How’d you like to be Kevin Pritchard right about now?
Unfortunately, the Pacers’ new President and General Manager — he took over the post after Larry Bird resigned following Indiana’s first-round loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers — has experience with the best laid plans of a franchise falling to pieces. Pritchard was the GM in Portland from 2007-10, building a team that looked for all the world like it would be a championship contender.
In a three-year stretch, Portland made Draft night deals to get shooting guard Brandon Roy, small forward Nicolas Batum and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, and drafted Ohio State’s Greg Oden first overall in 2007 — a center who dominated as a freshman, and who gave Florida’s future NBA All-Stars of Joakim Noah and Al Horford 25 points and 12 rebounds in the national championship game. Oden wasn’t the consensus choice for No. 1 — a few holdouts preferred a skinny Texas freshman named Kevin Durant — but the vast majority of people at the time preferred him as the hub of a title contender. And Portland looked set to challenge the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference.
But it all fell apart. Oden underwent microfracture surgery before his rookie season, missing the entire 2007-08 campaign. He never could stay healthy, playing just 82 games total in five seasons. Roy’s knees gave out on him by 2011; he retired at 27 before a brief five-game comeback in 2012 with Minnesota.
By that time, Pritchard had been fired in Portland and resurfaced in Indy as Bird’s second in command.
Now, though, it’s Pritchard who faces a seemingly impossible situation: getting value for Pacers star Paul George, who wants out of Indiana and who has let everyone know it — a fact that tends to dampen potential offers from other teams. Compounding the problem is that George’s agent has said his preference is to go to the Lakers, who don’t have to make a deal for him.
The Lakers can just wait until he opts out of the final year of his contract after next season and sign him with their cap room — which was expanded greatly after last week’s trade that sent Timofey Mozgov and the remainder of his $64 million contract to Brooklyn along with guard D’Angelo Russell for center Brook Lopez.
Even though both Boston and Cleveland have been trying to make deals with Indiana (little noted last week: the Celtics saved $1.4 million in rookie scale money by moving from the No. 1 pick to the No. 3 pick in the Draft), and many around the league believed the Pacers would move George quickly, they didn’t execute a George deal before the Draft. But it’s just a matter of when. And that puts incredible pressure on the GM or exec that has to pull the trigger on moving a team’s franchise player.
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) June 23, 2017
“I was out on an island for a while,” recalled Memphis GM Chris Wallace, who traded his best player, Pau Gasol, to the Lakers in 2008 — in a deal that was excoriated around the league at the time. “I’m saying all this stuff, and pushing my talking points, and nobody’s paying attention … it was a deal that worked out for both teams. They got what they wanted, which was to stay at a high level that season, and be in a position to win championships, giving Kobe (Bryant) a sidekick. And it gave us a reboot.”
Every franchise player trade brings its own challenges. Few, though, were as wrenching as the Milwaukee Bucks having to trade the league’s best player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in 1975.
The year before, just before the start of training camp, Abdul-Jabbar told Bucks management he wanted to be traded, because he wasn’t “culturally satisfied” living in Milwaukee. He wanted to go either to New York, his hometown, or Los Angeles, and he had the Bucks over a barrel — he only had an option year remaining on his contract after the 1974-75 season. Abdul-Jabbar said he was willing and ready to sit out the following season, then sign with either the Knicks or Lakers or a team in the American Basketball Association.
At the time, Abdul-Jabbar was 27, entering the prime of his career as the league’s best player. He had already won an NBA title with the Bucks, being named Finals MVP in 1971. He was a five-time All-Star and three-time league MVP. There was simply no way Milwaukee could get players and/or Draft picks that would be as good as the player they would be trading away.
“With the news out, it was harder to try and make a deal that would allow the team to continue to prosper,” then-Bucks GM Wayne Embry wrote in his autobiography, “The Inside Game.” At the same time, members of the Bucks’ board of directors that at the time made the final decision about the team’s transactions were divided about whether or not to proceed with making a deal, and on opposite sides about whether or not to fire Hall of Fame coach Larry Costello.
“We really had a mess on our hands,” Embry, now a senior advisor for the Raptors, wrote. “With all this going on, I was charged with the responsibility of making the best possible trade for the Bucks while satisfying Kareem and protecting the future of the franchise. Nothing to it, I thought ironically.”
The Bucks ultimately traded Abdul-Jabbar and backup center Walt Wesley to the Lakers in 1975 for Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters, Dave Meyers and Elmore Smith. Bridgeman and Winters were solid players on very good Milwaukee teams in the late ‘70s and early ’80s and from 1979-87, the Bucks averaged 53 wins a season. But Milwaukee hasn’t made another Finals since, while Abdul-Jabbar won five more titles with the Lakers, three more MVPs, the 1985 Finals MVP and made 13 more All-Star teams.
Circumstances were different in 2006, when the 76ers’ superstar, Allen Iverson, went on the trade block. This time, it was the team itself that announced AI was available — with the team’s owner at the time, the late Ed Snider, telling the world via ESPN’s Lisa Salters during an in-game interview that the Sixers would grant Iverson’s trade request.
“I got a text from a buddy saying ‘you see what Ed said?,’ ” the team’s former GM, Billy King, recalled Sunday night. “I said no, and turned on the TV. Ed called me afterward and said ‘did I mess you up?’ I said ‘no, we’ll figure it out.’ ”
Like every GM, King knew he had to get multiple teams interested enough in dealing for Iverson to create a bidding war, something he’d learned from his former boss in (ironically) Indiana, then-GM Donnie Walsh.
Walsh had had a similar problem the year before with Ron Artest (before he became Metta World Peace). Artest wanted out of Indy, and Walsh had many nervous moments during a five-week period when the team fielded offers from around the league, separating the real from the ridiculous, before sending Artest to the Sacramento Kings for Peja Stojakovic.
Soon enough, Philly had three teams vying for AI: the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and the LA Clippers (the Miami Heat were briefly in the running, but fell out quickly). King wanted what every team forced to trade its franchise player wants (Draft picks), but instead of young players, he wanted expiring contracts to create cap room in ‘09 and ‘10, when LeBron James and other superstars were set to become free agents.
“I wanted Shaun Livingston from the Clippers,” King said. “They wouldn’t put him in the deal. Denver, it was to get picks and expirings, and I wanted Andre Miller, and they wouldn’t put him in the deal. But eventually, they did.”
Philly ultimately sent Iverson to Denver, along with Ivan McFarlin, for Miller, Joe Smith and two 2007 first-round picks.
Four years later, King was on the other side of the deal, having moved on to become GM of the Nets. Then, he was trying to get Carmelo Anthony — ironically, again, from Denver — for Brooklyn. But the Nets had company; fighting them tooth and nail for Anthony were the Knicks, and King’s old boss, Walsh, now the GM in New York. For weeks, the Nuggets played the Nets and Knicks against one another, getting each side to up the ante for Anthony.
Eventually, New York blinked, sending Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, Danilo Gallinari, Ray Felton, a 2014 first and seconds in 2012 and 2013 to Denver for Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Renaldo Balkman and Shelden Williams. Minnesota also got involved in the trade, getting Eddy Curry and Anthony Randolph from the Knicks, with Corey Brewer going to New York and Kosta Koufos going to Denver.
“We had to convince Melo and his guys to come to Brooklyn,” King said. “We got to the point where he would have done it, but they (the Knicks) eventually put Mozgov in the deal and that got it done.”
Memphis was behind the eight-ball when it became clear that Gasol wanted to be dealt. But things weren’t as dire for the Grizzlies as they are for the Pacers. Twitter was founded in 2006, but was hardly the ubiquitous medium then that it is now. Social media in general was in its infancy. There wasn’t a lot of buzz about Gasol’s status, allowing Wallace to sift through offers in relative peace. And Gasol was coming off of a foot injury.
“He wasn’t having a great year when we did the deal and we were sort of off the radar,” Wallace said. “We were playing second fiddle to (coach John) Calipari and Derrick Rose (at the University of Memphis, which reached the national championship game that year). I went to Mr. (Michael) Heisley (the late owner of the Grizzlies) in September and said we have to do something. We’re not going anywhere. (Gasol’s) candle, his enthusiasm has waned for us. And the worst thing you can have in sports is apathy … nobody cared. You go to our games, it was like a library.”
Heisley “didn’t kill me,” Wallace said. “But there was some skepticism.”
The Lakers provided Memphis with the best alternative: contractual relief, future cap room, first-round picks and the NBA rights to Pau’s little brother Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies believed that Marc Gasol, who was starring in the ACB League in Spain, the best basketball league in the world outside of the NBA, would have been a top 10 pick if he was in the 2008 Draft.
Ultimately, Memphis traded Pau Gasol, along with a second-round pick, to the Lakers for the rights to Marc Gasol, two future first round picks, and Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton and Aaron McKie. (The Grizzlies took Syracuse big man Donte Greene and Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez with the Lakers’ first-rounders.)
Ironically, Pau Gasol helped his former team cement the deal with his younger brother. Marc Gasol was getting major offers from teams in Spain that, because of the strength of the Euro at the time, weren’t all that much different than what the Grizzlies were offering. Memphis was still negotiating with Marc Gasol on a long-term deal in July, six months after the trade. The possibility that Marc Gasol could be in Spain for another couple of years would have been devastating.
Heisley “was a huge Pau fan,” Wallace said. “It was hard for him to trade him. But if we had to trade him he was happy to send him to the Lakers. At the 11th hour he called Pau up and asked him about his brother. And Pau said ‘Mr. Heisley, my brother is going to be better than I am.’ So he picked up the phone and called me and said ‘get this thing done.’ ”
Brown, Crittenton and McKie were all on expiring contracts, which ultimately created the cap room that Memphis needed to acquire Zach Randolph in a trade from the LA Clippers a year later. And since coming to Memphis, Marc Gasol has made three All-Star teams, won the 2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year award and replaced his brother as the franchise’s lynchpin. The Grizzlies have made the postseason six times in Marc Gasol’s nine seasons there, including a Western Conference finals run in 2013.
“Heisley would spend it, but he said he wouldn’t spend it until it made a difference,” Wallace said. “He wouldn’t sign a backup point guard. We got lambasted because we didn’t use it for a year. But we spent it on Zach Randolph. When that came up he said ‘yeah, let’s do that.’ And he was right. That turned our franchise around; we went from 24 wins to 40.”
Indiana is hoping that trading George won’t take them in an opposite direction.
Pritchard has limited options, including time. He basically has until the trade deadline in February, 2018 to create a market and drive it until he gets the people and picks he wants. But those months can be put to good use.
With each succeeding day this summer, the pressure will mount.
It will do so on the Lakers, who would be gambling that George couldn’t be swayed by another team that acquires him, even on a one-year rental, to stay long term.
It will do so on the Cavaliers, who have to find a way to keep LeBron James happy and the team championship caliber before James also becomes a free agent next summer.
It will do so on the Celtics, who want to get two superstars — and anyone else who believes George could make them competitive against either Cleveland in the Eastern Conference or Golden State in the West.
George’s decision, Pritchard told local reporters last week, was a “gut punch.” The Pacers are getting a standing eight count. The ref is about to waive the other fighter in. Pritchard’s got to clear his head, quickly, and hang on; there’s a killer in there with him, looking to finish him off.
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