Nuclear Arms Race in West Escalates with Kidd DealThe contenders in the West are engaged in a furious nuclear arms race, stockpiling weapons in anticipation of full fledged warfare during this year's playoffs. We may never have seen a conference have this many teams bunched together so closely in the standings while playing at such a high level; this situation has placed most of the teams in the NBA in an "either/or" situation: either you are legitimately battling for the title--which means that you need all the ammunition you can get--or you have no chance to win a title--which means that you are perfectly willing to part with All-Star level players in exchange for young players and expiring contracts. The prototypical example of such a trade is the Pau Gasol deal. The Lakers acquired the former All-Star without giving up even one core player from their rotation, while the Grizzlies got younger and improved their flexibility under salary cap rules.
Not long after the Lakers got Gasol, the Phoenix Suns acquired Shaquille O'Neal and the normally conservative San Antonio Spurs signed Damon Stoudamire. On Tuesday, the Dallas Mavericks finally consummated the long awaited, much anticipated Jason Kidd deal, acquiring the All-Star guard from New Jersey (along with Antoine Wright and Malik Allen) in exchange for Devin Harris, DeSagana Diop, Maurice Ager, Keith Van Horn and Trenton Hassel.
How will all of these deals affect the Western Conference? The Lakers took the least risk because they essentially gave up nothing and because their nucleus is young enough to play at a high level for several more seasons. The risk factor for the Suns is much higher: (1) O'Neal is an older, oft injured player who may not be healthy or productive enough to make an impact; (2) it is not clear or certain that O'Neal will successfully fit in with the Suns' fast breaking style; (3) combined with other recent personnel moves, the Suns have firmly put themselves on the "championship or bust" express: if this team does not win a title soon--this year or next year at the latest--a plunge to the bottom of the standings a la the Miami Heat is quite possible; (4) the Suns gave up a perennial All-Star to get O'Neal and it will not play well in Phoenix if three years from now Shawn Marion is still an All-Star level player while the Suns have yet to win a title. As I indicated in previous posts, I like the deal for Phoenix because the Suns were simply not going to win a championship the way that they were previously constituted--but that neither means that they are a championship lock nor does it change the fact that this deal is risky and could backfire.
Last year, the Spurs went through a sluggish stretch but Coach Gregg Popovich told his players that no deals were going to be made: it was up to the players in that locker room to right the ship and they responded by winning the title. The Spurs pretty much have taken the same tack this year but picking up Stoudamire is a low risk, high reward move: the best case scenario is that he provides scoring punch and some playmaking while coming off of the bench to give Tony Parker some rest; the worst case scenario is that he does not fit in for any number of reasons and the Spurs send him on his way.
The Mavericks' move is similar to the Suns' in a lot of ways. Unlike the Lakers and Spurs, Dallas gave up some youth and some players who were key members of the team's normal rotation. The Mavericks have joined the Suns on the "championship or bust" express, which means that at least one these teams is going to be extremely disappointed after the playoffs conclude. Dallas made it to the Finals in 2006 and won 67 games last season, so it would not have been unreasonable to give the nucleus that accomplished those things at least one more chance. On the other hand, the availability of Jason Kidd forced the Mavericks' hand: if they stood pat and faced postseason disappointment again then it would most likely not be possible to sign Kidd.
Harris has more pure speed now than Kidd does but it is hard to understand why anyone would think that this trade does not improve Dallas. Kidd has decisive edges over Harris in playmaking, rebounding, defense and playoff experience. The Mavericks are absolutely a better team now than they were before making this deal. Whether or not they are good enough to win a title before their championship window closes is another matter entirely.
This year's playoffs could include some very interesting subplots. Former Sun Kidd could face his old team; he could also battle the Spurs, who supposedly tried to obtain him for Tony Parker a few years ago. L.A.-Phoenix had already developed into a rivalry before O'Neal landed in the Valley of the Sun but if the two teams meet again in the playoffs it will be the first time that former teammates O'Neal and Kobe Bryant face each other in a playoff series.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:15 AM