Guest post written by Olivier Gibbons, an NBA guru and fan of Le Basketbawl.
None other than Los Angles Lakers Legend Jerry West presented his beloved organization the Western Conference Finals Trophy, following its hard fought victory over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.
It could not have been more appropriate. West, more recently the Memphis Grizzlies GM, served as a paid consultant for the Grizzlies when it shipped Pau Gasol to the Lakers in a widely criticized trade that failed to net the Grizzlies a single player in the Lakers rotation.
The warm embrace at the trophy presentation last week shared by West and his former apprentice, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, reflects the cozy relationship between former colleagues and executives that has shifted the balance of power in the NBA.
“It’s real special moment to present this trophy to one of the most incredible people I’ve ever been associated with in my life, Mitch Kupchak” said West, before imploring the Lakers to win it all.
To the league’s glee, the Lakers’ Finals opponent is none other than the Boston Celtics, a foundering team that went from Lottery-bound to Eastern Conference Champions following the trade for Ray Allen and franchise Center Kevin Garnett.
Celtics boss Danny Ainge orchestrated the Garnett deal with former teammate and Celtics’ great Kevin McHale, the longtime embattled Minnesota Timberwolves GM. McHale’s decision to trade Garnett to Boston just might be his greatest assist ever. In the process, he also may have saved the job of down-on-his lucky Danny, whose tenure as Celtics president could best be described as sketchy, before last summer’s blockbuster moves.
For his troubles, McHale received All-star caliber Center Al Jefferson, the expiring contract of Theo Ratliff, a first-round pick, and little else: Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair and Ryan Gomes. A year earlier, Minnesota could’ve gotten a much better package from the Golden State Warriors, revolving around highly sought after Latvian Center Andris Biedrins and Monta Ellis, potentially, a future hall of fame guard.
A year ago, the Lakers were in no better position. With seemingly little prospect for improvement, Kobe Bryant went on a summer tirade — criticizing the front office for not bringing in an impact player — even going so far as demanding a trade.
But the Lakers got off to a fast start in the 2007-08 season, paced by an unselfish Bryant, along with the emergence of Lakers Center Andrew Bynum. But the Lakers’ newfound championship aspirations took a hit as Bynum injured his left knee and never recovered.
Ironically, Bynum’s last game of the season was Jan. 13 against Gasol and the Grizzlies. Three weeks later, the Lakers addressed its gaping hole in the middle created by the absence of its 20-year-old center, by trading for another 7-footer.
For the Spanish sensation, once viewed by the Grizzlies as its untradeable franchise player, the Lakers dealt the rights to Gasol’s brother, Marc, described as Europe’s best center, along with talented but unproven rookie Javaris Crittendon, Kwame Brown, the former first pick and ultimate bust of the 2001 draft. The Grizzlies are also getting two future (and likely, low) first-round picks.
At the time of the trade, Grizzlies’ players reportedly said they believed West orchestrated the deal, and thought the Grizzlies could’ve gotten a lot more for Gasol. Rival Western Conference executives were furious that the Lakers received such a good player without breaking up its nucleus. That the Lakers won 14 of its first 16 games with Gasol in the lineup further infuriated matters, prompting Spurs’ Coach Gregg Popovich to half-jokingly suggest that the NBA form a committee to review trades.
But Poppovich’s team also benefitted from a little inside trading. Confronted with the Lakers’ acquisition of Gasol, coupled with the mid-season trade that brought the Phoenix Suns Shaquille O’Neal, the Spurs needed to get big in a hurry. So they turned to an old friend: Seattle Sonics General Manager Sam Presti.
Presti, once a mainstay in the Spurs organization, rose from intern to second-in-command behind honcho R.C .Buford. He has Buford to thank for his ascent from Spurs intern to Sonics GM. So when the Spurs came calling in February for veteran Forward/Center Kurt Thomas, the youngest GM in the league handed his former employer the playoff tested Thomas.
What did the Sonics get in return? Journeyman big man Francisco Elson, Brent Barry and a first-round pick (the Spurs annually pick near last in the draft). The only problem for the Spurs was that the sweet-shooting Barry is a core reserve, who wound up averaging almost 18 minutes a game this season.
But to the Spurs’ delight, the Sonics almost immediately bought out Barry’s contract, leaving him free to sign on with any team. After feigning interest in the Suns, Rockets and Celtics, Barry re-signed with San Antonio, where his family had remained following his trade.
Ultimately, three of the four conference finalists — Los Angles, San Antionio and Boston — all benefited, albeit to varying degrees, from cozy relationships and sweetheart deals. One wonders if the fourth team, the Detroit Pistons, would’ve made the Finals had Isiah Thomas hooked up his former Bad Boys’ backcourt teammate and current Detroit GM Joe Dumars.
Maybe had Isiah known the Knicks were going to dismiss him as President and Coach, he’d have donated the Pistons skilled shooter Jamal Crawford and whatever else it would’ve taken for the Pistons to beat Garnett’s Celtics on the way to a showdown with Gasol and the purple and gold.