BOSTON -- To deal or not to deal? When the Nets met the Celtics here Friday, the rumors of impending moves carried more importance than the outcome of the game. The Celtics' 107-94 victory wasn't so intriguing as the speculation around Boston's stars or the odd coupling of New Jersey center Brook Lopez and point guard Deron Williams, in which the former may be offered in a package to Orlando for Dwight Howard in hope of convincing the latter to re-sign with the Nets.
"We have two weeks of it," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, in frowning reference to the March 15 trade deadline and all the gossip sure to come.
There are two kinds of major moves: the majority that are drawn out publicly to the torture of the players as they wait to be dealt, and the silent minority, like the package the Nets sent to Utah near the deadline last season for Williams. The latter deal had gone unreported until the day it went through, and Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor believes it would have been sabotaged had the talks been leaked.
"If it had gotten out," O'Connor said, "he would have dictated where he wanted to go. He could also have negated where he wanted to go by saying, 'I'm not going there.' It would have limited your pool, because the teams that have assets to make a trade are teams that generally are not very good."
Not all NBA teams believe in secrecy when it comes to trades. Some rival GMs second-guessed O'Connor for failing to create a bidding war that could have driven up the price for Williams. "What price can you drive up?" said O'Connor. "Did they drive up the price on Chris Paul?"
His point was that the Clippers' highly publicized pursuit of Chris Paul (in which the Hornets received Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Chris Kaman and a first-rounder in exchange for Paul and a couple of second-round picks) may turn out to be less valuable than the package Utah received for Williams (Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, the No. 3 pick that became rookie Enes Kanter, a first-rounder this year and $3 million cash).
Utah's decision to trade Williams had lasting impact. It demonstrated that teams need not be held hostage to the demands of franchise players. It also set the stage for the Nets' pursuit of Howard, and for the Mavericks' hope of acquiring both Williams and Howard as free agents this summer.
If Williams had known he was on the trade market, O'Connor's fear was that he might have tried to seize control as Howard has done by insisting that he would sign a contract extension with no teams other than the Nets, Mavericks and Lakers. That restriction has limited the Magic's options in spite of Howard's superior value. "Deron Williams is not Dwight Howard," O'Connor said. "There's LeBron [James], Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard. To me, Chris Paul and Deron aren't quite in that ballpark. I might be wrong, but if you were to ask most people in the NBA who would you rather have, I think they'd list those three."
O'Connor wasn't surprised when Howard asked for a trade in December, because it was part of a larger trend that helped guide the Jazz to deal Williams. Most of the stars on the 2008 Olympic team -- including Anthony, Carlos Boozer, Chris Bosh, Kobe Bryant, James, Paul and Wade -- had either demanded a trade or opted for unrestricted free agency. "Maybe my age had something to do with it," said O'Connor, who has been running the Jazz for 13 seasons. "I said, 'Look, who are we kidding? Let's not be afraid to do something. Let's be proactive.'"
The Jazz had been preparing themselves for Williams' potential departure since 2008, when he signed a short deal at the end of his rookie contract. "If you looked back at all of the things Deron had said over the last year and a half, there was never the commitment to stay," O'Connor said. "When he turned down $18 million-19 million guaranteed, I said, 'This could be a point where he's basically telling us when he's going to be leaving.' I said this four years ago, when he signed the contract. We never got the feeling he was in this long-term, that he wanted to be part of the solution, that if we don't get great players he would still be really comfortable with staying.
"Even before last year started, I said we've got to look at other options. I made a list of five to six teams we thought we'd get value back, maybe not dollar-for-dollar. We made inquiries to a couple of teams through the backdoor."
The Jazz watched the turmoil created by the trade demand of Anthony as well as by the free-agent departures of James and Bosh (the Cavs agreed to a sign-and-trade for James), and they didn't want to put their franchise and fans through months of cheering for a star who was on his way out. O'Connor also was motivated by the likelihood of a lockout.
"I said this is how much time we've got left with him, and next year (2011-12) is going to be a shortened season," O'Connor said. "I didn't know that it would be 66 games. I was thinking how many games am I going to have with this guy? Fifty, 60 games total?"
He believed his best opportunity would come from the bidding war that was developing between the Knicks and Nets for Anthony. "My thought was New York was going to get him unless they didn't give up enough -- and in that case New Jersey was going to get him," he said. "I didn't know that for fact, but I felt that the team that got beat on it would be motivated to do something."
Anthony was traded to the Knicks on the Monday following the All-Star Game, and one day later Williams was moved to New Jersey as a result of intensive negotiations with Nets GM Billy King.