Well, no one can call the NBA the No Balls Association anymore.
For years, NBA teams have been among the most risk averse in all of sports. Few players of any significance changed teams during the offseason, and the trade deadline usually meant a big swirl of rumors followed by a few peripheral players moving amongst teams that wouldn't make it out of the first round of the playoffs.
Starting with Denver's trade for Allen Iverson fourteen months ago, big names have been on the move. The summer brought more trades with five top tier players changing teams. But nothing could have prepared us for the last few weeks. Pau Gasol's trade from Memphis to the Los Angeles Lakers was a stroke of genius, a textbook case of a good organization taking advantage of a clueless one. And it triggered panic trades in response. — Shaquille O'Neal to Phoenix and Jason Kidd to Dallas. Both trades, taken on their own, are mystifying. Two of the NBA's best teams made themselves older, less athletic and more expensive. In addition, they narrowed their window of championship contention. Both teams readily acknowledged these risks and made the trades anyway.
Part of the answer is that both teams felt their window of contention was closing quickly. The Laker trade for Gasol changed the landscape in the West, putting Los Angeles at or near the top of the heap for the next two to three seasons. And the resulting desperation attests to the difficulty in snagging an NBA championship. In the NBA, six teams (Chicago, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, and Miami) have won the last 20 titles. During that same time frame, the NFL, which was once thought of a two tiered league, Dallas and San Francisco then everyone else, has had 13 teams take the title; and baseball which cancelled one World Series and had a four year dynasty by the Yankees have also had 13.
Meanwhile several very, very good teams like Patrick Ewing's Knicks, Dominique Wilkins's Hawks, Reggie Miller's Pacers, the Karl Malone-John Stockton Jazz, and Charles Barkley's Suns, all came up empty. Dallas and Phoenix are desperate to avoid that honor roll of also rans.
The NBA's status quo is mostly a result of the salary structure and a lack of professionalism across the board in most NBA front offices. The NBA has a salary cap, but the term is misleading. In the NFL, if payroll exceeds the salary cap, then you have to cut a player or two or whatever it takes to bring your payroll under that year's mark. In the NFL very few players have contracts that are guaranteed, so personnel movement is quick and easy. That's why some players—Jeff Garcia, for instance—seem to change teams every year.
In the NBA, it's the opposite. The "cap" is a target that can be exceeded by re-signing your own players. Also the vast majority of contracts are guaranteed. This results in nearly every team being over the salary cap, and many being over by such a margin that they pay a dollar for dollar luxury tax. This makes personnel transactions protractedly difficult. Since almost all teams are over the cap, then any trade has to be for packages of players of nearly equal salaries. That's why retired players Aaron McKie and Keith Van Horn were recruited by the teams that owned their contractual rights to be participants in Gasol and Kidd trade.
The other complicating factor inhibiting personnel movement in the NBA is sheer incompetence. Most NFL front offices are run by men who have worked in NFL scouting departments and executive suites for years. They oversee staffs to collect data and evaluate risk on prospective roster additions. A team run by a former star who "knows the game" is widely considered a joke, like the Detroit Lions. However, in the NBA, former players rule the front office, yet few of them have the acumen to make projections about how a player's game will be affected as he ages, or how to hedge a bet on a high risk player. As a result, NBA rosters are stuffed with good players making superstar money, benchwarmers making starter money, and teams have very little options when reshaping their rosters but to take big risks or no risks at all.
So will the big trades work in Phoenix and Dallas? In the Suns case, it comes down to whether they can keep Shaq on the court. He missed 23 games with injury in 2005-06, and 42 last season. Phoenix won't be the fast little team that can anymore, but they will still be formidable. The Dallas deal is harder to figure. Devin Harris, the centerpiece in the package of players traded to New Jersey for Kidd, is by most standards a better, younger, and cheaper player right now. Dallas is one of the few teams with an NFL-like staff doing player evaluation and projections (it's a Texas thing, San Antonio and Houston are the other two "geek" franchises), so perhaps they have something up their sleeve here. I can't see it.
If I were in the Dallas or Phoenix front office I wouldn't have made either of these trades, but as a fan, I'm glad the deals got done. The plot is going to be very thick for the remaining two months of the season in the Western Conference.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.