One deal. One deal can make all the difference. The balance of power in the NBA is so delicate that a slight movement can cause it to shift dramatically, which is the reason the handful of teams with a realistic chance of winning the title routinely seek that one trade, that one free-agent signing that will turn them into champions.
This year most of the contenders tried to make that deal before the Nov. 3 start of the regular season. In early October the Chicago Bulls traded center Will Perdue to the San Antonio Spurs for rebounding demon Dennis Rodman. A few days later, in an attempt to strengthen their interior defense, the Phoenix Suns sent swingman Dan Majerle, forward Antonio Lang and a first-round draft choice to the Cleveland Cavaliers for forward-center John (Hot Rod) Williams. Also in the off-season the Indiana Pacers and the Seattle SuperSonics were involved in deals they hoped would sharpen their outside shooting: The Pacers signed forward Eddie Johnson and guard Ricky Pierce, and the Sonics, who had lost faith in the marksmanship of guard Kendall Gill, traded him to the Charlotte Hornets for long-range gunner Hersey Hawkins and swingman David Wingate.
Any one of those moves could turn out to be the defining deal of the season, the one that leads to a title. On the other hand, perhaps that move hasn't been made yet. (None of the major contenders were able to snare coveted Charlotte center Alonzo Mourning, who was shipped to the Miami Heat last Friday.) The major preseason transactions last year were the free-agent signings of small forward Danny Manning by the Suns and power forward Horace Grant by the Orlando Magic. But the deal that ultimately made the difference wasn't consummated until midseason, when the Houston Rockets acquired guard Clyde Drexler from the Portland Trail Blazers. Boosted by Drexler's shooting and court savvy, the Rockets went on to win their second straight championship. "Every contender wants to make their equivalent of the Drexler deal, the one that puts them over the top," says Orlando general manager Pat Williams. "No matter how solid your team is, you always think you're just one more player away from being something really special."
It's no coincidence that the two teams that appear to have made the best deals of the off-season are the ones that SI envisions in the NBA Finals next June. The addition of Rodman gives the Bulls enough inside strength to get to the Finals, where they will meet the Suns, who are souped up with a brand-new Hot Rod. And if the Bulls reach the Finals, look for Michael Jordan to carry them the rest of the way—and for Jordan and Rodman to end up hugging a championship trophy, although not necessarily each other.
The Magic and the two-time champion Rockets are the two teams with the most reason to dispute such predictions. But for all its postseason success last year, Orlando, led by center Shaquille O'Neal, 23, and point guard Anfernee Hardaway, 24, is still a tad wet behind the ears. Moreover, the Magic will be playing the first two months of the season without O'Neal, who is out with a broken right thumb suffered in the preseason. As for the always underestimated Rockets, they probably wouldn't know how to handle themselves if they were predicted to win anyway.
Houston is proof that sometimes the best deal is the one that isn't made. The Rockets probably wouldn't be two-time champions today if their trade of forward Robert Horry to the Detroit Pistons two seasons ago hadn't fallen through when then Piston forward Sean Elliott failed his Houston physical. But in the NBA standing pat can be more dangerous than making a risky deal. The general rule is that if a team is not getting better, it is getting worse, as some contenders, like the aging New York Knicks, may find out this season.
The NBAs 29 teams—which now include two expansion franchises based in Canada, the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies—had less time than usual to improve themselves over the off-season because of the league's labor woes. A player lockout put the kibosh on player transactions from July 1 until September, when the players voted to accept a new collective bargaining agreement. Then the preseason was played with replacement referees from the CBA and college ranks because the NBA had locked out its regular officials, who are looking for salary increases. Players and coaches moaned about the absence of the regular refs ("I actually miss the dummies," Phoenix forward Charles Barkley said during the preseason), but the regular season began with the replacements.
No matter who the officials are, contenders will continue their quest for that one key deal during the regular season. Herewith, the types of deals teams make in their quest for the title.
Plugging a Hole.
"You're not always looking for a great player to put you over the top," Pat Williams says. "Sometimes all that's needed is someone with a specific skill." Orlando successfully addressed a glaring need last season when it signed Grant. His arrival after seven years with Chicago served a dual purpose: It ended the Magic's reliance on a succession of journeymen at power forward and severely weakened the Bulls, one of the Magic's main Eastern Conference rivals. This season the Magic lured former Atlanta Hawk center Jon Koncak to Orlando to serve as a much-needed backup for Shaq.