In free agency, even the most minor disagreement between a player and a team can have major repercussions for the futures of both parties. When an organization tries to convince a star that it provides the best opportunity for that player to meet his goals, either financially or otherwise, it must put its best foot forward. Not doing so can lead to failure.
With that in mind, a recent report regarding Chris Paul and Los Angeles Clippers has received a great deal of attention. According to Chris Broussard of ESPN, CP3 is angry with the team over owner Donald Sterling's recent comments regarding the decision not to bring back Vinny Del Negro as head coach:
Chris Paul is upset with the Los Angeles Clippers organization because he is being widely blamed for the firing of Vinny Del Negro as coach, according to a source close to the situation.
How much of an impact this will have on Paul's decision to re-sign with the Clippers as a free agent is not clear, but the source conceded that Paul's anger could lead him to look elsewhere.
"He's angry right now and his anger is directed toward the Clippers organization," the source said. "Chris is a man of principle and if he feels like you've gone against his principles, it will affect how he feels about you. He's very agitated that his name has been put out there as the reason for Vinny's firing. He had nothing to do with it." [...]
Del Negro was fired on May 21 after leading the Clippers to 56 wins, the most successful regular season in franchise history. That same day, Clippers owner Donald Sterling strongly implied in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that Paul and Blake Griffin were to blame for Del Negro's ouster.
Broussard is referring to a rabble-rousing column by T.J. Simers in which Sterling says that Del Negro is a good, friendly man who "unfortunately" fell victim to the fact that players have a great deal of power in the NBA. It was easy to read Sterling's comments as an attempt to shift responsibility for the decision, even though he ultimately holds hiring and firing power as owner. (The paper followed this column with an odious missive from Bill Dwyre that trots out the same tired arguments about how players have too much leverage and are prone to irrational decisions, as if Paul forced the Clippers to make this decision. I link to it for the sake of being complete — please do not read it.)
These columns paint a dubious picture of the decision not to retain Del Negro. Ever since the Clippers traded for Paul last December, there have been open questions as to whether he was the right coach to lead them to a title. While most observers consider Del Negro to be a friendly man with strong people skills, he is not known for his brilliance with X's and O's or even his ability to construct a consistent rotation that keeps everyone on the roster happy. When he was fired, it shocked and appalled no one, except maybe the columnists for the LA Times and Del Negro's immediate family.
It's hard to know why Sterling felt the need to shift responsibility to Paul and other players for this decision. Reports from both Yahoo!'s own Adrian Wojnarowksi and CBSSports.com's Ken Berger suggest that CP3 didn't argue for retaining Del Negro, but that's a very different response than actively demanding he shouldn't be brought back. As Kevin Arnovitz notes at TrueHoop, Clippers management was looking for reasons to get rid of Del Negro for quite some time, and the end of his contract afforded them an easy out. There's simply no clear media-relations rationale for not arguing for Del Negro's ouster on the merits. I suppose it's possible that Simers's questions to Sterling were phrased in an accusatory manner that caused him to react defensively. On the other hand, that suggests someone with a poor grasp of how to handle the media, not a keen interest in alienating the best point guard in the league.
A closer look at Broussard's report indicates that Paul might not even be that upset. The source uses words like "conceded" and "could" to reflect the effect on Paul's upcoming free agent decision, which presents the case as a hypothetical likely put forth in response to leading questions from Broussard. There is no indication that CP3 is on the brink of changing teams or has had his opinion of the Clippers diminished in a serious way. He's angry at Sterling because he handled an interview in the worst way possible, shifting blame when he was ultimately responsible for the decision to party ways with Del Negro. However, Paul would have to be remarkably oblivious to Sterling's history (including but not even close to limited to: not taking blame for a fire in one of his buildings until a court forced him to, showing off the "beautiful black bodies" of players in the locker room to friends, and accusations of fostering "a plantation mentality" with the Clippers) not to have already known that he might be working for a person of questionable morals and ethics.
It's a little hard to see what this news changes with regards to Paul's decision this summer. If he were already uncertain whether the Clippers' organization could develop a championship culture, then this incident might emphasize that point. However, Sterling did end up making what the vast majority of people considered to be the correct basketball decision in not bringing back Del Negro. Paul is a thoughtful person with a sense of the NBA as a business, and it's nearly impossible to imagine him accepting a trade to the Clippers 18 months ago without knowing what he was getting into with Sterling. He is right to be angry with his owner, because he was publicly blamed for a decision that the organization made as a whole. Yet, if the only revelation here is that Sterling doesn't treat his employees with complete respect, it's hard to know how this changes the basic facts of Paul's situation this summer. He had to make peace with this particular employer relationship long ago. In many ways, Sterling's foolish comments are part of the cost of being his business partner.