A year ago theMinnesota Timberwolves were 19--21 and hoping to surge into the playoffs whenthey sent forward Wally Szczerbiak to Boston as part of a seven-player,three-draft-pick deal in which they received swingman Ricky Davis, center MarkBlount and guard Marcus Banks. But their newcomers had a hard time fitting in,and Minnesota went 14--28 thereafter, missing the postseason for a secondstraight year, which brought ever more criticism upon vice president ofbasketball operations Kevin McHale. ¬∂ That trade illustrates the risk in makinga big move in the middle of a season: A deal that was supposed to make theTimberwolves better actually made them worse. But at least give McHale creditfor sticking his neck out, which is more than a few of his rivals are willingto do. "One thing I've learned in this job--and I never mention names--isthat there are some [general managers] who don't run trade opportunities bytheir owners," says Celtics executive director of basketball operationsDanny Ainge, a former teammate of McHale's and his trade partner last season."I won't say it's the majority, but there are some who feel it's safer tonot make anything happen."
Another G.M., whoasked for anonymity, refers to those timid colleagues as "401(k) guys,because their main ambition is to keep their job and drive up their401(k)." He adds, "In another week or so they're going to start callingeverybody in the league, and rumors of those calls will leak out to show theirmarket how busy they are, exploring every possibility--and then they'll go backto their owner and say, 'We couldn't make the trade,' because of the salary capor whatever excuse they can come up with. And at the end of the day they werenever planning to do a freaking thing."
Indeed, as theFeb. 22 trade deadline approaches, the marketplace is unusually quiet. It'spossible that the biggest name to switch teams this season was moved back inDecember, when the Denver Nuggets acquired guard Allen Iverson. McHale has madeit clear that forward Kevin Garnett, the subject of abundant trade speculationlast summer, is not on the block and will not be going anywhere--barring anunexpected demand by KG for an immediate ticket out of Minnesota.
That leaves moreaggressive executives, such as the Colangelos (Jerry in Phoenix, Bryan inToronto), the Houston Rockets' Carroll Dawson and the Detroit Pistons' JoeDumars, searching for willing partners.
What's behind thislack of activity is a leaguewide parity approaching that of the NFL's, causedmainly by two things: the absence of franchise cornerstones due to suspension(Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony) or injury (Memphis Grizzlies forward PauGasol, New Jersey Nets forward Richard Jefferson, Nets center Nenad Krstic,Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, Miami Heat center Shaquille O'Neal, NewOrleans Hornets guard Chris Paul, Celtics guard Paul Pierce and Milwaukee Bucksguard Michael Redd), as well as the financial discipline imposed by the luxurytax, which has forced all but a few teams to spend virtually the same amount ofmoney on players.
Only twoclubs--the Phoenix Suns (36--8 through Sunday) and the Dallas Mavericks(36--9)--have played at a championship level this season. Next comes anunsightly middle class of 19 teams that stretches from the San Antonio Spurs(32--14) and the Eastern Conference--leading Washington Wizards (26--17) downto the sub-.500 Golden State Warriors (21--23) and the Bucks (18--26), who bothstill dream of making a dent in the postseason.
"EVERY team inthe league is a sprained ankle away from being in the middle of the pack,"Mavericks owner Mark Cuban writes in an e-mail. "The only lack of parity isbetween conferences."
Furtherperpetuating this stalemate is the ugly fact that the worst teams--at week'send Memphis, Boston and Philadelphia ranked one-two-three in fewest wins--havefurther incentive to remain lousy: the hope of landing Greg Oden of Ohio State,Kevin Durant of Texas or another future star in the June draft, which isexpected to be the deepest in years. "We are getting to the point whereteams will 'invest' in their younger players by giving them lots of time,"Cuban notes with suspicion, "which also gives them an opportunity toimprove their draft odds."
So who could beavailable in the three weeks before the deadline? The most prominent name isGasol, who recently met with Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley and asked to bedealt. The 7-foot Spaniard, the 2002 Rookie of the Year and an '06 All-Star,has been mentioned as a target of the Chicago Bulls, who need a low-post scorerto complement defensive-oriented center Ben Wallace. The Los Angeles Clippershave been actively shopping explosive swingman Corey Maggette but areunderwhelmed by the offers they've received. The once-regal Sacramento Kingswill consider offers for any of their mismatched Big Three of guard Mike Bibby,forward Ron Artest or center Brad Miller. The Portland Trail Blazers have beenoffering little-used center Jamaal Magloire and his expiring $8.4 millioncontract, though the team may find it difficult to get a first-round pick forhim. Would the Orlando Magic be willing to part with forward Grant Hill and hisexpiring contract ($16.9 million) if the return was, say, Nets swingman VinceCarter, a Daytona Beach native who keeps an off-season home near Orlando?
Some trades willbe made; a total of 28 were consummated in February over the past threeseasons. But will any of this year's deals help clear up the muddled playoffpicture?
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"Some general managers don't run tradeopportunities by their owners," says Ainge. "I won't say it's themajority, but some feel it's safer to NOT MAKE ANYTHING HAPPEN."
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (3); BILL FRAKES (HILL); GREG NELSON (ARTEST)
• Grant Hill
• Ron Artest
• Corey Maggette
• Kevin Garnett