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.
After a week of haggling, the New Jersey Nets finally succeeded in trading star point guard Jason Kidd to the Dallas Mavericks for Devin Harris on Tuesday. In any other sport, it would have been the easiest trade possible. An aging superstar wants off a mediocre team, and a championship-caliber team has a young player to offer at the same position. But pro basketball isn't like any other sport. Kidd makes a lot more money than Harris, and the NBA's payroll-balancing rules—the most stringent in pro sports—would not allow a one-for-one swap. As a result, what should've been a simple deal morphed into an eight-player trade and spurred a multisided tussle among the Mavericks, the Nets, the league, and the players themselves. These negotiations had so little to do with anyone's ability to play basketball that the deal was finally settled by having Keith Van Horn—a forward who last played for the Mavs in 2006—come out of retirement to sign a new $4 million deal so he could be traded to New Jersey and not play for the Nets.
The NBA trade is one of the strangest rituals in sports. In pro baseball and other sensible sports, teams typically trade for players based on their on-field talent. In the NBA, that's just one small consideration. Putting together a basketball trade isn't as easy as deciding which players you want to bring in and which you want to give away. It's more like trying to solve a 20-variable equation on your graphing calculator. The NBA's deal-making provisions are so byzantine and irrational that ESPN.com built a "trade machine" to figure out whether potential swaps are allowable. This week's Kidd trade is the best example yet of the inanity of the modern basketball trade. Follow along, if you can, as we explore the bizarro logic of the NBA—a place where second-tier players get tossed around like trading cards, injured players with bloated contracts are like gold, and retirees get million-dollar contracts for doing nothing.
The lunacy of today's NBA trades has its origins in a well-meaning push for fairness and equality. In 1984, the league instituted a salary cap as a means to ensure competitive balance. As opposed to the NFL, which has a "hard cap" on salaries, the NBA's more-flexible "soft cap" permits teams to exceed their maximum annual salary allotment (this year, it's $55.63 million) under special circumstances. This list of special circumstances is long and hard to parse—there's the midlevel exception, the biannual exception, the rookie exception, and many, many more. But suffice it to say that the Jason Kidd deal, like most every NBA trade, grew distended on account of these baroque regulations.
Teams that are over the salary cap—according to the ESPN.com trade machine, a whopping 28 of the NBA's 30 clubs have exceeded the cap, including the Mavs and Nets—are permitted to make trades, so long as the salaries they're receiving are roughly equivalent to the salaries they're giving up. (By the letter of the law, the trading team can only get back 125 percent plus $100,000 of the aggregate salary it's giving up.) So, in order to acquire Kidd, the Mavs couldn't merely give the Nets a couple of draft picks and a few young players. Rather, they had to match Kidd's $20 million annual salary with $20 million worth of expendable talent. In today's NBA, that means a boatload of second-tier players. In the first iteration of the Kidd trade, Dallas was to ship Harris, Devean George, Jerry Stackhouse, DeSagana Diop, and Maurice Ager to New Jersey (along with two first-round picks and $3 million in cash).
Harris, the talented young point guard, is the only player in that group the Nets wanted for his basketball skills. The value of the other players was more obscure. The Nets want Diop because his contract expires at the end of the '08 season. This means New Jersey will have extra money to spend on free agents. The tremendous value of expiring contracts—what in basketball parlance is called "salary cap relief"—is the most absurd consequence of the NBA's convoluted capology. There's a perverse incentive here: When a team signs someone to a terrible deal, that player becomes an extremely valuable commodity in the final year of his contract. Theo Ratliff, an overpaid, injured center, was a key part of the Celtics' trade for MVP candidate Kevin Garnett. Ratliff has value as a cap reducer because he's entirely worthless—while he earns more than $11 million this year, he will make $0 next season.