It has become something of a cliché to say that the NBA is a “superstar league.” More than for any other professional league, success in the NBA depends almost entirely upon the quality of your top two or three players. Notable exceptions to this rule exist, like the 2004 Pistons, but it has typically been necessary to have an elite player in order to contend for a title. This means that in any given year, there are usually only a handful of teams with a legitimate shot at a championship, while the rest of the NBA wanders around in mediocrity waiting for a stroke of luck.
This is why progress in the NBA is often not progress at all. Take a team like the Atlanta Hawks: three years ago—following the team’s surprising fight against the eventual champion Boston Celtics—the experts were touting them as an up-and-coming team that would contend for the Eastern Conference championship for years to come. This vision of the future has not come to pass. Their role players slipped a bit, and their best players like Joe Johnson and Josh Smith failed to up their games enough to turn the Hawks from a solid but unspectacular team into an actual contender. Now they are mired in the dreaded doldrums of NBA good-but-not-greatness: Because they lack any one elite player, they do not have realistic championship aspirations. But because they are not terrible, they also will probably lack an opportunity to acquire a top talent in the draft to give them a real chance. Free agency also offers little hope; it is rare for teams to have the requisite cap space to sign elite free agents, and (recent history aside) it is even rarer for the best players to actually test the market. When they do, they almost always stay, since the hometown team can offer more money.
This leaves trading as the only real avenue for rapidly changing a team’s outlook. But it is not only the trade for someone to put you over the top that can help a team’s ultimate championship prospects, as the Heat did in 2005 when they acquired Shaq, or the Lakers in 2008 when they traded for Pau Gasol. Equally as important are the trades where a middling team in a certain sense fleeces itself out of talent, in order to become as bad as possible. This was the strategy of Danny Ainge for the first several years of his tenure. The Celtics were a decent team when he took over, having made the playoffs for several years with only an Eastern Conference finals appearance in 2002 to show for it, and that was only because the East was terrible that year. Through a series of trades that were in isolation absolutely miserable (trading for an alcoholic Vin Baker, trading for Wally Szczerbiak, trading Antoine Walker for nothing when he was still decent), Ainge was able to exert a rapid downward pressure on the Celtics’ talent while maintaining the one piece that had any real title value in Paul Pierce. Eventually the strategy paid off, with all those draft picks resulting in the arrivals of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett and a basketball renaissance in Boston.
The moral of the story is that NBA trades must be evaluated in terms of each team’s own situation more than one might do for trades in other sports. The relative qualities of the players being exchanged are often almost entirely irrelevant. The possibility that a trade may be a good deal talent-wise while ultimately being useless came to pass for a number of teams this trading deadline.
The trade garnering the most ink was certainly the deal in which Denver sent Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the Knicks for Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, and some other pieces. This trade probably made the Knicks a worse basketball team in the present. Before the deal they were average, perhaps a little better than average, and Chandler and Gallinari are good players. But all the players the Knicks surrendered were ultimately replaceable; a player with the ability to create offense like Carmelo Anthony is rare, and one would be hard-pressed to find a trade involving a premier scorer in his prime where the team giving up the elite talent was considered the winner. Having said this, it was also a good deal for the Nuggets, who were handicapped by the fact that Carmelo was probably going to leave in the summer anyway. In Gallinari and Chandler they acquired good players, but most important, their youth and the accompanying reasonable contracts make their trade value to talent ratio as high as possible.
The Anthony trade may have earned the largest headlines, but the best trade at the deadline was definitely the one that sent Deron Williams to the Nets for Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, and some draft picks. In Williams, the Nets acquired arguably the best point guard in the NBA (at least until Chris Paul regains his aggressiveness) while surrendering less value than the Knicks did for a lesser player than Carmelo Anthony. Never mind that the Nets will still be terrible in the foreseeable future; Brook Lopez and Deron Williams are a superior foundation to Lopez and Devin Harris. For the Jazz, the trade capped a terrible month. Jerry Sloan, who had coached the Jazz longer than this writer has been alive, retired, and his retirement was attributed by some to the friction developing between him and Williams. Harris is a couple leagues below Deron Williams as a point guard, and Derrick Favors has done nothing to justify his selection as a top pick in the 2010 draft. Sometimes making the team worse is necessary, and the Jazz were not serious contenders, but to lose the best player at his position in his prime is certainly a price too steep to pay for escaping mediocrity.
The final trade I will talk about was one I have difficulty discussing in public—such is the emotional damage involved. The Boston Celtics traded teddy bear Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder in exchange for Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green. Perkins was a great and beautiful man, a man in every sense of the word, a man of depth and diplomacy, a man who always left the proverbial seat up. Perkins was the only player to have been with the Celtics continuously since they were a terrible basketball team, and Boston fans saw him develop as slowly as he elevates, at a rate approximating the run of molasses or slightly moist cement. Yet develop he did, from a large but lanky man-child with no discernible basketball skills other than a deeply horrifying scowl into a scrappy, hard-nosed, spit-and-sweat-on-your-face, blocking-shots-and-throwing-elbows monster who still could not hit a hook shot for his life.
There were several other trades, but they were mostly inconsequential and probably did not turn the teams involved into sudden contenders. Let us close with the good word from Ray Allen:
“People always ask me why he’s so mad. Is he that mean? He always has a scowl on his face. I say, no. Perkins, he’s a teddy bear. He’s just out there intimidating, blocking shots, that’s all.”
Goodnight, sweet princess.