, I'm far from clear on exactly how the proposed transactions ran afoul of them -- other than in the realm of perception, and let's face it, perception is difficult to codify. The irony is that had the league simply approved the deal, no one would have given any of this a second thought. Stern is clearly creating a much bigger problem for the league by making this an issue.

I haven't seen the paper work of course, but the Clippers and Celtics know the rules, and all indications are that they submitted two transactions: (1) Rivers would be released from the non-compete in his Boston contract, in consideration for which the Clippers would convey two draft picks to the Clippers and (2) Kevin Garnett would be traded to the Clippers for DeAndre Jordan. Draft picks are acceptable compensation in this scenario -- the Celtics are being asked to release their coach from a contractual obligation, and they have a right to ask for compensation in return, and that compensation can be picks or cash, or presumably washing machines -- it just can't be players under contract. The portion involving Rivers is not a trade -- it's a business transaction. In the end, there is, as far as I know, nothing the league could object to as regards procedures or the CBA in these two deals when viewed separately.

Based on his comments on various radio programs today, Stern is clearly of the opinion that this is one transaction masquerading as two. So indeed, as far as we know, the league is not objecting to anything within the individual trades, but is instead maintaining that there is an improper contingency between the two. Stern went so far as to reference all of the media coverage of the discussions during the week -- "f you think those, at this point - having been all over the media for the last week - are separate transactions ... I have a bridge that I would very much enjoy selling to you."

But in the ongoing battle between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law, this is a far cry from the Joe Smith situation. It's absurd and naive to insist that every transaction be completely devoid of relationships with every other transaction. The Celtics have to approach their team as either a rebuild OR a contender; and that decision impacts more than one player. Trading Garnett means waiving Pierce; losing Rivers means Garnett won't be back; etc. This is simple reality. How can anyone tell Danny Ainge -- "You must deal with Doc Rivers in a vacuum -- what you do with him can have no bearing on any other transactions or vice versa."

Likewise for the Clippers, Garnett and Rivers make more sense together than they do separately. Garnett has a no trade clause -- he's more likely to waive that clause and accept a trade to L.A. if he knows he'll be playing for Doc. Are there some contingencies here? Of course there are. As there are for almost every transaction in the NBA.

Or consider this: last summer's four team mega deal that brought Dwight Howard to the Lakers was not one single transaction -- it was several transactions, because it was more advantageous for the teams involved to structure it that way. All those deals only made sense taken as a whole -- yet the NBA technically approved multiple transactions in the execution of one larger agreement. Almost any complex NBA trade is, in it's final form, more than one transaction. Yes, the NBA approves the deal in it's entirety, but they constantly approve transactions that are contingent on each other.

There's one thing I find most baffling in all of this: where is the victim? David Stern is the commissioner of a league of 30 teams. Two of those teams came to him and said, we want to execute these transactions. Why would he block the transactions on a technicality (we know these two deals are really contingent on each other) -- when he could just as easily have allowed the transactions on a technicality (each of these deals works on their own, so we have to allow them even though we suspect they're related)?

In the case of Stern's veto of the Chris Paul to the Lakers trade in 2011, we have both an official victim (the NBA, as owners of the Hornets, simply didn't sign off the trade because they didn't like the return for their team) and an unofficial victim (in the form of Dan Gilbert's comic sans hissy fit). The victim was either the Hornets themselves or one or more of the 28 other teams. It makes one wonder if a team or teams has raised issues with the Clippers-Celtics deal -- otherwise, who is Stern protecting here? Is he protecting justice and dignity and the rule of law? I think not.

This is Stern's last hurrah. He's announced his retirement, the last NBA Finals of his tenure will end in a few hours -- is he perhaps clinging to the last glimmer of the spotlight, making the most of what may be his last chance to throw his still considerable weight around? Your guess is as good as mine -- I have never understood the guy, and I'm not going to miss him when he's gone.