Rush for Christmas start leaves NBA in disarray

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The lockout ended, and the NBA’s woes were just beginning. Dwight Howard asked to be traded. Chris Paul was dealt to the Lakers, it seemed, until the league decided he wasn’t. So the Lakers made another trade, which Kobe Bryant hated.

“Nobody’s happy,” Spurs forward Tim Duncan said.

He was referring to feelings about terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, which in some ways are so similar to the old ones that it’s fair to wonder exactly what was the point of the five-month lockout.

But he might as well have been talking about the superstars who want new homes, the critics blistering Commissioner David Stern for forcing one to stay put, or team officials charged with having clubs ready to play by Christmas under bizarre circumstances.

“It’s just too bad, it really is. It’s not reflective right now of the great product we had, you know?” former coach and ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. “It’s one thing to have a summer and fall of strife due to labor negotiations. It’s another to be seen as an organization that’s in disarray once you settle that.”

Van Gundy blames money, the natural place to start. Owners will save plenty by getting players to agree to a 12 percent reduction in salary costs in the new deal. But in doing so in time to salvage a substantial season, they conceded on many issues that were necessary to create the competitive balance they said they craved.

So Paul and Howard are trying to force their way from small markets to big, just as Carmelo Anthony did last year, and there’s no guaranteed mechanism to stop them.

But at least everyone was home for Halloween.

“Just like the regular fan out there, just like you guys, you do wonder why stuff happened. You look at it and say, ‘Why did the lockout happen?'” Miami guard Dwyane Wade said. “I don’t see it helping right now. Maybe in a few years we’ll all look back and see why this lockout happened. But right now it’s not showing its face at all. … The competitive balance thing was a pie-in-the-sky. We knew that was impossible, in a sense, especially when you’ve got players willing to take less money to be happy.”

That’s what Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh did so they could team up last summer. Owners could have attempted to block future superteam building with a hard salary cap or franchise tag designations that exist in the NFL, but the players fought those changes in an effort to keep a system that looked like the old one, giving teams the ability to exceed the cap by quite a bit if they were willing to pay a luxury tax.

The tentative deal on the main issues wasn’t reached until Nov. 26, and Stern said the regular season would begin on Christmas if the deal was ratified in time. But it meant free agency opened the same day as training camps, forcing some teams to report with barely enough players for a starting five while their transactions awaited approval by the league office.

“It’s an arbitrary date to have to start on Christmas. There’s no magical starting time. Just push it back. Let them have a normal free-agent period of a week, 10 days, then have two to three weeks of training camp with a few exhibition games. Let them do what they should do and then start whenever that date is,” Van Gundy said. “Skip steps, I don’t see how that’s helpful, other than it’s helpful to the pocketbook. I think sometimes we sacrifice too many times the product for the pocketbook.”

Van Gundy recalled something he once heard from Daryl Morey, the Rockets’ general manager who thought he was getting Pau Gasol from the Lakers in the killed three-team trade.

“He said every organization needs a vice president of common sense, and right now that’s exactly what the NBA needs. A vice president of common sense who looks at some of these decisions and says, ‘You know what, we’re better than this. We’re all making a ton of money anyway. If it’s a little less than a ton, that’s OK. But let’s make sure when we come back, we got the right product,'” Van Gundy said. “I mean, the lockout didn’t even help these teams. It wasn’t anything about competitive balance.”

Still, fans would have forgotten about it easier with a smoother start to the season. Instead, the news and fallout from the NBA office, as current owners of the Hornets, killing the Paul trade came the same night Stern announced the new CBA had been ratified. Then came word that Howard had asked the Orlando Magic to trade him, in part because the team hadn’t acted on his personnel recommendations — though he said Monday he could be open to staying if the Magic made the right moves.

Was this really the best way for the NBA to come back?

“Yes and no,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “I think, you know, it’s certainly not the way (the Magic) wanted the NBA to come back. And I think the NBA, I can’t speak for them, but I think they would want in some ways things to be a little bit more positive than they been. But at the same time, the Chris Paul and Dwight Howard situations have created a tremendous amount of interest, to the point where I don’t even hear any mention of the lockout anymore — just those situations.

“The NBA has really gone to the top of the sports news in the last few days in the middle of an NFL season and everything else. So the NBA is probably getting more attention right now than they normally would at this point in December. So I would say there’s some positive to it for them also. There’s not a lot of positive to it for us, but for to the NBA in general I think there’s some positive to it for them.”

The NFL settled its lockout early enough that its entire schedule remained intact minus one preseason game. The NBA is giving teams only 16 days and two exhibition games from the time business reopened until the season tips off — with a whole new set of rules to learn in between.

“The NBA is shooting from the hip. We didn’t get rules on the collective bargaining — our ability to sign and trade players — we didn’t get it until the day before we opened up camp, and we had a conference call at 8 a.m. the day of camp opening explaining the rules,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said, before shaking his head.

“When you have a season that’s delayed and starts on Dec. 1, and you have a week to do your business, and then training camp starts a week later, half the guys in the NBA still aren’t signed, it’s just a very unusual circumstance. It’s unfortunate that the players have to go through it, but there’s a lot of guys out there right now. Teams are in training camp. A lot of teams went into training camp with six-seven guys on their roster. That’s never happened before. We just have to get through it. Everybody has a job to do, and our coaches are on edge. All of a sudden on a Saturday morning, there’s resolution and their season starts in 10 days. It’s just something that we’ve never dealt with before.”

Kupchak went on to trade Lamar Odom, to Bryant’s disappointment, to the Mavericks after the Hornets deal fell through. But by the time Odom took the floor in Dallas, it left only 12 days before the defending champions are scheduled to host the Heat in a finals rematch.

Stern hasn’t commented since a statement last Friday explaining his reasons for vetoing the trade, without influence from other owners. He’ll be at the game in Dallas, as well as Oklahoma City’s opener later that night.

Maybe by then things will feel back to normal.

They sure aren’t now.

“This is about as bizarre to a start of a season that I’ve seen,” new Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “Forget just that short training camp and forget it’s really hard on rookies that come in here. This trade has been done, then all the sudden it’s not done and then it is done. Then guys aren’t practicing that are completely healthy and want to practice and stuff. It’s just crazy.”

“I guess that goes to show why the league didn’t want to do this,” he added. “No one in the league, none of the players, nobody wanted to get to this point in the season. They wanted to get this all handled in September and I wish they had.”


AP Sports Writers Greg Beacham in Los Angeles, Kristie Rieken in Houston, Tim Reynolds in Miami, Kyle Hightower in Orlando, Fla., and Paul Weber in San Antonio contributed to this report.


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