The NBA’s Trade Deficit

After all the wild rumors, the trade deadline came and went and almost nobody moved.

Larry Hughes has turned in his Chicago jersey to play for the Knicks in New York.
Larry Hughes has turned in his Chicago jersey to play for the Knicks in New York.

Last year, the week leading up to the NBA trading deadline was full of fireworks. All-stars changed addresses at such a furious pace; it seemed that the NBA had suddenly become a fantasy league.

This year has seen a return to regular order; there was way more sizzle than steak. Shaq was said to be en route to join LeBron James in Cleveland. Vince Carter was heading to Houston to join Yao Ming and the Rockets. Tracy McGrady was rumored to be on his way out of Houston, until a season-ending knee injury put an end to any travel plans. There were several other juicy tidbits floating around the rumor-sphere: The one deal that sent quivers up the spines of most basketball fans, Tyson Chandler from New Orleans to Oklahoma City, was undone when he failed the physical. In the end, no superstars changed teams. No team reshaped the structure of their conference (as the Los Angeles Lakers did last year with the acquisition of Pau Gasol).

The only move made this week that could seriously impact the late stages of the playoffs was trade of point guard Rafer Alston to the Orlando Magic. About a month ago, Orlando had climbed into the group of elite teams that figure to be playing ball around Memorial Day and later. Then point guard Jameer Nelson injured his shoulder, and Orlando has struggled since then. Alston is a good stopgap, but his arrival in Orlando says more about the lack of options on the trade market than it does about anything else.

The week began promisingly as Miami and Toronto undid earlier trades that seemed to benefit them on paper. Miami acquired center Jermaine O’Neal and forward Jamario Moon from Toronto in exchange for forward Shawn Marion and guard Marcus Banks. When O’Neal arrived in Toronto last summer, the Raptors looked like a team ready to move up a notch. It didn’t work out that way. Marion, who was acquired by the Heat in exchange for Shaq last February, seemed like a good fit for Miami, but that didn’t work out either. For Toronto, it’s a chance to rebuild faster as Marion’s contract expires this summer, whereas Jermaine O’Neal’s pact runs through 2010. If O’Neal can stay healthy (a big if, since he has started 60 percent of his team’s games only once in the last five years), then Miami is in a position to make the second round of the playoffs.

Much of the remaining activity centered on the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls, two teams still in the midst of makeovers. It’s a stretch to say that either team is a strong contender for the final playoff spot in the Eastern conference, but both teams look like they want to make a run for it. The Bulls addressed a roster imbalance that featured far too many perimeter players. They traded guard Larry Hughes to the Knicks for forward Tim Thomas. Chicago also moved two undersized power forwards, Andres Nocioni and Drew Gooden for Sacramento center Brad Miller and swingman John Salmons. The moves balance the Bulls’ roster, and their new rotation positions them for a run. The Knicks’ moves are harder to figure. The players they traded, Thomas, center Jerome James and forward Malik Rose, were not in their rotation; but the players they took back, Hughes and forward Chris Wilcox, aren’t likely to make them that much better.

Several teams made moves that figure to help them with the luxury tax, the dollar for dollar penalty levied on teams that are over the league’s salary cap. This isn’t news, but some of the teams making the moves were a surprise. Small-market teams such as the Minnesota Timberwolves and Memphis Grizzlies trimmed their payroll, and the L.A. Lakers and the Boston Celtics did, too. If teams that are perennially in the black are cutting costs, then what does that say about the financial health of the other 28 teams?

The trade deadline isn’t the end of player movement. Several players who were not traded, figure to be bought out of their contracts, making them late-season free agents. With a crowded field in the top tier of the league, there figures to be a bidding war for players such as center Mikki Moore and forward Joe Smith. Boston, Orlando, Cleveland and Los Angeles could all use more depth in the paint, and all still have some money—the mid-level exception—to throw at a free agent.

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.