You've Gotta Be Kidding Me
Only in the NBA could a simple trade inspire a bench player's revolt and earn a retiree $4 million.
While Diop's contract made him especially enticing to the Nets, George, Stackhouse, and Ager were little more than filler—the basketball equivalent of dollar-off coupons, each of which got the Mavs closer to matching Jason Kidd's massive salary. These coupon players are the building blocks of every big NBA trade. Just as the Mavericks couldn't get Jason Kidd without passing along a bunch of scrubs, the Suns couldn't have traded Shawn Marion for Shaquille O'Neal without throwing in Marcus Banks' $4 million contract. The coupon player is advised not to get too comfortable with his "new team." Once he's done his job—that is, allowed some other player safe passage to San Antonio or Indiana—he's liable to get tossed aside like yesterday's garbage. On Dec. 19, 2006, the Nuggets trumpeted the team's acquisition of Allen Iverson and Ivan McFarlin from the 76ers. Three days later, the team issued a much briefer announcement: "Nuggets Release McFarlin."
But in the Kidd deal, one of the throw-ins fought back. Upon being notified that he was getting shipped to the Nets, George exercised a no-trade clause—known as his "Early Bird Rights"—that neither Dallas nor New Jersey seems to have realized he had. When the salary cap was birthed in the 1980s, the league created the "Larry Bird rule," a sensible exception that allowed teams (like Bird's Celtics) to go over the cap to re-sign their own superstar players. The Bird rule was originally designed to prevent the forced breakup of superstar-rich teams. Now, the NBA's salary cap rules have gotten so convoluted that a scrub like Devean George can invoke the Bird rule to prevent a superstar like Jason Kidd from getting traded to a championship contender. (You see, the Mavericks can re-sign George for next season despite the fact that they're over the cap. Since George is on a one-year contract, though, he'd lose those "Bird Rights" if he got traded. On account of that, George has the right to refuse any trade. Got that?)
Once it became clear that George wouldn't relent, the Mavericks scoured their roster for another player they didn't need: swingman Trenton Hassell. But that wasn't the end of it. Jerry Stackhouse, the over-the-hill small forward, had been included in the deal by Dallas with the tacit understanding that he wouldn't really have to leave. New Jersey would immediately waive Stackhouse; after a monthlong vacation—the league's mandatory waiting period for re-signing with your old team—Stackhouse would once again join the Mavs. When Stackhouse clucked to reporters about getting "30 days to rest," NBA officials expressed their dismay—and Stackhouse, too, had to be removed from the deal. It wasn't that Stackhouse, or the Mavs, were breaking any league rules; after all, the Celtics did the same thing with Gary Payton. Stackhouse simply had the gall to point out, as the trade was still pending, that NBA trades are a total farce.
You might think that in preventing Stackhouse's fake trip to New Jersey, the NBA was taking a stand—no longer could players be included in a trade for no rational reason. Then, a few days later, the league approved Dallas' substitute for Stackhouse: a dude who no longer plays basketball. The Mavericks were able to sign and trade Keith Van Horn because, while the lanky forward hasn't played for two years, he never filed official retirement papers after his last game with the Mavs. (According to TrueHoop, the list of old-timers who are potentially tradable under these conditions includes Karl Malone, Danny Manning, and Toronto Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell.)
After all the foolishness that went into making this trade happen, it's easy to forget that Jason Kidd is going to Dallas to try to win a championship. The big winner here, though, is Keith Van Horn. Once he goes through the motions of practicing with the Nets, he'll likely by waived and sent back home. For his trouble, he will be paid $4.3 million. The crowning irony here is that a retired player is getting a fat load of free money because of the NBA's strict rules to control how much gets spent on salaries. Sure, that makes absolutely no sense—but this is the NBA, where backward logic rules. Now, I wonder who the Lakers could get for Karl Malone …