The year was 1992. Another NBA trade deadline day was in full swing. My phone rang every five minutes with another rumor, some fantastical and others with an element of truth. A few calls came from people inside the league who had very good information, and others were from my basketball fanatic friends, who had absolutely no information, but plenty of imagination.
I was busy working myself into a frenzy, imagining historically important trades that would tilt the balance of power in the league for years to come. The names of so many huge stars were being bandied about, I was sure big things were in store.
After a long day and night of anticipation, the big announcement came down: New York had acquired aging backup center James Donaldson from Dallas for reserve forward Brian Quinnett.
I had expected the basketball equivalent of crashing cymbals; instead, I got the sound of one hand clapping.
But not every trade deadline day is so uneventful. Sometimes, blockbuster trades do happen, ones that catapult good teams into contention for the championship. Occasionally, a big trade at the deadline signals a philosophical change from an organization -- that they are charging full speed ahead into a rebuilding mode by shipping out all their veterans, or that they are pulling out all the stops to acquire that one player who will provide the missing ingredient needed for championship chemistry.
With the trade deadline looming at 3 p.m. ET Thursday, NBA general managers find themselves at a serious sleep deficit this week. The catch phrase you will hear in the next few days is "due diligence," which means that each GM feels he must talk to every other GM just to see who is available, even though one (or both) GMs may have no intention at all of making a trade.
Too often in recent years, trade deadline deals, including some with a large cast of players, are like Shakespeare's line from Macbeth: "Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Take this four-team, nine-player trade from last year's trade deadline:
Denver traded Earl Watson, Bryon Russell, a draft pick and cash to Seattle and traded Voshon Lenard to Portland; Portland traded Ruben Patterson and Charles Smith to Denver and traded Sergei Monia to Sacramento; Seattle traded Vitaly Potapenko to Sacramento; Seattle traded Reggie Evans to Denver; Sacramento traded Brian Skinner to Portland.
Whew! That's a lot of player movement. Except that a year later, Russell, Lenard, Smith and Monia aren't even in the NBA, while Skinner and Patterson were each shipped to Milwaukee in separate deals during the summer. Of the nine players dealt, just three (Watson, Evans, Potapenko) remain with the teams that acquired them and only two of those (Watson and Evans) are playing significant roles for their teams.
Unfortunately, that type of low-impact trade is not unusual in the NBA these days. Most trades today are made for contract and salary-cap reasons, with the playing skills and/or suitability of the players for their new teams rendered secondary, if not meaningless. When Indiana and Golden State made their eight-player swap back on Jan. 17, it was really a refreshing departure from this salary dump/expiring contract era, because both teams believed the players they obtained would actually be a better fit for their rosters and help them win more games. For once, contract considerations were secondary.
After poring over the 70 trade deadline deals of the last 20 years, I've picked five that I consider the most important -- and no, the Scott Brooks-Morlon Wiley swap of 1995 was not a finalist.
This trade is remarkable for several reasons, but I chose it mostly because it helped both teams in profound ways. Suns GM Jerry Colangelo got rookie point guard Johnson, who had been the seventh overall pick in the draft, but who was destined to sit behind budding All-Star point guard Mark Price in Cleveland. During the next few seasons, the supremely quick KJ evolved into a beloved figure in Phoenix, playing in three All-Star Games and routinely averaging 20 points and 10 assists. He teamed with Charles Barkley to take Phoenix to the 1993 NBA Finals, where that team lost to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in one of the most entertaining championship series in history.
West became the starting center in Phoenix for the next six seasons, routinely finishing among league leaders in field goal percentage, while Corbin soon moved to Minnesota in the expansion draft, the best stop in his admirable 15-year NBA career.
Cavs GM Wayne Embry acquired a pair of starting forwards to join center Brad Daugherty to comprise one of the NBA's best front courts. Nance is mostly remembered today for winning the NBA's first slam dunk contest, but he was much more than a dunker. One of the premier forwards in the league in the early 1990s, Nance played in three All-Star Games. In six years with the Cavaliers, he averaged 16.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots. Sanders spent a productive year as the starting small forward for Cleveland before signing with Indiana as a free agent.
Neither team won a championship as a result of this trade, mostly thanks to Jordan, who famously thwarted both teams in the playoffs. But Johnson and Nance became All-Stars for their new teams, and all five players in the trade had long, productive NBA careers.
The Pistons had won 50 games and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2003, but GM Joe Dumars knew they needed one more front court piece to complement defensive dynamo Ben Wallace and young small forward Tayshaun Prince.
Acquiring the combustible Rasheed Wallace was seen by many as a risky move, but Dumars was being fitted for a king's crown and robe after Wallace proved to be just what Detroit needed. Overnight, Detroit became a juggernaut, ultimately dismissing the favored Lakers in five games to win the franchise's first NBA championship in 14 years.
Wallace remains a key component for the Pistons, a serious title contender every year since this trade was made.
Mutombo was a seven-time All-Star in Denver and Atlanta, but his teams had never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs in nine tries. Atlanta was bound for the lottery and figured it could get shot-blocking from younger players like Ratliff and Mohammed instead of the expensive Mutombo. Philadelphia GM Billy King had Allen Iverson playing at his NBA MVP best, and knew he needed to make a bold move right away to compete for a championship.
Ratliff was an extremely popular and productive player for the Sixers, but Mutombo was rejuvenated by the trade and was an even bigger lane presence than Ratliff. He averaged 13.9 points, 13.7 rebounds and 3.1 blocked shots in the playoffs, spurring Philadelphia into the NBA Finals. The Sixers lost to Shaq and Kobe's Lakers, but King's move was more than validated as a great one.
This trade marked the end of the Gary Payton Era in Seattle, which had spanned more than a dozen years and included nine All-Star appearances and nine All-NBA team commendations. It's not every day you trade a Hall of Famer, but Seattle GM Rick Sund knew that Payton was not eager to sign a new contract, and he made a shrewd move to get one of the NBA's best shooters in Allen while Payton's trade value was still high.
Payton stayed only for the remainder of that season in Milwaukee before signing with the Lakers as a free agent. Mason, however, gave the Bucks two-plus extremely productive seasons (15.7 ppg in 190 games) before being traded to the Hornets for Jamaal Magloire.
Meanwhile, Allen has flourished in Seattle, and Sunday played in his seventh NBA All-Star Game. If he can produce another two or three seasons playing at his current level, it's likely that Allen will one day join Payton in the Hall of Fame.
Malone was one of the sweetest-shooting guards of the 1980s, one of those superb players who never got the recognition he deserved because he didn't play on a great team. He has a career scoring average of 19 points, and averaged more than 20 points in six full NBA seasons with Washington and Utah. A two-time All-Star, his career was cut short due to a serious foot injury he suffered in his first full season with Philadelphia. Malone's injury turned this seemingly "good for both teams" trade into one of the most lopsided in recent NBA history.
Hornacek was desperately unhappy losing in Philadelphia, having been used to winning 50 games a year during his six seasons in Phoenix. When the trade to Utah happened, Hornacek was amazed at how quickly and how perfectly he fit in with the legendary tandem of John Stockton and Karl Malone.
"The biggest shocker was playing with John and Karl," Hornacek said. "You would think it would take a while to understand what they like to do. It seemed right from the beginning, all I had to do was nod my head and all three of us were on the same page, whether I was going to back cut, or set a pick. We were able to just go out there and do it."
Hornacek spent the final six-plus seasons of his 14-year career in Utah, reaching the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998. In 477 games with Utah, he averaged 14.4 points and 4.0 assists, shooting 43 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line. His No. 14 jersey was retired by the Jazz in 2002.
So what will this year's trade deadline bring? Will future Hall of Famers or perennial All-Stars switch uniforms, or will we be treated to an Uwe Blab-for-Christian Welp exchange?
I can hardly wait to find out.