After a week of haggling, the New Jersey Nets finally succeeded in trading star point guard Jason Kidd to the Dallas Mavericks for Devin Harris on Tuesday. In any other sport, it would have been the easiest trade possible. An aging superstar wants off a mediocre team, and a championship-caliber team has a young player to offer at the same position. But pro basketball isn’t like any other sport. Kidd makes a lot more money than Harris, and the NBA’s payroll-balancing rules—the most stringent in pro sports—would not allow a one-for-one swap. As a result, what should’ve been a simple deal morphed into an eight-player trade and spurred a multisided tussle among the Mavericks, the Nets, the league, and the players themselves. These negotiations had so little to do with anyone’s ability to play basketball that the deal was finally settled by having Keith Van Horn—a forward who last played for the Mavs in 2006—come out of retirement to sign a new $4 million deal so he could be traded to New Jersey and not play for the Nets.
The NBA trade is one of the strangest rituals in sports. In pro baseball and other sensible sports, teams typically trade for players based on their on-field talent. In the NBA, that’s just one small consideration. Putting together a basketball trade isn’t as easy as deciding which players you want to bring in and which you want to give away. It’s more like trying to solve a 20-variable equation on your graphing calculator. The NBA’s deal-making provisions are so byzantine and irrational that ESPN.com built a “trade machine” to figure out whether potential swaps are allowable. This week’s Kidd trade is the best example yet of the inanity of the modern basketball trade. Follow along, if you can, as we explore the bizarro logic of the NBA—a place where second-tier players get tossed around like trading cards, injured players with bloated contracts are like gold, and retirees get million-dollar contracts for doing nothing.
The lunacy of today’s NBA trades has its origins in a well-meaning push for fairness and equality. In 1984, the league instituted a salary cap as a means to ensure competitive balance. As opposed to the NFL, which has a “hard cap” on salaries, the NBA’s more-flexible “soft cap” permits teams to exceed their maximum annual salary allotment (this year, it’s $55.63 million) under special circumstances. This list of special circumstances is long and hard to parse—there’s the midlevel exception, the biannual exception, the rookie exception, and many, many more. But suffice it to say that the Jason Kidd deal, like most every NBA trade, grew distended on account of these baroque regulations.
Teams that are over the salary cap—according to the ESPN.com trade machine, a whopping 28 of the NBA’s 30 clubs have exceeded the cap, including the Mavs and Nets—are permitted to make trades, so long as the salaries they’re receiving are roughly equivalent to the salaries they’re giving up. (By the letter of the law, the trading team can only get back 125 percent plus $100,000 of the aggregate salary it’s giving up.) So, in order to acquire Kidd, the Mavs couldn’t merely give the Nets a couple of draft picks and a few young players. Rather, they had to match Kidd’s $20 million annual salary with $20 million worth of expendable talent. In today’s NBA, that means a boatload of second-tier players. In the first iteration of the Kidd trade, Dallas was to ship Harris, Devean George, Jerry Stackhouse, DeSagana Diop, and Maurice Ager to New Jersey (along with two first-round picks and $3 million in cash).
Harris, the talented young point guard, is the only player in that group the Nets wanted for his basketball skills. The value of the other players was more obscure. The Nets want Diop because his contract expires at the end of the ‘08 season. This means New Jersey will have extra money to spend on free agents. The tremendous value of expiring contracts—what in basketball parlance is called “salary cap relief”—is the most absurd consequence of the NBA’s convoluted capology. There’s a perverse incentive here: When a team signs someone to a terrible deal, that player becomes an extremely valuable commodity in the final year of his contract. Theo Ratliff, an overpaid, injured center, was a key part of the Celtics’ trade for MVP candidate Kevin Garnett. Ratliff has value as a cap reducer because he’s entirely worthless—while he earns more than $11 million this year, he will make $0 next season.
While Diop’s contract made him especially enticing to the Nets, George, Stackhouse, and Ager were little more than filler—the basketball equivalent of dollar-off coupons, each of which got the Mavs closer to matching Jason Kidd’s massive salary. These coupon players are the building blocks of every big NBA trade. Just as the Mavericks couldn’t get Jason Kidd without passing along a bunch of scrubs, the Suns couldn’t have traded Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal without throwing in Marcus Banks’ $4 million contract. The coupon player is advised not to get too comfortable with his “new team.” Once he’s done his job—that is, allowed some other player safe passage to San Antonio or Indiana—he’s liable to get tossed aside like yesterday’s garbage. On Dec. 19, 2006, the Nuggets trumpeted the team’s acquisition of Allen Iverson and Ivan McFarlin from the 76ers. Three days later, the team issued a much briefer announcement: “Nuggets Release McFarlin.”
But in the Kidd deal, one of the throw-ins fought back. Upon being notified that he was getting shipped to the Nets, George exercised a no-trade clause—known as his “Early Bird Rights”—that neither Dallas nor New Jersey seems to have realized he had. When the salary cap was birthed in the 1980s, the league created the “Larry Bird rule,” a sensible exception that allowed teams (like Bird’s Celtics) to go over the cap to re-sign their own superstar players. The Bird rule was originally designed to prevent the forced breakup of superstar-rich teams. Now, the NBA’s salary cap rules have gotten so convoluted that a scrub like Devean George can invoke the Bird rule to prevent a superstar like Jason Kidd from getting traded to a championship contender. (You see, the Mavericks can re-sign George for next season despite the fact that they’re over the cap. Since George is on a one-year contract, though, he’d lose those “Bird Rights” if he got traded. On account of that, George has the right to refuse any trade. Got that?)
Once it became clear that George wouldn’t relent, the Mavericks scoured their roster for another player they didn’t need: swingman Trenton Hassell. But that wasn’t the end of it. Jerry Stackhouse, the over-the-hill small forward, had been included in the deal by Dallas with the tacit understanding that he wouldn’t really have to leave. New Jersey would immediately waive Stackhouse; after a monthlong vacation—the league’s mandatory waiting period for re-signing with your old team—Stackhouse would once again join the Mavs. When Stackhouse clucked to reporters about getting “30 days to rest,” NBA officials expressed their dismay—and Stackhouse, too, had to be removed from the deal. It wasn’t that Stackhouse, or the Mavs, were breaking any league rules; after all, the Celtics did the same thing with Gary Payton. Stackhouse simply had the gall to point out, as the trade was still pending, that NBA trades are a total farce.
You might think that in preventing Stackhouse’s fake trip to New Jersey, the NBA was taking a stand—no longer could players be included in a trade for no rational reason. Then, a few days later, the league approved Dallas’ substitute for Stackhouse: a dude who no longer plays basketball. The Mavericks were able to sign and trade Keith Van Horn because, while the lanky forward hasn’t played for two years, he never filed official retirement papers after his last game with the Mavs. (According to TrueHoop, the list of old-timers who are potentially tradable under these conditions includes Karl Malone, Danny Manning, and Toronto Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell.)
After all the foolishness that went into making this trade happen, it’s easy to forget that Jason Kidd is going to Dallas to try to win a championship. The big winner here, though, is Keith Van Horn. Once he goes through the motions of practicing with the Nets, he’ll likely by waived and sent back home. For his trouble, he will be paid $4.3 million. The crowning irony here is that a retired player is getting a fat load of free money because of the NBA’s strict rules to control how much gets spent on salaries. Sure, that makes absolutely no sense—but this is the NBA, where backward logic rules. Now, I wonder who the Lakers could get for Karl Malone …