- - Tuesday, December 13, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There aren’t many opportunities to make fun of guys such as Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, whose estimated net worth of $1.5 billion makes him the 293rd richest American according to Forbes. Even when he acts like a horse’s you-know-what — which has been the case since “The Decision” — those coffers give him a great comeback line.

However, it was comical to watch him moan and cry last year after LeBron James bolted to South Beach. Gilbert added new material to his clown act last week as he lamented the deal that would have sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I just don’t see how we can allow this trade to happen,” Gilbert wrote in an email to NBA officials and owners that was obtained by Yahoo Sports. “When will we just change the name of 25 of the 30 teams to the Washington Generals?”

He didn’t mention which five teams portray the Harlem Globetrotters, but I’m guessing it’s the Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, Heat and Bulls.

(Judging by recent manipulations regarding Paul’s inevitable departure from New Orleans, Lakers/Clippers might be a coupled entry. Maybe Knicks/Nets, too, especially if Deron Williams re-signs and/or Dwight Howard winds up in Brooklyn).

If owners in markets such as Cleveland, New Orleans and Memphis are jealous of their peers in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, it’s perfectly understandable. Say what you will about life in the big city, but size usually matters when it comes to maximizing your profile and profits.

Karl Malone and Tim Duncan did well in Salt Lake City and San Antonio, respectively, and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant has managed to be large and in charge on the NBA landscape. But many, maybe most, superstars will find bright lights more attractive than quiet streets. Some, including James and Chris Bosh, will even take less money to play somewhere they deem more desirable.

No team could have paid James more than the Cavaliers. The difference in potential salary is even greater under the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, meant to persuade players such as Paul and Howard to remain with the franchises that drafted them.

But as much as it burns small-market owners, players still have leverage. If the Hornets and Magic don’t grant their superstars’ wishes, those teams get nothing in return when the players depart via free agency.

That’s just one reason commissioner David Stern’s handling of Paul has been so boneheaded.

Both the Lakers deal that was nixed, and a potential Clippers deal that’s been on-and-off and on again, offered New Orleans valuable assets. Whether Stern opted for more established players and a low draft pick, or younger players and potentially the No. 1 pick, he had fine options to choose from.

Never mind that he shouldn’t be calling the shots, anyway. Local management was said to have full authority and autonomy after the league bought the Hornets last year. But in voiding the Lakers‘ deal, Stern essentially punked New Orleans GM Dell Demps and paved the way for chaos and confusion surrounding the Hornets.

Demps still has his office and title, but teams know he doesn’t have the final say. Stern made the league look bad on two fronts, shooting down a legitimate basketball decision and treating a good man like dirt.

The NBA is looking for a buyer and understands that Paul makes the franchise more valuable, but it can’t fool prospective owners into thinking the All-Star point guard is part of the future. Yet, Stern has turned down valid offers for Paul because they are not lopsided enough.

He seems to neglect an important fact: Not every team with the right players and picks for an attractive offer will make a bid. Even if, say, Oklahoma City was willing to make Russell Westbrook and James Harden the centerpiece of a package, the Thunder would be crazy to do so unless Paul intends to sign a long-term deal.

The same is true for Howard, who reportedly only will sign long-term with the Nets, Lakers or Mavericks if he doesn’t stay in Orlando.

Not surprisingly, there are few (any?) transcendent players clamoring to play for Gilbert in Cleveland, or the Maloof brothers in Sacramento or Sen. Herb Kohl in Milwaukee. But those owners still can find enough players to fill rosters, because there’s only so much room on the Globetrotters.

If Gilbert and his small-market brethren don’t like being little fish, making do with leftover, free agent scraps, they should sell their franchises to folks who don’t mind and won’t whine.

After all, the Generals make money, too.