- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — As the NBA, its All-Stars, media and fans continued their descent upon the Big Easy yesterday for All-Star Weekend, the buzz surrounding the league has been this season’s unusual trend of big-name players being traded as teams ratchet up their pursuits of a title.

The wave began this summer, when the Boston Celtics made a draft day trade to acquire Ray Allen from Seattle and continued when they shipped three-fourths of their team to Minnesota in exchange for Kevin Garnett.

Suddenly buoyed by a “Big Three” of holdover Paul Pierce, Garnett and Allen, the Celtics have gone from lottery team to the top team in the NBA at 41-9.

The trend continued during the season as the Los Angeles Lakers traded four players and two draft picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol.

Then last week, the Phoenix Suns sent four-time All-Star Shawn Marion and teammate Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat for Shaquille O’Neal, a 14-time All-Star.

Not to be outdone, the Dallas Mavericks appeared on their way to sending six players to the New Jersey Nets in exchange for point guard Jason Kidd, but the teams hit a snag when one of the pieces — Dallas’ Devean George — blocked the deal.

The teams entered the All-Star break still optimistic that they could swing a deal but nonetheless in limbo.

“It is a little bit [surprising],” San Antonio’s Tim Duncan said of all the trades. “Every year you hear about all these big trades that could happen. This is the year that you see that the trigger’s being pulled. That’s great. Team’s are trying to position themselves, and hopefully we can hold our own.”

The Spurs, who last summer won their fourth title in nine seasons, haven’t made sweeping moves. Their lone midseason acquisition has been the signing of veteran point guard Damon Stoudamire, who reached a buyout with the Grizzlies.

They remain a favorite to contend for a title, but their competition has improved.

The Lakers began the season with Kobe Bryant demanding that management either make a trade to bring in additional pieces and improve their chances of contention or trade him to a team with a shot at a title.

The Lakers refused to trade Bryant or give up Andrew Bynum, the player most teams coveted. And the patience paid off as Los Angeles held onto Bryant and Bynum while adding the talented Gasol.

Phoenix has never had a problem scoring, but the Suns have long lacked a defensive presence in the paint.

The addition of O’Neal — who according to teammate Amare Stoudemire looks great in practice opposed to the hobbled, aging O’Neal last seen in Miami — solves that deficiency. It also allows Stoudemire to move back to his more natural position of power forward and frees him up to score in a wider variety of ways.

“It’s tougher now,” Utah’s Carlos Boozer said. “But the good thing is, to win, you’ve gotta play the best. If Shaq gets going, and Gasol in L.A. and if Kidd goes to Dallas, the West just got a lot better. The East is good. You have Boston, and always have Detroit and a few other teams in the mix. But the West from top to bottom has some powerful players.”

Boozer’s Jazz also made a midseason trade, acquiring Kyle Korver from the 76ers.

And although it didn’t create the splash comparable to the blockbuster deals, it has paid off. Korver gave Utah a much-needed perimeter threat, which has both forced teams to pay less attention to Boozer and point guard Deron Williams, and given those two an outlet option when they drive the lane.

Since adding Korver, the Jazz have gone 18-3 and rank fourth in the Western Conference with a 34-19 record.

While front office officials have appeared more desperate to win this season than in years past, the players say they don’t feel additional pressure.

“The West is tough every year,” Duncan said. “I don’t know that it changes things much. It’s tough every year.”

Said Bryant: “The urgency is always there. Changes have been made and that helps up the ante. But that sense of urgency has always been there.”

While the trades have boosted the hopes of teams like Boston — the only Eastern Conference team to take such drastic measures for improvement — Los Angeles or Phoenix, players on the outside admit they’re tough to watch.

“This year’s been the most surprising offseason and season that we’ve had in a long time in the NBA. There’ve been so many new faces, same faces new teams, it’s kinda hard to keep up,” said LeBron James, who despite lobbying hard for Cleveland to trade for Kidd appears likely to have to make do with the cast he has around him. “At times it can be frustrating, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that I’ve got teammates around me that I know are gonna go out and play hard every night.

“You see some of the big name players going around and you definitely wish you could grab a Pau Gasol, or a Jason Kidd, or a Shaquille O’Neal or a Shawn Marion. But at the same time, it doesn’t take away the fact that I love the teammates I have on my team and I’m gonna go out hard and battle with them.”

Aside from Boston’s deal, the trades are another case of the rich (the already strong Western Conference) getting richer and the poor (significantly weaker Eastern Conference) getting weaker. But whether their teams — or their conferences — have benefited from trades, the All-Stars share the same sentiment that the NBA is better this season with the blockbuster trades than it would be without them.

“I think it’s great for the league,” Stoudemire said. “To have players go places and have a better shot at winning a championship. It creates rivalries, creates more hype, more coverage. It’s just great for the league.”

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