The Rotation is a weekly study on the NBA by one of our All-Star voices. In rotation this week is Tom Ziller
Last winter saw an NBA trade season filled with blockbusters. Miami cut Shaquille O'Neal loose for Shawn Marion. Dallas gave up its point guard of the future (Devin Harris) for a unanimous Hall-of-Famer (Jason Kidd) gunning for the finish line. The Lakers yanked All-Star Pau Gasol for an assortment of assets.
But all these deals came well before the mid-February deadline. In fact, only one major deal (a deck-chair shuffling between Chicago, Cleveland and Seattle) happened on deadline day. Any day now, the transaction wire could be bubbling.
So what should NBA head expect this year?
First, some basic rules of the new bold NBA:
* Rivals will trade with each other. Cleveland and Chicago provided one example of this last year, and Oklahoma City and Denver have hooked up on a smaller deal (Chucky Atkins for Johan Petro) this season. The stakes are so, so high in the NBA right now -- competitively and financially -- that franchises cannot forgo potentially positive deals just to avoid enriching a rival. You probably won't see Orlando, Boston and Cleveland hooking up, but don't be surprised if teams competing for the same lesser goal swap out some talent.
* The elite won't rest on laurels. Both Phoenix and L.A. were at or near the top of the conference when they made their big moves last season. And while the Lakers seem on Easy Street to the Western crown this season, parity among the league's top four teams shouldn't have any squad feeling perfectly comfortable. Teams like Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia and Miami might need boosts the most ... but don't expect the best team to sit this one out if an opportunity to improve arrives.
* No player is untradable.
If Shaq taught us anything last year, it's that no player is untradable these days. Cap space has become an overwhelming factor in today's NBA, which means some good-to-great players could get moved with only cap space in mind. (Think Mike Bibby last year, or Marcus Camby.) A franchise looking to clear up space can attach a so-called untradable contract to a quality player and take back 2009 or 2010 expirings and still come out a winner. Whether it's Brad Miller + Kenny Thomas, or Marion + Marcus Banks, or Mike Conley + Marko Jaric -- every player is movable in the right deal.
With all that said, here are some situations that bear watching in the weeks ahead:
* Free agents of 2008 could get a quick hook. Since mid-December when summertime free agents could first be traded under league rules, pundits have suggested that those newly worn contracts could be on the move, especially considering most of the signings haven't worked out. But that's a bit of a lark -- NBA decision-makers are often slow to admit mistakes; it could take years for Ed Stefanski to give up on Elton Brand, not months. But there are two players who might find themselves on the market: Baron Davis and Luol Deng.
To say Davis hasn't fit in with the Clips is a tremendous understatement. He's been an out-and-out disaster. But despite that, his contract is rather small for a potential All-Star; I don't want to be the mark paying him at age 33, but in the interim -- on the right team -- he's a fair value. L.A.'s getting little from him, but someone else could definitely make that contract look smart.
As a base-year compensation player, he could be difficult to move without help from Memphis (the only team under the cap). But providing someone offers a nice asset or two (including a wing shooter and/or a post scorer), Chicago should be willing to listen.
* Will Detroit and Utah be proactive? Joe Dumars could very well let this abortive season peter out and laugh all the way to the free agency market this summer to restock his cupboard. But is that Dumars' style? The Chauncey Billups-Allen Iverson trade made you believe the team would be forfeiting true contendership this season. But then something weird happened: Dumars gave Rip Hamilton an extension (killing some of the cap space) and resigned a cut-by-Denver Antonio McDyess. Those aren't the moves of someone kicking the can down the road.
Iverson obviously hasn't worked out, as smallball in Detroit has been a disaster and both Hamilton and Iverson appear unwilling at heart to come off the bench behind star-in-waiting Rodney Stuckey. Something's got to give. Since Dumars has forfeited some cap space for mere stability's sake, you've got to believe he'll at least be involved in this season's swap meet. Could he flip Iverson for a big man? Will he unload Rasheed Wallace before free agency hits this summer? Dumars always bears watching.
Utah's in much more definitive state: the team will almost certainly watch Carlos Boozer become a very expensive player this summer, all while the Jazz struggle to avoid the tax and struggle to catch up to the Lakers. Of course, right now the Jazz have trouble catching up to the rest of the West -- more and more every day, Utah appears the team most in danger of missing the #8 spot by a game or two. Something's really got to give.
Boozer's the name. With every Paul Millsap double-double, Boozer's life moves a step away from Salt Lake. Jazz management must realize Millsap will be too expensive to be Boozer's back-up; unfortunately, Boozer's defense and the team's overall lack of shooting won't allow the squad to keep Carlos as a center and let Millsap exist as a sidekick. That match won't work. So (barring a sign-and-trade, which never brings much in return) Utah is faced with a deadline in February to get something good for Boozer or get something good for Millsap. I imagine teams are already lining up (even with Boozer on crutches). Will a contender pull Boozer a la Gasol? Or can a young team get a jumpstart with the All-Star, who is only 27 years old?
* How hard will teams push for '10 cap space? this
Will that idea make a comeback? There's no guarantee -- and only very little indication -- any of James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh will sign an extension early; barring catastrophic injury, there is no financial incentive to do so. You'd think teams like the Knicks, the Mavericks, the Bulls, the Nets, the Heat would continue to try to free up space with the hope a top free agent could be convinced to come. (And don't forget there is life after the top names: Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Joe Johnson and others.)
With so many questions and such parity both in the top tier and below, it's shaping up to be one helluva trade season. Be sure to keep locked on NBA FanHouse for the latest in news, rumors, analysis and jokes about Drew Gooden's facial hair.