With trade demands an almost weekly feature of the NBA offseason, it would be easy to assume that the era of the powerful get-me-out-of-here superstar began yesterday.
It did not.
With varying degrees of volume, any number of immortals have asked for, and been granted, a change of uniform over the past few decades. In alphabetical order, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (probably the first true high-profile player to make that demand -- in his case to go from Milwaukee to Los Angeles), Wilt Chamberlain, Elvin Hayes, Bob Lanier, Moses Malone, George McGinnis and Oscar Robertson have all asked for new homes. Countless lesser lights have done the same. While many teams indulge the requests of their disgruntled stars, how good of an idea it is to do so remains in question.
Was it a good idea for the Los Angeles Lakers to trade Shaquille O'Neal or for the Orlando Magic to trade Tracy McGrady? Conversely, should the Sacramento Kings and the Toronto Raptors have kept their disenchanted aces, Peja Stojakovic and Vince Carter, respectively, both of whom have asked to be dealt? Is the situation in New Jersey, where Jason Kidd has mildly suggested that a change-of-address card is among his autumn wishes, going to get untenable if the Nets don't deal him?
These questions do not have easy answers -- which, of course, won't stop me from answering them. In order: yes, yes, no and yes. Generally, teams should deal their get-me-out-of-here stars -- not to accede to the players' wishes (we have wives, girlfriends, agents, posse members and journalists to do that) -- but because keeping them around will do more harm than good in the long run.
But advocating for these players to be dealt is not the same as saying a team stuck in such a position can get a good deal. Orlando did about as well as could be expected to get two good players (Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley) and a sort of good one (Kelvin Cato) for T-Mac, but Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak should've made getting Dwyane Wade a condition of the Shaq deal. The Heat said Wade was a deal-breaker. Yeah, right. Kupchak should've called their bluff on that one.
No matter how disenchanted the star, however, teams need to be careful not to deal for someone else's flotsam. "No one is going to force me to make a trade," Rob Babcock, the Raptors' general manager, has said about his ongoing dialectic with Carter. "I've made it very clear the only way I would trade any player on our team is if it's a trade that makes us a better team." Who can blame him for feeling that way?
Of course, players need to be careful, too, and not overplay their hands. The Trail Blazers' Shareef Abdur-Rahim has asked out of Portland (he can't be blamed for that), but the demand has no punch because Abdur-Rahim is no longer a star. Without the bite that accompanies a star, the Trail Blazers, who desperately want to keep a good guy like Abdur-Rahim around, likely won't feel compelled to deal quickly.
But when a true star does make trade demands, there are logical reasons to give them their freedom:
1) Bad chemistry. Basketball teams are much more susceptible to being ripped asunder from within than teams in other sports. Why? There are only 12 players on a team and, of those, only a few are pivotal, including, obviously, the star player. Talented teams can overcome bad chemistry for a while, as the Lakers did during their three-year championship run, but not unless they have two superior players like Shaq and Kobe Bryant and a coach like Phil Jackson. And not forever, as was proven the last two seasons with those same Lakers.
2) The story never goes away. The journalistic focus of a basketball team is narrow. Since the regular-season games don't count for much (there are too many of them), the focus is almost always on the players (in football it's on the games) and, as I said above, only a few players count. Check out the stories on the Raptors this season; you will be hard-pressed to find any that don't mention Carter and his disenchantment. And when the subject is on a player other than Carter, you can bet the questions will be, "So, what do you think about Vince's trade demands?"
3) The future is compromised. The vast majority of NBA teams come into the season with no thought of winning a championship. (This season I would say that seven teams, at most, are thinking they can -- Detroit, Indiana and Miami in the East and San Antonio, Minnesota, Sacramento and the Lakers in the West.) Therefore, most of them play to get better, to take that magic next step, to prepare for that moment when they can win it all. You can't do that with a player who wants out. After all, it's difficult to take that next step when it's unclear what direction that step will be.
This doesn't matter as much for Toronto, which is a half dozen transactions away from being a championship contender, as it does for Sacramento this season. The Kings are good enough to challenge, but not if they can't count on Stojakovic to be part of the program. And if he's not going to be there next season, or if his trade demands are such that they detract from the team improving, the Kings should quickly come to terms, as so many teams have before, that it would be better to move their dissatisfied All-Star and start over.