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Conventional wisdom, trade deadline not in unison

By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst
Posted Feb 20 2009 7:16AM

A lot of ink/bandwidth is traditionally wasted this time of year, as "experts" try to assess "winners and losers" after the NBA's trade deadline. No doubt you've already read how the Blazers and Cavaliers struck out mightily, the Suns were smart to hold onto Amar'e Stoudemire, how the Pistons didn't get anything done, and how Oklahoma City had a great, under-the-radar deadline.

Wait. That last one is true.

But the others ... not so much. Conventional wisdom (aka the CW) is wrong.

(An aside to various coaches, GMs, team presidents, etc.: If I've called you in the last couple of weeks, looking for info and the truth about your teams, and you blew me off and didn't return my call(s), don't make the face-saving call Friday morning like it's all good. I always remember who came through and who left me hanging. I've been around 20 years and I'm going to be around a long time. Just food for thought.)

There were a few teams who were proactive, like Orlando, which may have salvaged a season heading south with the brilliant pickup of Rafer Alston from Houston, giving up Brian Cook and a first-round pick in the process. With Jameer Nelson out the rest of the season, Orlando was falling from true contender status. But Alston gives Orlando a legitimate starter at the point, and keeps Hedo Turkoglu from having to log killer minutes at point forward down the stretch.

"He's a starter," Magic GM Otis Smith said of Alston on Thursday. "He's somebody who's played the position and get the ball to guys. That's a big plus. And Stan [Van Gundy]'s coached him before [in Miami]. That helps."

And while teams like Sacramento got busy dumping salaries, others kept their powder dry. Some teams, like Detroit, can now be players in either the offseason of 2009 or 2010, and have its pick of Carlos Boozer or Mehmet Okur this summer or LeBron, et.al., next summer. But many others not only will do nothing, they'll actively be looking to shed even more contracts in the next 12 months.

The truth is, Portland and Cleveland are still buyers in a sellers' market, and will continue to call the shots this summer. As the national economy worsens, more teams will look to shed salaries, staying well beneath the luxury tax, as well as getting close to the salary cap, their owners interested more in pocketing what they can instead of spending.

The league's edict during All-Star Weekend that no one should expect the tax or cap to rise much, if not fall, added to the chill in the air. And while Blazers owner Paul Allen and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert may have lost a few million during the current recession, by most accounts they're still further ahead than most of their fellow NBA owners.

Why else would the Lakers give Vladmir Radmonovic away to Charlotte for Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown, or donate a serviceable backup center like Chris Mihm to Memphis, unless they were under orders from Jerry Buss to shave the bottom line? And that's the Lakers, for James Worthy's sake!

And I heard Thursday that the storied Celtics, they of the 17 championships and top-five in attendance, may nonetheless be one of the teams that partakes from the league's new $175 million line of credit, which SportsBusiness Journal reported this week would be used by half of the league's 30 teams to help pay existing and future bills.

So teams like Cleveland and Portland that are still deficit spending will have even more power this summer. (To wit: the Cavs have spent $82 million in the last year alone in new salaries and luxury tax payments.)

The CW, for example, will lament that despite making bids on Amar'e Stoudemire, Richard Jefferson, Vince Carter, Gerald Wallace, Andre Miller, and no doubt a half-dozen others we don't know about, Portland couldn't get anything to its liking, despite having Raef LaFrentz's expiring contract.

The CW will say Cavs GM Danny Ferry failed, not being able to turn Wally Szczerbiak's expiring $13 million contract into Stoudemire, or Shaquille O'Neal, or Antawn Jamison, or Jefferson.

Yet even with the $9 million back on their books from the reinstated Darius Miles contract, the Blazers will still have $6 million in cap space this summer after getting rid of LaFrentz. They'll still have the flexibility to package the likes of Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster, Steve Blake and/or Sergio Rodriguez with draft picks to bring in the star small forward or point guard they covet. And it's very likely it'll eventually get done. (But rookie Jerryd Bayless, whom GM Kevin Pritchard kept close to the vest, holding off all suitors, better become a complete player at the point.)

Do you think Phoenix's money woes are going to subside in the next two months? The Suns are going to have even more pressure on them this summer to do something to alleviate owner Robert Sarver's bottom line. They'll be even more under the gun to move Stoudemire or O'Neal. (The Cavs, according to a source, were pushing much harder for the Diesel than they were Stoudemire.)

Phoenix may have bought some time by firing Terry Porter -- "the tone [about potential trades] completely changed once they did the Terry thing," said a source with knowledge of the discussions between the teams -- but there will be a financial reckoning for the Suns, sooner or later.

What about the Wizards? They turned down all inquiries into Jamison and Caron Butler, figuring they'll return to fighting trim next season with a healthy Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood back in the starting lineup. Maybe. But they're also looking at a $74 million payroll for their top 13 players (all fully guaranteed), not including the non-guaranteed $825,497 due forward Dominic McGuire, a starter of late. Even if they don't keep McGuire, they're already $3 million above this year's luxury tax threshhold, and that number, as stated above, isn't going up -- it's either staying flat or going down.

Now add a top-four first-round pick -- the Wizards' reward for their poor season -- and you're adding anywhere from $3 million (the minimum first-year salary for the fourth pick overall) to $4.15 million (the first-year salary for the No. 1 pick). That pushes Washington's number to $77-$78 million, and you double every dollar you're over the tax. Is Abe Pollin going to pay more than $90 million for a core group that has one second-round appearance in the last five years?

My guess is the Wiz will be selling hard this summer.

New Orleans, with Tyson Chandler back on the books after failing his physical in Oklahoma City, is staring at a $75.9 million payroll for its top 11 players next season, not counting its first-rounder. There was no interest in Peja Stojakovic (and his 10 percent trade kicker) or Rasual Butler. It's hard to see how the Hornets get under the tax again. Which begs the question: Why didn't Oklahoma City just waive the physical, as is allowed under league rules, for Chandler?

Even if Chandler's toe injury keeps him out the rest of this season, or longer, wouldn't that be preferable for the Thunder, which will be that much closer to getting the Sooners' Blake Griffin from down the road in Norman with every successive loss? But ownership got anxious thinking it was about to spend $24 million after this season on a player who might be a shell of himself going forward. Trust us, this was not a decision made by the basketball side of the building at Ford Center.

It's a shame. Can you imagine a front line of Kevin Durant, Griffin and Chandler starting in OKC next year, with Westbrook and Jeff Green in the backcourt and Earl Watson, Thabo Sefolosha (picked up at the deadline from Chicago for one of the Thunder's three '09 first-rounders), Nick Collison and Nenad Krstic coming off the bench?

But this is the new reality of the NBA: more than ever before, the basketball people are not calling the shots. And that makes teams with thick pursestrings in control, now and in the foreseeable future. It's another feather in Cleveland's cap as LeBron James surveys the league landscape, looking for the teams that can keep him in talcum powder for years to come.

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