By the time the National Basketball Association trading deadline arrived February 21 all nine contenders in the Western Conference had made a deal to improve their championship chances.
This is unprecedented in NBA history, and it widens the gap between the haves and have nots, not the healthiest position for pro basketball to be in.
There’s no greater example than in Los Angeles where the Lakers are the talk of the town following their acquisition of Pau Gasol and the Clippers barely exist, out of the race and left to finish the season without fanfare.
The Lakers elevated themselves into the group of top Western teams by acquiring Gasol, a 27-year-old all-star, while giving up very little. To keep up, the Phoenix Suns traded for Shaquille O’Neal, Jason Kidd went to Dallas, Kurt Thomas and Damon Stoudamire to San Antonio, Mike James and Bonzi Wells to Memphis, Chris Webber to Golden State, Bobby Jackson to Houston, and Kyle Korver to Utah.
In almost all the cases the idea was to add a significant part to an already talented team. In some cases, it was to match up specifically for a possible playoff series, such as Phoenix now having O’Neal and Amare Stoudemire to confront Andrew Bynum and Gasol.
Although no deal materialized between the Suns and Clippers, Phoenix inquired about Quintin Ross, a fine defensive player. Their idea was to have him guard Kidd or Kobe Bryant in the playoffs.
Even the Cleveland Cavaliers got into the spirit of things. In order to boost their chances of representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals for a second consecutive year the Cavaliers brought help to LeBron James by adding Ben Wallace’s rebounding and defense, Wally Szczberiak’s marksmanship, and Delonte West’s ball-handling. Now they’ll contend stronger against Boston and Detroit.
The reason lowly teams make one-sided deals is to acquire expiring contracts. For instance, Memphis got underachieving Kwame Brown from the Lakers for Gasol and didn’t want Lamar Odom, a far better player. That’s because Brown’s $8 million will come off their books after the season. By contrast, Odom has two $13 million years left on his contract.
Bad teams then want to use the money to sign free agents in the interest of rebuilding. The trouble with the reasoning is that there are usually more teams in that position than star free agents, so some teams will continue to flounder.
With key players joining teams more than halfway through the season there are more questions than answers.
The Lakers have functioned superbly since Gasol arrived, but they’ll require another adjustment when Bynum returns from a two-month absence caused by a knee injury. Will a frontline of three 7-footers (Bynum, Gasol, and Lamar Odom) work out, or if a smaller forward is required who will be taken out at crucial times? And how will the guy who goes to the bench handle that?
Kidd is an all-time great point guard, but the Mavericks gave up a lot to get him. Devin Harris is a guard 10 years younger. DeSagana Diop was a backup center who gave them muscle on the many nights when Erick Dampier was struggling. And the Mavericks also gave up first round draft choices.
Of all the trades, the Mavericks gave up the most.
San Antonio, the defending champion, didn’t need much more help. But it acquired Stoudamire to provide insurance if Tony Parker is injured again. And it now has Thomas, who’ll help in the rough playoff games.
I’ve been asked by radio interviewers and fans what I think of all the trades. My answer is that all nine teams now have reason to be optimistic, and the remaining games between any of them will be decisive. In other words, don’t get excited when the Lakers rout Atlanta or beat teams like Minnesota, Memphis, the Clippers, and even New Jersey and Washington. But pay close attention when they play somebody good.
Their 130-124 victory at Phoenix on February 20 was a superb example of what may be possible. There will be more tests soon – a home game against Dallas March 2 and a trip March 14-20 to New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, and Utah.
The four Western teams who survive the first playoff round will then have to win two seven-game series against the most formidable opposition. And whoever survives that will play a tough Eastern team in the Finals.
The only certainty is that this season’s champion won’t be a fluke. It will be a team that’s been tested to the utmost.