Is NBA Trade Insanity Reaching MLB-Like Levels Good for Either Sport?
by Mark T.R. Donohue
Whether you mostly ignore the NBA completely, watch a couple games a year, or tape and view two or three games off of the Season Pass digital cable package every night like I do, it's hard not to notice that things have gotten kind of wacky lately. We're used to seeing major trades at midseason in baseball, where the lack of a salary cap and rules that allow teams to include large chunks of "financial considerations" in deals grease the wheels, but the NBA has far less of a history of major players changing teams in the middle of a year. What's more, since the league's complex and rigid payroll cap went into effect, most trades have been the sort where all involved parties are more excited about the players they've managed to get rid of than the pieces they are adding.
Why has this changed all at once? In the offseason Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen went from the Timberwolves and Sonics respectively to Boston, in both cases for rather threadbare packages of talent. An exciting first half to the regular season put teams on notice, particularly in the Western Conference, that not only would taking it easy for the last few weeks of the regular schedule mean missing the playoffs, but also that each and every round of the playoffs was going to be hotly contested and probably lengthy. With competition in the league at an all-time high, it's not surprising that a ton of teams wanted to go out and add some difference-making players for this year's stretch run. But what is weird is that there seem to be more than enough superstar players to go around for the teams that consider themselves in the hunt, and the also-rans who are selling off their assets are highly motivated to get deals done. Phoenix adding Shaquille O'Neal is the big story, but the least surprising trade; Shaq is old and rickety and comes with a sobering price tag. The guy the Suns dealt to get him, Shawn Marion, wanted to leave badly since he felt ill-served by a third-fiddle role. Deals like that, with yellow or red flags on players on both sides, happen in the NBA all the time.
The weird ones are the Lakers' deal for Pau Gasol, which cost them so little that other teams are making noise about an inquiry, and now Dallas's deal for Jason Kidd. Marion may leave Miami after his contract expires next year, but he's an All-Star player. In the trades giving up Gasol and Kidd, Memphis and New Jersey didn't get any such benefits. Devin Harris is a nice player but his status as an undersized two means (as Dallas discovered this season) he's never going to be a starter in the league. Jerry Stackhouse is a typical star-on-a-bad-team, sixth-man-on-a-good-team player who's past his prime. As for the Gasol trade... well, that was just brutal, with Memphis getting a marginal prospect in Jarvaris Crittenden and Kwame Brown, who has been a dead contract walking for about four seasons now. Add in Minnesota getting nothing more exciting than the slow-developing Al Jefferson in the Garnett trade and small-market NBA fans ought to be a lot more angry than they seem to be right now.
It's a weird thing. Basketball has the salary cap that some claim baseball needs, but in practice the two leagues don't operate any differently when it comes to acquiring and keeping talent. The NBA has its teams that are willing to operate over the salary cap (paying luxury tax dollars -- Dallas, the Lakers, the Celtics, and the Knicks all do), and those that aren't, and while the trade rules make the process a little less blatantly self-evident than it is over in MLB, dollars and talent still end up flowing to the big-city teams. As a matter of fact, the salary cap has only made the situation worse, because for small-market teams a cap is actually inflationary -- it's pretty hard to stay way under it unless you never re-sign any of your draft picks or sign any free agents, which is not exactly a plan for winning playoff games and selling tickets. So teams like Memphis and Minnesota can get wedged against the cap mostly by one player's contract and have no practical options whatsoever for improving without going into luxury tax territory. If you're the Knicks, you can keep dealing and going deeper into debt (and getting worse), continuing to spend a lot of money to be bad the way the Orioles do in the AL East. But if you're the Grizzlies or the T-Wolves, going into tax territory isn't an option. The other teams know this, and they have you over a barrel when it comes time to talk trade. Minnesota tried to get something worthwhile for Garnett for the better part of three seasons; when they finally realized offers weren't going to get any better, they blinked and got rid of him just to be able to say that they did so. (There's been a lot of this going on in the Twin Cities lately.)
My larger point is, I suppose, be careful what you wish for. While it's a travesty that there are some major league teams (I'm looking at Pittsburgh and Florida right here) that aren't even trying to field competitive rosters while cashing eight-figure revenue-sharing checks, it's also unjust that there are teams in the NBA who are forced to spend more money than they have to just to be dreadful. And these wealth-redistribution schemes seldom work out as planned. Not a bad thing to keep in mind during an election year.