When the Celtics landed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007, they went from bottom feeders to instant championship contenders. The Boston faithful viewed it as a new age of hope for their once proud franchise. Since that trade the Celtics have taken home a title, regained their storied franchise’s legitimacy and emerged as one of the more complete teams in the NBA.
We all understand how those trades helped the Celtics in that Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Ray Allen from Seattle and The Big Ticket, Kevin Garnett, from Minnestoa have been crucial components to the Celtics’ recent success. The Celtics seemingly mortgaged their future and simultaneously built the futures of two franchises by trying to restore Celtic pride.
But the NBA trading system is flawed. In baseball, landing prospects for veterans is a proven strategy for rebuilding. In football, teams can stockpile draft picks to rebuild quickly. There are relatively few “prospects” in the NBA that blossom; most of the time you’re either a star or a role player from the second you enter the league. That title rarely changes.
Of the massive haul that Minnesota received for Garnett, only Ryan Gomes and Wayne Ellington (the person they took with the first round pick traded to them by the Celtics) have made much of an impact. But neither of them “developed” into superstars. The same can be said for Al Jefferson and Gerald Green, participants in the trade who found themselves unable to make a lasting impact on Minnesota’s fortunes.
A couple of years removed from the trade, the Wolves still stink — they’re the worst team in the West by a significant margin. Trading superstars may free up salary space, but it really doesn’t appear to contribute to the rebuilding of the team that is losing its star. With the trend toward “protecting” draft picks, meaning high first round draft picks are often exempt from a trade, it seems as though teams trading Garnett-like players can only receive role players and middling draft picks in return. Getting a future star for a current player, like when the Lakers received Kobe Bryant for Vlade Divac, seems to be a notion of the past.
The way in which the NBA structures itself, therefore, completely fails. Terrible teams have a tougher road to rebuilding than bad teams in other sports. The best way to turn around a franchise is to get extremely lucky and land a spectacular player in the draft, as a perennially bad Cleveland Cavaliers franchise did when they drafted LeBron James.
The Oklahoma City Thunder got lucky as well, landing a No. 2 overall draft pick and selecting Kevin Durant. But once again, the reasons behind Oklahoma City’s success have nothing to do with the players they landed for Ray Allen — a solid-but-never-spectacular Jeff Green is the best player they obtained for Allen. They’re making a complete resurgence mostly because of Durant.
But can you imagine that team with Ray Allen? They’d be spectacular. Can you imagine the Timberwolves with Kevin Garnett? They might be mediocre. The Nets with Jason Kidd? Same deal.
Each trade deadline, NBA teams trade off their best players for “prospects.” These prospects, in modern basketball more than in any other sport, do not turn around franchises. In fact, trading your best player often makes your team worse, as logic would dictate.
The moral of the story is as follows: Don’t trade your best players. If you’re lucky enough to land a superstar in the draft, you’ll be a contender. If you still can’t find a way to win, at least you won’t be the Nets. Think about where the Heat would be if they decided to trade Dwyane Wade. Think about where the Wizards are (and will be next year) without Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler.
For the fans, for your team and for your dignity, NBA GMs, don’t trade your best players for a bunch of expiring contracts and underperformers. No amount of salary saved is worth the death spiral that we’re seeing in Minnesota, Washington and New Jersey.
Collin Gutman is a senior in Pierson College.