Looking for best deal? It's not always in trade

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The conventional wisdom around the NBA before Thursday's trading deadline held that the prospect of the imposition of a luxury tax would scare off most teams from making deals, and that wisdom held true. Only four trades occurred before the deadline.

But sometimes, the best deals are the ones not made. Toward that end, let's see who won and who lost by knowing when to hold 'em and knowing when to fold 'em when the dealing was done.

Winner: Orlando.

OK, so trading a sharp-shooting former Rookie of the Year like Mike Miller doesn't seem like the brightest move. With Grant Hill's ankle being such an uncertainty, the Magic now has no proven second scorer to complement Tracy McGrady.

But, in picking up Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek from Memphis, Orlando got itself in Gooden an athletic, young post-up player - something the Magic hasn't had since Shaquille O'Neal. Giricek seems to be a solid, if not yet spectacular, shooting guard, who will allow McGrady to move to small forward, where he can better take advantage of his driving skills.

Loser: Washington.

The Wizards are in desperate need of a low-post threat, what with Brendan Haywood's rampant inconsistency. So, what do they do to address the need? Absolutely nothing. If Washington sends Michael Jordan to retirement without a playoff berth, its silence Thursday will have had a lot to do with it.

Winner: Seattle.

The SuperSonics faced two facts head-on. First, they realized that their slide in December and January after a promising November meant that they would not get to the postseason in the rugged West. Secondly, they glommed on to the notion that Gary Payton would probably walk this summer as a free agent and that "The Glove" would leave them empty-handed.

So, they dealt Payton to Milwaukee for Ray Allen, perhaps the most underrated shooting guard in the league. At 27, Allen is seven years younger than Payton and is just hitting his prime. Giving up Desmond Mason, a former slam-dunk champion who appears to be on the verge of stardom, could haunt Seattle, but at least he's in the other conference.

Loser: Milwaukee.

Placing the Bucks in the loser category might be a bit strong, but unless they plan to sign Payton in the offseason, they will have given up Allen and a No. 1 pick - albeit a conditional one - for the still-maturing Mason.

And, in obtaining Payton, the consummate point guard, Milwaukee runs the risk of further alienating Sam Cassell, the mercurial former Dunbar star who is all that's left from the Big Three (including Allen and Glenn Robinson) that got the Bucks within an eyelash of the NBA Finals two years ago. This deal had better work or heads will roll.

Winners: New Jersey, Indiana and Detroit.

The Nets, Pacers and Pistons have distanced themselves from the rest of the Eastern Conference and all resisted the temptation to tinker with the formulas that got them there. Sure, New Jersey could have shored up its interior game, Indiana could have made a move for a proven point guard, and Detroit could have brought in a scorer - and those missing factors could hurt come Finals time. But for now, doing nothing is the right thing.

Losers: Dallas and Sacramento.

These teams have led the West all season and should still be considered the co-favorites to emerge from the conference playoffs. But injuries and time have done much to expose heretofore unseen weaknesses in the Mavericks and the Kings that should have been addressed.

Namely, Dallas needed an upgrade in the post, and while Seattle's Elden Campbell is a bankrupt man's choice in the middle, he is better than either Shawn Bradley or Raef LaFrentz, and possibly could have been had for point guard Nick Van Exel. Meanwhile, Sacramento needed some beef inside, especially with Chris Webber's shaky status, but the Kings stood pat.

To this point, everyone has believed that the Kings and Mavericks had to look out for the Los Angeles Lakers in their rearview mirror, but while the two teams were looking for purple and gold, they should have taken a peek at the silver-and-black streak known as the San Antonio Spurs.

Quiz

An easy question for this week. Utah's Karl Malone is on the verge of becoming the second player in league history to accumulate 30,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 5,000 assists for his career. Name the other. No hints.

What about Garnett?

With his gaudy scoring streak and the Lakers' highly publicized dash to get over .500, Kobe Bryant has emerged as the current front-runner in the chase for the Most Valuable Player award, but his chief competition is going about it the quiet way.

Of course, Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves has been criticized for doing his job without a lot of notice and without taking over at the necessary moment, but this year is something different.

"Have I thrown a little bit more on my back? I think everyone has to because we're not that deep," Garnett told the Associated Press. "We don't have the Portland and the Dallas rosters. But we work hard, we believe in each other."

The Timberwolves have advanced to the playoffs in each of the past six seasons, but have never advanced past the first round. And as the highest paid player in NBA history, Garnett was called out by a number of league observers, most vociferously Magic Johnson, who said the 7-footer needed to demand the ball more in crunch time.

Garnett was stung by the criticism and by what he perceived was a slowness by Minnesota management to speak up on his behalf. He seems to be working out his frustration on opponents, leading the league in double doubles.

And if anyone needed proof that Garnett could take control of games in the final minutes, he provided it in the ultimate star showcase, the All-Star Game, where he won MVP honors by scoring 37 points and taking over in the decisive second overtime, when the West defeated the East.

"He's a true professional," said Minnesota guard Wally Szczerbiak. "He's just done everything this team has asked of him. The success of this team burns in him. That's where his mind is, and that's where his soul is."

Garnett has picked up the pace late in games, but he still doesn't mind getting an assist in the final minutes, if the situation calls for it, an attitude he ascribes to the coach of one of the Timberwolves' biggest Western rivals.

"I've tried to step up into those roles, involving guys," Garnett said. "I read in Phil Jackson's book Sacred Hoops that a good player makes everyone around him better. And I think I do that."

Quiz answer

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only player with 30,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 5,000 assists.

Quote

"Anytime I want to have a good moment, I go back to the '80s. I do that a lot." - Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, who coached the Lakers to four championships in the 1980s.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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