With the trade deadline a mere nine days away, the gap between buyers and sellers has never been more pronounced. Many struggling teams are willing to entertain offers for even their brightest stars while established, title-hungry teams are itching to pilfer those very assets. One segment of the NBA is in ‘sell everything' mode, while the other is in ‘buy anything' mode, though the wisdom behind either approach is questionable at best.
For the sellers the motivation is clear: empty the ledger and start anew. Tabula Rasa, and all that. Sometimes it works (think Memphis) and sometimes it dooms you to a cycle of perpetual rebuilding (think Golden State), but if something is clearly not working it is hard to advocate maintaining the status quo.
For the title contenders, though, big changes can be harder to justify.
The big mid-season acquisition game typically brings to mind two success stories of the last decade: Rasheed Wallace and Pau Gasol. When Wallace went to Detroit and Gasol went to L.A., each team was put onto a path that eventually led to Championship glory. It is those successes that several clubs are looking to emulate in deals this winter.
However, lost in that mindset is the memory of the failures; Shaq to Phoenix, Marion to Miami, Payton to Milwaukee, even Kidd to Dallas when one remembers that Dallas was gunning for a title as motivation to make that trade. What people fail to recollect at times like this is that just getting a big name doesn't ensure anything for your club, and if the fit isn't absolutely perfect then there is a good chance the team's play can be derailed while they integrate a major new piece. This summer's activity exemplifies this fact beautifully.
What were the biggest moves this summer? Vince Carter to Orlando, Hedo Turkoglu to Toronto, Andre Miller to Portland, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to Detroit, Rasheed Wallace to Boston, Emeka Okafor to New Orleans, Richard Jefferson to San Antonio - notice a theme here? Every single one of these players has had trouble finding their niche with their new club and each was brought in to elevate the play of their team.
While some have begun rounding into form (Miller comes quickest to mind), most are still trying to find their sea legs more than halfway into the season. This isn't because these are bad players or because the teams that nabbed them were foolish to do so, it's because major pieces take time to integrate to established units.
It's a lot easier for Memphis to bring along a guy like Zach Randolph (a wholly under-appreciated move even after Zach's All-Star selection) because the team is content to let him be a focal point since whatever they had going before him wasn't working anyway. When San Antonio has to find a place for Richard Jefferson, though, which includes fitting in around Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (not to mention Gregg Popovich), it can take a lot of patience before it eventually works - if it ever does.
Consider also that these aforementioned teams got all of training camp to design an attack with these guys and still the growing pains stretched well into the regular season. It isn't that major players are always unwilling to bend to accommodate their new clubs, it's that sometimes that change is so radical that they simply don't know how to make the adjustments being asked for. Hedo Turkoglu and Andre Miller, for example, are players that are used to dominating the playmaking duties for their clubs, but Toronto and Portland both have other players they want to fill that role, so Turkoglu and Miller are left searching for their purpose.
Turkoglu benefitted in December when Jose Calderon went down with injury, and Miller is benefitting now that Brandon Roy is out, but neither one can be said to have fully integrated themselves yet and they have looked as frustrated by that fact as any fan who follows these teams.
These problems are only exacerbated by mid-season trades. While Gasol was a perfect fit for the Triangle Offense, it still took the Lakers a year and a half before he helped them to a title. Guys need to adjust to playing with each other and coaches need to adjust to coaching new players.
If a team is in the upper reaches of their conference they risk seriously derailing their momentum with a major deal. Sure, Boston could try and swap Ray Allen for Kirk Hinrich or Kevin Martin, but do either one guarantee the Celtics anything? Can either be relied upon for clutch shooting in the Playoffs? Can either blend into the defensive schemes that Boston likes to run? Can either mesh with the very strong personalities that littler Boston's locker room? Sure, maybe they bring a ‘struggling' team a different element that takes them over the top, or maybe they struggle to fit in and Boston falls in the first round to a team with more cohesion and momentum going into the post-season. It's a huge risk for a team that is still very talented when fully healthy.
There is also the question of whether a guy being brought in without giving up major assets is going to marginalize the rolls of his teammates too much for comfort. Remember that Chris Webber was acquired by the Sixers for next to nothing in February of '05, but his presence disrupted the flow of Philly's attack and everyone was slighter weaker in the attempt to integrate a major new piece (a very similar situation faced by the Sixers with Elton Brand). Could this very instance not also plague the Cavs if they were to import Antawn Jamison, or if the Mavs brought in Caron Butler? You're talking about adding some hungry hands to some pretty stacked rosters, and there is still only one ball to go around...
At the end of the day this trade deadline will likely be like so many before it: quiet. Sure a major player may get swapped, but the seismic shift that occurred in 2008 is unlikely to happen again anytime soon. The deals being bandied about in rumor mills are too lopsided, the money being talked about too precious with an uncertain future to the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the names being discussed are simply too hard to give up.
If your team is struggling and they don't give away their best asset, don't worry. The Hawks held firm for years and rebuffed trades for their assets and look where they are now. If your team is in line for a shot at the title, don't despair if nothing major comes your way, either. No one thought at this point in the season that Orlando had the juice to go to the NBA Finals, yet there they were in June.
Sometimes the sanest path to a Championship season is trusting in what you have and letting the chips fall where they may - after all, what was the last team to win a title after a major mid-season trade, anyway?