I try to be a 'both sides of the argument' kind of guy. I've always had a grudging admiration for those people who see things in black and white (but only the ones who at least get it right more than they get it wrong). Those people are decisive, and there's an old saying that 'a bad decision is better than no decision.' I'm not that way. I tend to see all the shades of disturbing grey. And when I don't have all of the information, I give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe (hopefully?, probably?, surely?) the decision makers know something that I don't know that makes sense out of something that appears from the outside senseless.
But here's what we knew about Sam Cassell's situation.
- We knew that the Clippers weren't making the playoffs.
- We knew that Cassell was 38.
- We knew he was in the last year of his contract.
- We knew he would not play for the Clippers next season.
- We knew he had trade value.
- We knew that teams wanted him.
- We knew the trade deadline was February 21st.
In any trade, I don't care if it's the NBA or your fantasy league or your baseball cards, there is a negotiation. And you almost always want more than you're being offered. (Even if you didn't then you figure you should have asked for more.) So the next question is what are you willing to take, and who is going to blink?
In the vast majority of NBA trades, the fallback is simply not to trade and keep the player. Maybe they will still have value to you. Maybe you can wait and get a better offer later. It's a good feeling - you don't have to settle for a bad trade, because you can simply opt for no trade.
I follow the NBA pretty closely, and I cannot think of a more clear cut situation where a player absolutely HAD to be traded by the trade deadline. For one thing, there's rarely been a 38 year old who could play like Sam. He has value NOW, but he simply won't have value much longer. It's also unusual that a player of his stature has such a reasonable contract. We're not talking about Stephon Marbury numbers here. Lots of teams can scrape together $6M in expiring deals. (Actually, the minimum number to match was more like $4.9M.) And the simple fact is that it was never a viable option that Cassell would be a Clipper next season. (More to the point, it didn't even matter. He's 38 - he's not going to command more than the Mid Level Exception. And he's in the final year of his contract. If you think maybe you want Sam Cassell to play for the Clippers in 08-09, trade him in February and make him an offer in the summer. He wouldn't take it, but you could still entertain thoughts of Sam Cassell as a Clipper if you're delusional.)
So that leaves the negotiation part. I understand that it's not necessarily easy. Maybe you're trying to get Donnie Nelson on the phone for a week, only to find out that they're after Jason Kidd. Or maybe you think Cleveland is your best fit, only to find out that Danny Ferry is in the process of trading half his team. And then Pau Gasol goes to the Lakers in a Grizzlies fire sale and you start salivating at the prospect of getting Mike Miller for a song. Suddenly Chris Wallace is asking for stuff and you're thinking 'Oh, he'll blink. I know what he took for Gasol, so I know he'll blink.' But for whatever reason, he doesn't blink. And you look up at it's 12:01 PM February 21st, and it's too late.
I get all that.
Here's what I don't get. Where was the backup plan? You applied to Harvard and Princeton and Stanford and Duke? Great. What's your safety college? You might want to go ahead and send in an application to Cal State Long Beach too, or you could end up flipping burgers next fall.
And yes, Dallas and Cleveland and Atlanta and Phoenix all had other things in the works, and Memphis played hard ball with the lottery pick (I have to say, I'm not sure I would have given that one up). But there was a painfully obvious destination still sitting out there.
I find it hard to believe that Denver would have said no to Cassell for Najera and a second rounder. (Obviously you ask for a first rounder but you'll take the second rounder. That's the negotiation, and the second rounder is what you'll settle for.) Nor was it a secret that Denver had an interest. Cassell played for George Karl, there's long been talk of him finishing his career with Karl and transitioning to an assistant's role, and Denver could definitely use some help at the point. I mean, they ended up settling for Taureen Green. They had a safety college!
It's pretty clear that owner Donald T. Sterling's comments on MLK Day were a factor here. When the owner is screaming that he wants to win now, and implying that he wants big trades made to bring in major talent, you have to pay attention. And Najera's expiring contract plus a second rounder doesn't look good in that context, while Mike Miller looks great. So I can understand the fixation on Miller to some extent. But get a calendar or something. Because while Najera plus a second rounder looks bad, a buyout and NOTHING in return looks MUCH, MUCH worse.
(And of course it's possible that Denver in fact had no interest at all. Rumors are frequently just rumors. But if not Denver then Orlando. Or someone else. There are 16 teams going to the playoffs this season, and some of them need help at the point guard position. I refuse to believe that there wasn't a deal to be made for at least a future pick out there somewhere.)
So in this case, I just can't give Elgin Baylor the benefit of the doubt. He knew February 21st was coming. He knew that Sam Cassell's value to him had a shelf life. And he reached the expiration date.
This one isn't grey.