One deal. One deal can make all the difference. The balance of
power in the NBA is so delicate that a slight movement can cause
it to shift dramatically, which is the reason the handful of
teams with a realistic chance of winning the title routinely
seek that one trade, that one free-agent signing that will turn
them into champions.
This year most of the contenders tried to make that deal before
the Nov. 3 start of the regular season. In early October the
Chicago Bulls traded center Will Perdue to the San Antonio Spurs
for rebounding demon Dennis Rodman. A few days later, in an
attempt to strengthen their interior defense, the Phoenix Suns
sent swingman Dan Majerle, forward Antonio Lang and a
first-round draft choice to the Cleveland Cavaliers for
forward-center John (Hot Rod) Williams. Also in the off-season
the Indiana Pacers and the Seattle SuperSonics were involved in
deals they hoped would sharpen their outside shooting: The
Pacers signed forward Eddie Johnson and guard Ricky Pierce, and
the Sonics, who had lost faith in the marksmanship of guard
Kendall Gill, traded him to the Charlotte Hornets for long-range
gunner Hersey Hawkins and swingman David Wingate.
Any one of those moves could turn out to be the defining deal of
the season, the one that leads to a title. On the other hand,
perhaps that move hasn't been made yet. (None of the major
contenders were able to snare coveted Charlotte center Alonzo
Mourning, who was shipped to the Miami Heat last Friday.) The
major preseason transactions last year were the free-agent
signings of small forward Danny Manning by the Suns and power
forward Horace Grant by the Orlando Magic. But the deal that
ultimately made the difference wasn't consummated until
midseason, when the Houston Rockets acquired guard Clyde Drexler
from the Portland Trail Blazers. Boosted by Drexler's shooting
and court savvy, the Rockets went on to win their second
straight championship. "Every contender wants to make their
equivalent of the Drexler deal, the one that puts them over the
top," says Orlando general manager Pat Williams. "No matter how
solid your team is, you always think you're just one more player
away from being something really special."
It's no coincidence that the two teams that appear to have made
the best deals of the off-season are the ones that SI envisions
in the NBA Finals next June. The addition of Rodman gives the
Bulls enough inside strength to get to the Finals, where they
will meet the Suns, who are souped up with a brand-new Hot Rod.
And if the Bulls reach the Finals, look for Michael Jordan to
carry them the rest of the way--and for Jordan and Rodman to end
up hugging a championship trophy, although not necessarily each
The Magic and the two-time champion Rockets are the two teams
with the most reason to dispute such predictions. But for all
its postseason success last year, Orlando, led by center
Shaquille O'Neal, 23, and point guard Anfernee Hardaway, 24, is
still a tad wet behind the ears. Moreover, the Magic will be
playing the first two months of the season without O'Neal, who
is out with a broken right thumb suffered in the preseason. As
for the always underestimated Rockets, they probably wouldn't
know how to handle themselves if they were predicted to win
Houston is proof that sometimes the best deal is the one that
isn't made. The Rockets probably wouldn't be two-time champions
today if their trade of forward Robert Horry to the Detroit
Pistons two seasons ago hadn't fallen through when then Piston
forward Sean Elliott failed his Houston physical. But in the NBA
standing pat can be more dangerous than making a risky deal. The
general rule is that if a team is not getting better, it is
getting worse, as some contenders, like the aging New York
Knicks, may find out this season.
The NBA's 29 teams--which now include two expansion franchises
based in Canada, the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver
Grizzlies--had less time than usual to improve themselves over
the off-season because of the league's labor woes. A player
lockout put the kibosh on player transactions from July 1 until
September, when the players voted to accept a new collective
bargaining agreement. Then the preseason was played with
replacement referees from the CBA and college ranks because the
NBA had locked out its regular officials, who are looking for
salary increases. Players and coaches moaned about the absence
of the regular refs ("I actually miss the dummies," Phoenix
forward Charles Barkley said during the preseason), but the
regular season began with the replacements.
No matter who the officials are, contenders will continue their
quest for that one key deal during the regular season. Herewith,
the types of deals teams make in their quest for the title.
Plugging a Hole. "You're not always looking for a great player
to put you over the top," Pat Williams says. "Sometimes all
that's needed is someone with a specific skill." Orlando
successfully addressed a glaring need last season when it signed
Grant. His arrival after seven years with Chicago served a dual
purpose: It ended the Magic's reliance on a succession of
journeymen at power forward and severely weakened the Bulls, one
of the Magic's main Eastern Conference rivals. This season the
Magic lured former Atlanta Hawk center Jon Koncak to Orlando to
serve as a much-needed backup for Shaq.
Occasionally a team is so desperate to address a shortcoming
that it will gamble on a player who fits its need even though he
has other drawbacks. Take the Bulls' decision to deal for
Rodman: He has little scoring ability, and as he proved with the
Spurs last season, his eccentricities can be damaging to a
team's chemistry. But his great strength, rebounding, was
Chicago's big weakness. "We weren't going to win a championship
the way we were before, so why not take the risk?" says Bull
guard Steve Kerr.
Hot Rod Williams fits Phoenix's situation as neatly as Rodman
does Chicago's. He is a solid player who was especially
attractive to the Suns because he is one of the better
shot-blocking forwards in the league and he can play center.
Phoenix, which finished 21st in the league in blocked shots last
season, plans to play Hot Rod in the middle. "I may not be a
Hall of Fame-type player," says Williams, "but what the Suns
need, I can give."
The Search for a Leader. This is the boldest, and rarest, kind
of trade because it requires a general manager who is willing to
reconfigure a contending team. "You have to swallow hard and
pull the trigger," says Pat Williams.
Accordingly, Phoenix dealt center Andrew Lang, guard Jeff
Hornacek and forward Tim Perry to the Philadelphia 76ers for
Barkley in 1992, and though they haven't won a title, the Suns
clearly got the better of the swap. Barkley has won an MVP award
and taken Phoenix to the Finals, while Perry is the only one of
the three players Philadelphia acquired who is still with the
Sixers, and he has a minor role.
Preparing for a Rival. Some contenders make deals with a
particular opposing player or team in mind, as the 76ers and the
Boston Celtics did when they were battling for Eastern
Conference supremacy in the early 1980s. Boston acquired
defensive stopper Dennis Johnson in '83, largely to do battle
with Sixer guard Andrew Toney, a streak shooter whose best
performances seemed to come against the Celtics in the
postseason. The move could not have worked out better for
Boston, which won the championship in Johnson's first year in
the Hub, or for Johnson, whose number 3 was eventually retired
by the Celtics.
Perhaps no player has influenced general managers' decisions
more than Jordan. The Cavaliers, tired of being devastated by
Jordan in the playoffs, signed guard Gerald Wilkins as a free
agent in 1992 largely because as a Knick, Wilkins had guarded
Jordan well in the playoffs the season before.
"I made Michael think, something not many players can do,"
Wilkins said. But Jordan gave Wilkins and the Cavs something to
think about in the '93 playoffs, leading the Bulls to a
four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference semis.
"I've seen more than a few teams make moves with Michael in
mind," says Chicago general manager Jerry Krause, "but in the
end, Michael has more moves than anybody."
The Addition of a Complementary Star. Conventional wisdom holds
that no superstar can lead a team to a championship without the
support of at least one sidekick who can relieve him of some of
the burden of carrying the team. That's what Phoenix had in mind
when it signed Manning: He would share the load with Barkley.
The Rockets didn't have the look of a repeat champion last year
until they acquired guard Drexler to play that supporting role
for center Hakeem Olajuwon. Drexler gave the Rockets a second
star, an alternative to Olajuwon late in games, which helped
make Olajuwon even more effective. Other contenders,
particularly New York, which was also interested in Drexler
before Houston traded for him, had no one to perform that
function. In what amounted to his farewell speech after the
Knicks' playoff loss to Indiana last year, coach Pat Riley, who
has moved to Miami this season, admitted that New York's failure
to make a deal for someone to complement center Patrick Ewing
was a big part of its downfall. "Each one of the recent
championship teams has had two great players," Riley said.
"Somewhere along the way we have to find that one player who's
going to support the greatness of Patrick."
The road to the championship is littered with contenders who
failed to find the final ingredient. The most obvious example is
the Utah Jazz, a perennial contender that actually does have two
superstars, guard John Stockton and forward Karl Malone. Utah
has searched vainly for the right player to add to that tandem.
The latest hope is that ex-New Jersey Net Chris Morris, a
talented scorer with a questionable attitude who signed as a
free agent in October, will help Utah take the last step.
Which of these teams has done the best job of piecing together a
championship puzzle? That's what we'll spend the next eight
months finding out.