The Feb. 1 trade that sent Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers for three players and two draft picks stood as the biggest deal of the 2007-08 NBA season for less than a week. It took just five days for the Phoenix Suns to blow the Gasol deal out of the water--in terms of hype, anyway--by bringing former MVP center Shaquille O'Neal back to the Western Conference, sending Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat.
With a little over a week until the Feb. 21 trade deadline, the blockbusters aren't necessarily done just yet. While both the Gasol and O'Neal deals came together relatively quickly, rumors have swirled around New Jersey Nets point guard Jason Kidd for weeks. L.A. Clippers guard Sam Cassell, Philadelphia guard Andre Miller and Sacramento forward Ron Artest could also be in play.
If this indeed ends up one of the most active trading seasons in recent memory--and with the Gasol and O'Neal deals in the books we are off to a good start--then there will be an easy explanation. The wide-open, balanced nature of the Western Conference makes additions more important now than ever before for the 10 teams fighting for the conference's eight playoff spots.
Usually, by this point in the season, the conferences are relatively stratified. This year's Eastern Conference is no exception. Boston and Detroit are the favorites; Orlando, Cleveland, Toronto and maybe Washington hope to pull an upset and sneak into the conference finals; seven more teams are battling for the final two spots. At the bottom of the playoff race, a deal or two could make a big difference, but many of the contenders are young and unwilling to give up much for the "reward" of being offered up to the Celtics or Pistons in the first round.
Attempting to define the class system in the West is an exercise in futility. The 5.5-game margin separating Detroit and third-place Orlando in the East is the same as the difference between West-leading Phoenix and Golden State and Houston, tied for eighth. You might put a cut-off after seventh-place Denver; Golden State, Houston and Portland seem slightly below the true contenders in the West, but that assessment is more subjective than anything else.
Against this backdrop, any move takes on added significance. One game could decide a division or determine home-court advantage. At the bottom, that tiny margin could be the difference between making the playoffs--and given how deep the conference is, having a legitimate shot at pulling off a repeat of Golden State over Dallas--or hoping for luck in the lottery. Is it any surprise, then, that two of these teams pulled off major deals? Or that the Mavericks have been linked to Kidd for weeks?
Nobody has taken a bigger risk than the Suns, who lead the West but still dramatically made over their team by sending Marion to Miami for O'Neal. My colleague Bradford Doolittle analyzed the potential pitfalls in his column on the trade last week.
In Phoenix, the explanation has been a reasonable one: that a healthy O'Neal will address the Suns' all-too-evident weaknesses. There has almost certainly never been a team that has enjoyed the success Phoenix has the last three-plus years with such major weaknesses. The Suns rebound a lower percentage of their own misses than any team in recorded NBA history; this year's squad has also been one of the worst overall rebounding teams of all time. Phoenix rarely gets to the free-throw line and the Suns' defense is just average overall.
Those weaknesses, however, were also strengths in a sense. Mike D'Antoni opted to have his charges get back on defense instead of crashing the glass, and Phoenix is excellent in transition defense. Not having players in the paint getting fouled and grabbing offensive rebounds allowed the Suns to space the floor and hit three-pointers. Being undersized at power forward with Marion improved the team's shooting. O'Neal will make the Suns a more balanced team, but not necessarily a better one. That's assuming he's healthy; when O'Neal is out of the lineup, D'Antoni has just seven players he trusts, and they'll play heavy minutes until O'Neal returns from his current hip injury.
While the Gasol and O'Neal deals have grabbed the headlines, the importance of a trade is not necessarily determined by the magnitude of the stars that change hands. The hottest team in the Western Conference, the Utah Jazz, has reaped the benefits of a less-heralded deal, the late-December acquisition of Kyle Korver from the Philadelphia 76ers for Gordan Giricek and a first-round pick.
Trundling along at 16-16 at the time of Korver's debut, Utah has since won 17 out of 20, including 10 straight before falling Friday in Sacramento. The hot stretch has propelled the Jazz from the outside of the playoffs looking in to atop the Northwest Division. Korver certainly doesn't deserve all the credit for the difference. Utah's schedule has evened out, as has the team's record in close games (I noted not long ago that the Jazz's point differential outpaced the team's record), Mehmet Okur has been playing much better basketball after a slow start to the season, and Matt Harpring has gotten healthy.
That being said, Korver is a perfect example of how a targeted move can make a big difference in this competitive West. Utah's biggest weakness--though not necessarily one Jerry Sloan really minded--was three-point shooting. Pre-Korver, the Jazz averaged 3.7 three-pointers per game; only one team has averaged fewer over the course of the season. Since adding Korver, who is averaging more than one a night, that number is up to a more respectable 5.7 threes per game without hurting the team's existing strengths. A Utah offense that was already tough to stop has become even more potent with the addition of Korver.
The couple of weeks leading up to the trade deadline are always fun in the NBA, but the deals don't always truly make a difference in the playoffs. This year stands as a dramatic exception. We've already had three impact deals this year, and more may be on the way. The Western Conference won't be decided until early June, but its outcome could turn on what happens between now and Feb. 21.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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