Trading a Popular Teammate Is Risky Business in the NBA

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Trading a Popular Teammate Is Risky Business in the NBA
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MIAMI — Every team, like every family, knows itself the best, and thus knows the folly of trying to figure out some other other team's troubles. The Miami Heat know this better than any team in modern memory, since none has been more incorrectly, absurdly assessed by outsiders—whether media, fans or opponents. 

So no one on the Heat has been so presumptuous as to openly, definitively diagnose the recent slide of their closest East rival, the Indiana Pacers, a slide that has been accompanied with so much open carping and sniping that Pacers coach Frank Vogel went public with his pleas for his players to stop going public—especially if they intend to refer to teammates as "selfish dudes."

Still, it's been hard for the Heat not to notice all the negativity from the north. Some have admittedly been spellbound by the splintering, suspecting that the Pacers' cracks coincided with Larry Bird's calculated gambles, by which the Pacers president traded franchise pillar Danny Granger and waived popular prospect Orlando Johnson to bring in the talented Evan Turner and the troubled Andrew Bynum.

On the day of the Granger trade, Paul George posted the photo below on his Instagram account with the caption: "On a serious note upset day for me losing a big brother and mentor hate to see him leave us.. You helped me so far along the way big bro! Still one of my toughest match ups.. Nothing but love for you geezy!"

Heat players have referred to the risks you run when reshuffling a contender so late in the season.

As one Heat official recently put it, "Now you see why we didn't trade U.D."

Dealing Udonis Haslem, the 11-season standby, the three-time champion and all-time franchise rebounding leader, whose jersey will rise to the rafters shortly after his retirement, and whose Dade County credentials are so secure that they even survived his stealth move to Broward? The guy who has taken less money than was available on the open market twice, and who has embodied the Heat's self-professed, prized "culture" more than any player other than his on-court "father figure" (and recently-minted Basketball Hall of Famer) Alonzo Mourning, never backing down from a challenge, a foe or a fight?

How would that have gone over?  

"That's a tough question," Mario Chalmers said, measuring his words. "U.D., besides Dwyane and Bron and CB, he is the heart and soul of this team. He is one of the captains, one of the leaders on this team. He sets a good example for everybody else. I don't know. It wouldn't have been a good thing." 

Another Heat veteran went further, saying it would have created another type of U.D.

Ugly Drama. 

"It would have been bad," he said. "It would have been really, really bad." 

And it really was possible, even with Haslem holding a $4.6 million option for next season. While a Heat source would not specifically confirm Dan LeBatard's report—that Philadelphia and Miami had discussed Turner for Haslem, Toney Douglas and a draft pick—he did confirm that the Heat had possibilities on the table, had they chosen to pursue them. 

They did not. Not seriously enough to execute any. If they had, they would have empirical means to explain it, if not the emotional ones. 

Haslem had finally seemed to meet his match in Father Time. Through the first six games of the season, all of which he started, Haslem ranked last among Heat regulars in offensive (102.7) and defensive (112.8) rating. And even while starting 4-2, Miami was a minus-21 in Haslem's 96 minutes on the floor. By the numbers, individually and collectively, Erik Spoelstra had every justification to look elsewhere. Still, even in that context, Haslem's banishment was jolting, not only for him, but for long-time Heat observers.

After he finally rested his aching back, he returned to no role, disappearing for more than three months as the Heat started Shane Battier and then Greg Oden, first aiming for spacing and then for size. Haslem stewed, but never stopped working, bringing his fury to the extras' pregame 3-on-3 battles, focusing on "what I can control," and proclaiming that "I know there's gonna come a point where they're gonna need me, because there always is." 

Haslem's been proven prescient, "kicking down the door"—as Spoelstra put it—to the rotation, and even busting the padlock on the starting lineup, where he has suddenly taken up semi-permanent residence.

LeBron James has repeatedly endorsed both promotions, and the statistics are supportive.

Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

Actually, that's not a strong enough word. They are remarkable and redemptive. Before the All-Star break, the Heat were minus-106 in Haslem's 326 minutes; since the All-Star break, they are plus-50 in his 179 minutes. Before the All-Star break, his net rating was minus-13.2, far and away the team's worst; since the All-Star break, his net rating is plus-18.0, best among players with at least 125 minutes, with by bar the best defensive rating (93.8) among those 11 men. By comparison, Greg Oden is a minus-5.6, which includes a 106.8 on defense.

And here's the thing:

None of this would be happening, if Riley had overreached, if he had flipped a cratering cornerstone as Bird flipped Granger, in the name of youth and flexibility. Contrary to his cutthroat reputation, he is more sentimental than that, and sometimes to a fault—he hung tight with the late 1990s core too long, and he unsuccessfully tried to squeeze another season out of the entire aging rotation of the wheezing 2006 champions. But in this case, that loyalty was an absolute necessity. 

That has become abundantly clear through casual conversations—on and off the record—over the past couple of weeks. While the media have made much of the unpopular offseason amnesty of friend-to-all Mike Miller, players believe that January's trade of Joel Anthony to Boston was given much too little attention. That, like the Miller move, was fiscally understandable in light of the luxury tax savings, and it has actually paid unexpected dividends, with Douglas (acquired in the deal) stepping in and going 9-1 as a starter. But Anthony, while much less gregarious than Miller, was also extremely well-liked, staying out of the way but providing a sunny, hard-working presence. 

"A great teammate," one Heat veteran said. "That one hurt." 

If you recall, the Heat allowed 73 points in the first half, that first night without Anthony in Washington.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Miami made one minor trade in advance of the deadline, sending Roger Mason, Jr., to Sacramento. Mason, intelligent and professional, was well-respected in the room, but he hadn't been around that long. He didn't have Anthony's, let alone Haslem's, history here. Imagine how this group, so shaken by the departures of Miller and Anthony, would have handled a Haslem exit, after he had sacrificed body and bucks for them. Imagine how they might have received his replacement. 

Of course, one could counter that the Heat haven't played all that well overall since keeping Haslem, needing a recent four-game win streak to get to 14-8. And there are those who believe that winning aids chemistry much more than the reverse occurs. 

The latter assertion may be right. There's no way to truly know. 

But camaraderie, however it comes, is not a worthless commodity. 

"There are no measurables by which you can monitor it," Battier said. "At least with our play on the court, you have points per games and rebounds and assists. So on paper, you can make a fair basketball trade. But chemistry is immeasurable, and it is vital to a team's success, no question about it." 

And when core players go? 

"You feel it," Battier said. "You feel their loss. And it's not a slight against the guys who come in. But you feel the void of guys who have part of a championship team, understand what the championship culture is all about. And the energy it takes to bring new guys into the fold is worth it, but you're playing catch-up, instead of taking that group that has amazing chemistry to the next level." 

That may be what Indiana is experiencing. 

May be. Again, the Heat can't know for sure. Not from so many miles away, even as tight as the teams are in the standings. They only can know their own experience. Chris Bosh spoke of it how it would have been "weird" and "awkward" to play without Haslem, without someone "that you've been through a bunch of battles with." Just as it was weird to play without Miller. 

Joe Murphy/Getty Images

"Losing Mike was like, man, golly," Bosh said, shaking his head. "It's just unfortunate that there's a business side to it."

Bird made a business bet for the Pacers, one that looked prudent on paper. Granger wasn't shooting well as he recovered from knee surgery, and the organization wasn't likely to re-sign him anyway. Turner was younger, more versatile, and with an expiring contract, so his presence could be used as leverage in a negotiation with Lance Stephenson. 

Has it paid off? 

Not so far, even with Turner hitting a big shot in last Wednesday's win against Miami. 

Perhaps it will. 

But the doubts will linger, until the Heat lose to the Pacers when it matters most. 

"As far as the front office is concerned, sometimes you just got to rock with what you have," Bosh said. "If you believe in your guys, and they're good enough. Especially because Danny was a locker room guy, and he could knock down threes, spread the floor. Very important for them. You get into a situation where you got somebody new, you got to work them in, you're working against the clock, you don't have much time. It can be very stressful. It's just unfortunate. But better them than us."

He laughed.

"Sometimes it's just luck, man," Bosh said. "You're gonna make moves you feel best for the team. Sometimes it can be a mistake."

Maybe so. Maybe not. 

The playoffs will tell.

Time has already told, however, that the Heat avoided a huge one. 

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