A Trade That Won't Soon be Forgotten

By Kevin Pelton
For Hoopsworld.com
Jan. 9, 2004

If you had forgotten that time is different in the NBA, Monday's blockbuster Phoenix-New York trade was a jarring reminder.

Two months ago, we were pondering whether the Phoenix Suns could join the Western Conference's elite this season behind the talented trio of Stephon Marbury, Shawn Marion, and Amare Stoudemire. Now Marbury is gone, with rumors swirling about the possibility that Marion could join him.

Though I picked the Suns sixth in the Western Conference, for the sake of my ego I have focused on the dire warning I gave in my Pacific Division preview. I wrote, "The Suns are my sleeper bad team, the team everyone expects to do well I think could horribly underachieve." I pointed out that Phoenix lacked depth, concluding, "No team can afford a major injury less than the Suns."

I was slightly off, in that rookie Zarko Cabarkapa might have been able to cover for Stoudemire when he went down in December with a severely sprained ankle. Alas, Cabarkapa had already been lost to a broken wrist. Without either of them, the Suns became a worse-shooting version of the Dallas Mavericks.

Where did that leave the Suns? That's a good question. At best, the Suns were going to have a hard time cracking the top four in the West. They could easily have ended up becoming like the Timberwolves have the last few seasons: a good team that could potentially win the East but couldn't get out of the first round in the West.

People may have let their hopes get the best of them with the Suns, which is part of the reason I thought they might be due for a fall. They were basically a .500 team last season, with only one player (Stoudemire) with plenty of room to improve.

If there's one thing I like about the trade for the Suns, it comes from the strength of the West. I have a hard time believing the imbalance between the conferences can continue forever, so delaying the timing of their run is not a bad idea for a team like Phoenix.

I'm also beginning to wonder whether Stoudemire's upside might not be overrated. Before being injured, the only aspect of his game he had improved was his shot-blocking, and his field goal percentage had dipped twenty points. More disturbingly, Stoudemire's perimeter shooting ability and passing had begun to look like major weaknesses. Don't take my comments for more than they're intended to say; I'm just arguing that maybe Stoudemire is destined to merely be very good, not great.

The important question, either way, is whether the Suns are merely delaying their prime, or frittering it away altogether.

There is no question that players like Cabarkapa, Leandro Barbosa, Maciej Lampe, and Milos Vujanic have plenty of potential. It is a long ways, however, from potential to performance.

It is easy for fans to look at these players and see what they could be if everything went perfectly, the possibility for the Suns to have a slew of All-Stars. In most cases, our expectations about young players tend to be overly optimistic. Given what these players have done so far, odds are that at least one and maybe two will never amount to much of anything in the NBA. That's just the nature of young players.

Additionally, some of these players may have reputations that exceed what would be reasonably justified. Teams make mistakes by the boatload, but doesn't it have to be a concern that virtually all 29 teams passed on both Barbosa and Lampe in last June's draft? Yeah, Lampe had some nice summer-league games, but other than that, all we have to justify the lofty regard in which he is held by many fans is the hype amply provided by NBADraft.net and Chad Ford. Vujanic is commonly referred to as the best point guard in Europe. Can any Americans tell me who the second-best is?

At the same time, if there was one franchise I would not bet against when it comes to identifying young talent, it is the Phoenix Suns. For nearly two decades, the Suns have been arguably the NBA's best team at drafting (an admittedly unscientific study I did before the 2001 Draft chose the Suns number one since 1990). Their two remaining stars, Stoudemire and Marion, were both steals with the ninth picks of their respective drafts. And Barbosa and Cabarkapa have already been two of the more pleasant surprises of this year's draft.

Another way to look at this deal is by thinking of the players as companies traded on the stock market. Using that framework, the Suns have essentially traded a consistent, blue-chip stock for several new IPOs. Choosing to acquire several young players instead of one highly-regarded one is akin to diversification, which reduces the Suns' risk. Even if only half of their youngsters pan out, that may still be enough to go with Marion and Stoudemire. Still, it is clear that the Suns are starting down a highly risky path.

There is also the salary-cap angle, but that has probably been overplayed. At best, the Suns would probably have about $10 million in salary-cap space this season. When you begin to factor in money for their two first-round draft picks (and whatever they would have to pay Vujanic if they bring him over next season), Phoenix won't have more than the mid-level salary exception . . . unless they trade Marion. Of course, if the Suns did trade him, one couldn't help but wonder how much they'd be giving up for a free agent who probably wouldn't be all that big of an upgrade on Marion and Marbury.

In the end, what you think about this deal from the Suns' end probably depends on what type of players/teams you like. I tend to dislike risk and prefer the relative certainty of superstars, which is why I'm slightly more negative than positive about this deal for Phoenix.

It's hard to be negative about what New York gets out of this deal. I don't think the Knicks' incumbent point guard duo of Howard Eisley and Charlie Ward was nearly as bad as they were made out to be -- together they averaged 15.4 points and 9.6 assists per game -- but Marbury is clearly one of the top five point guards in the NBA. I had hoped in the wake of the Suns' playoff run last season that Marbury would shake the bad rap that's followed him throughout his NBA career. With the Suns struggling again, those claims have returned, and I can't help but admit that one of my first thoughts when I saw this trade was that the Suns had to have an ulterior motive to dumping Marbury.

Regardless of whether his teams have not been particularly successful or he's been traded three times (not counting the draft-night deal that sent him to Minnesota), Marbury is a superstar. To get him, the Knicks gave up a point guard who is extremely unlikely to ever be as good as he is and one of their two rookie power forwards, as well as a couple of draft picks, two acceptable veteran point guards and a power forward who will probably never regain his old form. That's a lot in quantity, but not necessarily much quality. They also increase their payroll the next couple of seasons, but the Knicks weren't going under the cap in the near future and I think Cablevision can afford the extra salary.

The NBA is a game of superstars, something I was reminded of again Monday night when Ray Allen dropped 42 points on the Portland Trail Blazers, 27 in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Sonics overcame an 18-point deficit in the final period in a 119-108 overtime victory. Afterwards, the person I was watching the game with made a very good point. "Sometimes basketball is a very simple game," he said. "The best player on the floor wins."

It's not a hard and fast rule. Tracy McGrady was arguably the best player in the NBA last season, and his team was the eighth seed and lost in the playoffs. In the East, however, the addition of Marbury to a core that wasn't as bad as you think -- they were 7-5 over their last 12 games before the deal -- makes the Knicks an instant contender.

As a last word, in what is sure to be an unpopular move, I'd like to give some credit to Scott Layden. After all, Isiah Thomas couldn't have made this deal without Lampe and Vujanic, a pair of Layden's second-round picks.

Kevin Pelton is an intern for the Seattle SuperSonics and is responsible for original content on Supersonics.com. He writes "Page 23" for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached via e-mail at kpelton@sonicscentral.com.