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A year ago the Minnesota Timberwolves were 19--21 and hoping to surge into the playoffs when they sent forward Wally Szczerbiak to Boston as part of a seven-player, three-draft-pick deal in which they received swingman Ricky Davis, center Mark Blount and guard Marcus Banks. But their newcomers had a hard time fitting in, and Minnesota went 14--28 thereafter, missing the postseason for a second straight year, which brought ever more criticism upon vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale. � That trade illustrates the risk in making a big move in the middle of a season: A deal that was supposed to make the Timberwolves better actually made them worse. But at least give McHale credit for sticking his neck out, which is more than a few of his rivals are willing to do. "One thing I've learned in this job--and I never mention names--is that there are some [general managers] who don't run trade opportunities by their owners," says Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge, a former teammate of McHale's and his trade partner last season. "I won't say it's the majority, but there are some who feel it's safer to not make anything happen."
Another G.M., who asked for anonymity, refers to those timid colleagues as "401(k) guys, because their main ambition is to keep their job and drive up their 401(k)." He adds, "In another week or so they're going to start calling everybody in the league, and rumors of those calls will leak out to show their market how busy they are, exploring every possibility--and then they'll go back to their owner and say, 'We couldn't make the trade,' because of the salary cap or whatever excuse they can come up with. And at the end of the day they were never planning to do a freaking thing."
Indeed, as the Feb. 22 trade deadline approaches, the marketplace is unusually quiet. It's possible that the biggest name to switch teams this season was moved back in December, when the Denver Nuggets acquired guard Allen Iverson. McHale has made it clear that forward Kevin Garnett, the subject of abundant trade speculation last summer, is not on the block and will not be going anywhere--barring an unexpected demand by KG for an immediate ticket out of Minnesota.
That leaves more aggressive executives, such as the Colangelos (Jerry in Phoenix, Bryan in Toronto), the Houston Rockets' Carroll Dawson and the Detroit Pistons' Joe Dumars, searching for willing partners.
What's behind this lack of activity is a leaguewide parity approaching that of the NFL's, caused mainly by two things: the absence of franchise cornerstones due to suspension (Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony) or injury ( Memphis Grizzlies forward Pau Gasol, New Jersey Nets forward Richard Jefferson, Nets center Nenad Krstic, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, Miami Heat center Shaquille O'Neal, New Orleans Hornets guard Chris Paul, Celtics guard Paul Pierce and Milwaukee Bucks guard Michael Redd), as well as the financial discipline imposed by the luxury tax, which has forced all but a few teams to spend virtually the same amount of money on players.
Only two clubs--the Phoenix Suns (36--8 through Sunday) and the Dallas Mavericks (36--9)--have played at a championship level this season. Next comes an unsightly middle class of 19 teams that stretches from the San Antonio Spurs (32--14) and the Eastern Conference--leading Washington Wizards (26--17) down to the sub-.500 Golden State Warriors (21--23) and the Bucks (18--26), who both still dream of making a dent in the postseason.
"EVERY team in the league is a sprained ankle away from being in the middle of the pack," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban writes in an e-mail. "The only lack of parity is between conferences."
Further perpetuating this stalemate is the ugly fact that the worst teams--at week's end Memphis, Boston and Philadelphia ranked one-two-three in fewest wins--have further incentive to remain lousy: the hope of landing Greg Oden of Ohio State, Kevin Durant of Texas or another future star in the June draft, which is expected to be the deepest in years. "We are getting to the point where teams will 'invest' in their younger players by giving them lots of time," Cuban notes with suspicion, "which also gives them an opportunity to improve their draft odds."
So who could be available in the three weeks before the deadline? The most prominent name is Gasol, who recently met with Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley and asked to be dealt. The 7-foot Spaniard, the 2002 Rookie of the Year and an '06 All-Star, has been mentioned as a target of the Chicago Bulls, who need a low-post scorer to complement defensive-oriented center Ben Wallace. The Los Angeles Clippers have been actively shopping explosive swingman Corey Maggette but are underwhelmed by the offers they've received. The once-regal Sacramento Kings will consider offers for any of their mismatched Big Three of guard Mike Bibby, forward Ron Artest or center Brad Miller. The Portland Trail Blazers have been offering little-used center Jamaal Magloire and his expiring $8.4 million contract, though the team may find it difficult to get a first-round pick for him. Would the Orlando Magic be willing to part with forward Grant Hill and his expiring contract ($16.9 million) if the return was, say, Nets swingman Vince Carter, a Daytona Beach native who keeps an off-season home near Orlando?
Some trades will
be made; a total of 28 were consummated in February over the past three
seasons. But will any of this year's deals help clear up the muddled playoff