DENVER — Like digging for diamonds in a minefield, making player trades in the National Basketball Association is an uncertain art at best.
That may be one reason there were very few trades made during the current NBA season, with the two most significant deals occurring only in the final hours of the Feb. 22 trading deadline.
In the two headline transactions, Philadelphia acquired All Star center Dikembe Mutombo from the Atlanta Hawks, and Dallas got Juwan Howard from the Washington Wizards in a deal put together partly by Michael Jordan, Washington's head of basketball operations.
General managers who can pull off successful trades are venerated in the NBA. Scott Layden became famous as GM of the Utah Jazz for acquiring a series of role players to complement stars Karl Malone and John Stockton. This year, as general manager of the New York Knicks, he returned veteran point guard Mark Jackson to the Knicks in a trade with Toronto.
"There's an ongoing conversation in the NBA," Layden says. "You're always looking for players who could strengthen your roster."
The rewards for a successful trade can be stupendous, but so is the downside. In 1970, the Milwaukee Bucks acquired Hall of Fame guard Oscar Robertson from the Cincinnati Royals. While Robertson was nearing the end of his career, the Bucks knew what they were doing.
The year before, they had won a coin toss with the Phoenix Suns for first pick in the college draft, and had chosen the great UCLA center, Lew Alcindor. With a veteran backcourt leader like Robertson, they thought they might contend for a championship.
And they did. The very next year, in 1971, the Bucks won the NBA title, only three years after they had entered the league, the fastest title ever by any major- league expansion team. But within the next four years, Robertson had retired, the Bucks had failed to make the playoffs, and the team had gone through three general managers. In 1975, the Bucks traded away Alcindor (by this time known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar). And Milwaukee has never won another NBA championship.
Today the insecurities of swapping players are further complicated by finances. Escalating players' salaries have raised the stakes and holding salaries under a league-wide limit has sent the trade biz into the realm of higher math.
"It's very hard to trade today in the NBA with the salary cap," Layden says.
Salary considerations are especially complex when two highly paid players such as Mutombo and Howard are involved. According to Bob Bass, veteran general manager of the Charlotte Hornets, "It's become nearly impossible to make a one-for-one player trade in the NBA. If you have a player whose salary is over $4 million, like Mutombo or Howard, you trade in groups."
Last year, Charlotte sent five players to the Miami Heat in return for four others. There were two principals in the deal, with the others included just to keep both teams under the salary cap.
"It's all about the fit of the dollars," notes Orlando Magic scout Tom Jorgensen.
Other factors involve strategic planning. When Bass traded Glen Rice to the Los Angeles Lakers for Eddie Jones a while back, he also acquired center Elden Campbell to fill a specific need.
"You try to improve your team by position," Bass observes. "We got a seven-foot center."
"You have to determine where you're going and what your goals are," is the way Orlando scout Jorgensen puts it. "Who fits into what you do?" He says Philadelphia is a case in point. In acquiring Mutombo from Atlanta, it gave up Theo Ratliff, a young, mobile center who can score some distance from the basket. Ratliff seemed to fit the full-court, free-lance game of Philly's star guard, Allen Iverson.
In Mutombo, the 76ers added an immensely strong player who is an intimidating presence under the basket. But Mutombo is too immobile to run the court. So, why the trade? That was the cry of fans in Philly when the 76ers lost two of their first three games with Mutombo at center, as he and his new teammates tried to accommodate one another's games.
"You always run the risk that a trade will change the dynamics of your team," comments Layden. He says he looks for players who are "coachable."
And that describes Mutombo - a team player who's willing to adapt. An extremely bright and altruistic individual, he speaks several languages and actively supports social-outreach programs in his native Africa. Mutombo attended Georgetown University on an academic, rather than an athletic, scholarship. And he majored in diplomacy.
It's a discipline that may come in handy with a team full of new personalities.
After a rough start, the 76ers now are winning with Mutombo. And some believe their trade will translate to a championship.
As Jorgensen sees it, "They don't need a big, strong center in the Eastern Division." But, if this is their year to compete for an NBA title, when they face the likes of the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal in the playoffs, they'll be glad to have a dominant post player like Mutombo.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor