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Too Early to Dump on Garnett and Gasol "Donations"

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Kevin Garnett and Paul Gasol are playing in the NBA Finals, and because of relationships between the execs who put the deals together, there is a great hue and cry that the Celtics and Lakers got there because of lopsided trades. They've been called "donations" rather than trades. Some have suggested the Finals are tainted because of it. Conspiracy theories abound. Danny Ainge got his friend, Kevin McHale, to do a deal against his best interests. Mitch Kupchak convinced his aging mentor, Jerry West, to do something dumb. Never mind that West was far, far away from Memphis and had nothing to do with it.

There shouldn't be any surprise, any sugggestion of chichanery. This is how things work. Teams rarely get equal value when trading a superstar who wants out. It's practically written in the GM handbook that when a superstar wants out, it's time to rebuild and rebuilding means going for the three things you need to reconstruct a franchise: a good young player or two, cap space and draft picks. Cash helps.

To varying degrees, that's what the Lakers got for Shaquille O'Neal, the Raptors got for Vince Carter, the 76ers got for Allen Iverson, the Nets got for Kenyon Martin and Jason Kidd and yes, what the Wolves got for Garnett and the Grizzlies got for Gasol. You could make an exception in the Heat trade of O'Neal to Phoenix, but let's see what happens with Shawn Marion's player option before we call that. If he goes elsewhere, that trade of superstars may have been a very bad deal for Miami. They will have cap space, but no young players, no draft picks.

In ALL the recent trades involving a superstar, the star wanted out and said so, either publicly or privately. He wasn't going to help his team win a championship and in most cases, couldn't even guarantee them a playoff berth. In NONE of those moves was there an alternative. The GM's had to make as good a deal as possible under the circumstances. Could the GM have gotten a "better deal"? The question is better phrased: How do you define "better deal"?

Rather than focus on Garnett and Gasol first, let's take a look at the other deals. On first read, each of them (with the possible exception of the Kidd trade) looked bad. But in most, the GM's used them to make significant progress in rebuilding.

For example, the Nets' heist of Carter for Aaron Williams, Eric Williams, a sulking Alonzo Mourning and two non-lottery picks was called the worst NBA trade in 25 years. The Raptors supposedly compounded it by buying out Mourning without him even crossing the border and trading one of the picks to help them dump Jalen Rose's bloated contract on the Knicks. How'd it work out? Two years later, the Raptors won the Atlantic Division after using the cap space to resign Chris Bosh, trade for T.J. Ford and sign three European players: Jose Calderon, Jorge Garbajosa and Anthony Parker. Who won that trade? Good question. The Nets are happy with Carter--they did sign him to a $66 million extension, and the Raptors are happy with their decision as well. (And where did those two draft choices come from? The Nets trade that sent Martin to Denver, a deal that sent fans screaming from the Meadowlands but ultimately worked in New Jersey's favor...considering KMart's history since then.)

Iverson was sent with Ivan McFarlin (who?) to the Nuggets for Andre Miller, Joe Smith, and two 2007 first round draft picks, again non-lottery. This was a trade that was supposed to vault the Nuggets into championship contention. On the Philly side, Miller was going to become a free agent and leave the Sixers. Instead, who lasted longer in this year's playoffs and who is better positioned for the future, thanks to the reduced payroll? Miller turned into one of the league's better field generals and the team now has enough cash to pay Andre Igoudala, a rising star this summer...and a whole lot more. Jason Smith was a decent pick, a good rotation player...and again cheap. Derrick Byars wasn't.

Kidd too. He was going to make the Mavs a great playoff team. Didn't happen. It might, but not this season. Meanwhile, Devin Harris got his freedom and in 25 games made the trade look sick, setting personal career highs in points, field goals, three pointers, rebounds, offensive rebounds, assists, steals and blocks while Kidd couldn't win against any top Western Conference team. The Nets wound up with more than $10 million in cap space, two first round picks in 2008 and 2010 (when Cuban hints the Mavs might be rebuilding), two very good young players in Harris and Desagana Diop and a player who might still excel in Mo Ager. Plus they have a $3.3 million trade exception and Keith Van Horn's contract, which Rod Thorn oh-so-smartly had configured as an expiring contract with a small guarantee for next season. (Nice of Cuban to throw in $3 million in cash and pick up the tab for Van Horn's contract, too. Thanks Mark).

Kupchak knows the rules as well: The Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal to the Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant, and a future 1st round draft pick. He got two good young players--one of whom he stupidly traded for Kwame Brown, an expiring contract in Grant and a future first round draft choice (which became Jordan Farmar). Question: how'd the Heat do this year compared to the Lakers? Yes, the Heat won the O'Brien Trophy in 2005, but it's been all downhill since. Shaq got a $100 million extension, which right now looks like one of the worst contracts in the league.

And note this: in the first year after the O'Neal, Carter, Iverson and Kidd deals, the sending team wound up missing the playoffs and being rewarded with a lottery pick of their own. They have turned into Andrew Bynum, Charlie Villaneuva (and ultimately T.J. Ford), Thaddeus Young and whoever the Nets get at #10.

So what about those outrageous Gasol and Garnett deals? Are they different? Hardly. The Grizzlies did everything the rebuilding formula calls for. Chris Wallace has said he looked for the biggest expiring contract (i.e. cap space) he could find and its name was Kwame Brown...Bingo $14 million saved on next year's cap. Javaris Crittenton is 20 years old. He didn't set the world on fire this season. So what? He would have been a lottery pick this year, period. The two late first round picks may not produce a great player but late picks can be used in a lot of helpful ways--to buttress other deals, dump bad contracts (like Darko Milicic's) or move up in the draft. And what about that final piece? Marc Gasol is not a curiousity, an inside joke. He is arguably, at 23, the best center in Europe. And do note that the Grizzlies still have Mike Miller, Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry, Juan Carlos Navarro (no one can pay him more than Memphis) and Hakim Warrick.

Yeah, yeah, Kevin McHale should have been fired years ago. That aside, he followed the same formula, getting a great young player in Al Jefferson--who he smartly and quickly got to sign to a reasonable long term contract; two expiring contracts in Theo Ratliff and Gerald Green--who he wisely decided not to renew; two first round picks--getting one of his own lottery picks back in the deal along with a Celtic pick, and Ryan Gomes, a better player than given credit for. Next year, he will have $25 million in additional cap space. Think about that...and note the young core the Wolves have as well: Randy Foye, Corey Brewer, Rashard McCants, Craig Smith and Gomes.

What analysts also ignore--and it's critical--is that Memphis and Minnesota are small market franchises that cannot afford big contract players who don't produce big returns. They also realize that, like Toronto, they're not a top destination for NBA free agents. They will have to pay a premium to garner big stars or as the Raptors did, go unconventional and sign some Euros. They have to be a lot more judicious in their spending than LA, which has the biggest local TV contract in the NBA, or Boston, which has the league's most loyal fan base. (Knicks fans don't count. They're masochists.)

Finally, If the Mavs had made it to the Finals instead of the Lakers, would the Kidd trade be seen as a "donation"? Probably not, because RIGHT NOW the Nets seem to have gotten the better of that deal...and that's the point. Teams trading away superstars don't win in the first year after a trade, and no one should expect them to. But if they play it smartly, the GM's can turn it around in two years (as the Raptors did) or one year (as the Sixers did...and which the Nets might do)

GM's can lose their jobs by trading superstars. Rob Babcock lost his in Toronto. They can make dumb deals with their newfound assets, like trading Caron Butler for Kwame Brown, as Kupchak did. But just as easily, GM's on the other side can have buyer's remorse. Ask Kiki Vandeweghe about KMart. And one GM--he works for Bruce Ratner--seems to know better than most when to fold them, when to fold them.

Bottom line, remain calm. It's far too early to tell.