Rogers and Delk: How Big a Heist?

February 24, 2002

HOUSTON - You will be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't like the Celtics' trading-deadline deal with Phoenix. They got two players who should contribute while giving up three who either didn't contribute or couldn't contribute. They also unloaded a draft pick they didn't really want and still have two first-rounders in 2003.

What's not to like about it?

   Well, as our mothers all warned us, if something is too good to be true, there's probably a reason. On paper, the deal looks terrific, and, if all goes according to Hoyle, it will give the Celtics added depth and flexibility. Undeniably, it makes them a better team now than they were before.

But there are some things to bear in mind as the season winds down and (hopefully for them) the playoffs come into focus.

Let's start with Rodney Rogers. First of all, he will be a free agent, and unless there's some new TV deal we don't know about, or a clandestine expansion plan about to be implemented, or some team willing to take Vitaly Potapenko for a draft pick, there is little to no chance he will stay in Boston beyond this year.

The new NBA economics, not Rogers's ability, is the culprit. Owner Paul Gaston, like most of his peers, does not want to be a luxury-tax payer, and that means free agents are not in next year's budget. The nine players already under contract for 2002-03 are to receive around $52 million (Paul Pierce's numbers aren't set yet) - and that represents the luxury-tax threshold as best as can be projected. Anything over that results in a dollar-for-dollar payment to the league, which can run into millions.

So it's best not to fall hard for the intriguing Rogers. He's not the only free agent who is going to feel the luxury-tax pinch in Boston. You can include Erick Strickland and Mark Blount in that group as well.

The Celtics would love to re-sign the battling Strickland, who is playing for pennies on the dollar this season. (His bad. He opted out of a contract that guaranteed him $2.5 million.) Would he do so again next year? He may have no choice if he wants to stay here. It also will be interesting to see how he and Tony Delk are used. They have similar styles, and that could be viewed as duplicative down the road. Both are regarded as excellent defenders, 3-point threats, and tough cookies. The Celtics might well decide they need only one of them next season - and Delk is already under contract through 2006 at manageable numbers.

You also would not be cynical to wonder how much time and opportunity the new guys are going to get. As Jim O'Brien noted, this deal was done without disrupting his eight-man rotation. Whose time is Rogers going to get? We already have seen power forwards (Danny Fortson) who wasted away because Antoine Walker had that spot locked up. We have to assume that while Walker and Pierce may not keep logging big minutes (both are averaging 40-plus), they aren't going to turn into cameos. That will be O'Brien's challenge, and it may not be an easy one.

At forward, Rogers competes with Walker, Pierce, and Eric Williams for minutes. O'Brien loves all three of those guys. Williams is the toughest front-line defender they have. We may see times when Rogers will be spotted at center, but that will come at the expense of Tony Battie or Potapenko. So, in other words, we'll have to wait and see. Rogers averaged 25.1 minutes a game for Phoenix. He'll be hard pressed to match that in Boston, which might make him unhappy in a contract year.

Delk may well cut into Kenny Anderson's minutes (31 a game), and we can easily envision a Delk-Strickland backcourt down the stretch in close games. He may even be seen as the post-Anderson point guard, although he's your classic shooting guard in a point guard's body. Does Delk also eat into Kedrick Brown's minutes? The guess here is yes. The Celtics want to make the playoffs, and it's very hard to win with rookies.

Which leads us to Joe Johnson. Are we going to have to wait for the book to come out to find out what happened? Has anyone fallen harder and faster, other than Kenneth Lay? We had a Rookie of the Year candidate in November, a bench-warmer in January, and a goner in February.

Johnson's well-documented laid-back disposition might well have been his undoing, but that was hardly a trade secret at draft time. The Celtics clearly expected bigger and better things from him. They thought he'd get the time and opportunity to be a serious Rookie of the Year candidate. They loved his ballhandling abilities, his 3-point shooting. Just go back to the files on the day after the draft. O'Brien used the word "ecstatic" on more than one occasion. Boston thought it had struck gold.

But Johnson also was, and is, an asset, which made him trade able, just like Chauncey Billups and, to a lesser extent, the lamentable Jerome Moiso. That obviously wasn't how the Celtics saw Johnson last June, but two things happened. First, he didn't develop as they had hoped. Second, they found themselves in a serious scrum in the Eastern Conference, the end result of which could range from a top-four playoff seeding to another trip to Secaucus.

If they are going to survive, they have a better chance with established veterans who've been there. The price for those guys was, in effect, two first-round picks: Johnson and the one in June.

O'Brien has been going more and more with his veterans, especially at crunch time, so chances are Johnson would have done more watching than playing anyway. Brown may start, but Williams or Strickland (or Delk) is going to get his minutes in a close game.

There also is the obvious depth advantage, should Pierce, Walker, Williams, or any other regular go down for a spell. In that event, there would not necessarily be a precipitous drop-off with Rogers and Delk in reserve.

In short, the Celtics looked at the lunar landscape in the East and decided they had a better chance with the new guys than with the old guys. There's nothing wrong with that. They have upgraded the talent level, added playoff-tested veterans, and even done some budget cutting in the process.

Now, if it also works out in the standings, then it will be a slam-dunk.

Sorting out the pieces

The Celtics-Suns deal was No. 3 in the NBA in terms of personnel and gravitas. The undisputed biggie was the Dallas-Denver deal, in which the Mavericks rolled the dice to take on the volcanic Nick Van Exel, Raef LaFrentz, Avery Johnson, and Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Denver received Juwan Howard, Tim Hardaway, Donnell Harvey, a No. 1 pick, and some of Mark Cuban's cash.

The other biggie was Chicago's acquisition of Jalen Rose and Travis Best, two stalwarts from Larry Bird's Indiana teams. The Pacers, however, made out with the additions of Ron Artest, Ron Mercer, Brad Miller, and Kevin Ollie.

First, the Dallas-Denver deal. LaFrentz was the guy everyone wanted, but to get him, you had to take on Van Exel, whose testy personality is exceeded only by his ridiculous salary. The Celtics were interested only in Van Exel, but only if he agreed to a contract revision (i.e. less guaranteed money). That wasn't going to happen. Plus, Boston would have had to disrupt its nucleus (by trading Anderson) for a well-documented disruptive personality who wanted to play for a championship contender, not a playoff contender. It was a deal the Celtics didn't pursue, and wisely so. It had disaster written all over it.

The inclusion of LaFrentz, Johnson, and Abdul-Wahad gives the Mavericks more firepower (as if they needed it) as well as a defensive presence at the swing position (Abdul-Wahad) and a great locker room guy (AJ). This deal was classic Cuban, taking on onerous contracts no one thought trade able because he believes it's more important to field the best team and then worry about the luxury tax. He has the resources to feel that way. So do other owners (Micky Arison in Miami comes to mind) who don't feel that way.

"We thought this was an opportunity that doesn't come along very often, and it was something we needed to do," Mavs coach Don Nelson said. "It was available because we have an owner who will spend the money to get the players."

It may take a while for this group to gel, and there's Van Exel's long-running dispute with his former Lakers coach, Del Harris, now a Dallas assistant. Nellie said Harris backed the deal, based on Van Exel's ability.

"We know who Nick Van Exel is," said Nelson. "I hope he gets along with me, and I'm going to work hard to try and accomplish that."

The ex-Nuggets may be in shock initially, coming to creature-comfort Dallas and having a raucous full house to witness a gritty comeback win over Boston Thursday. That's not how it is in Denver. As for the Nuggets, new GM Kiki Vandeweghe unloaded three of Dan Issel's worst contracts and can look ahead to 2003 when he'll have cap room. Hopefully, he'll also have a job.

Indiana comes away looking good in its deal with the Bulls. Getting rid of Rose was a risk; he can play and he's a proven scorer. But, as Pacers president Donnie Walsh pointed out, "They wanted a main guy and that's what Jalen wants, too. He'll get to be an All-Star, which is what he wants. It bothered him that he never got to be one here because we had Reggie [Miller] and then Jermaine [O'Neal]."

The Bulls will still struggle and, for them, what's the risk? They were going nowhere. They have proven incapable of attracting marquee free agents (Mercer and Miller were their latest ones), so they traded for one who has five years left on his contract.

Indiana, meanwhile, has been a .500 team under Isiah Thomas for 1 1/2 seasons and, injuries and youth aside, it cannot be construed as anything other than underachieving.

Brad Miller gives them a legitimate center, which allows the talented O'Neal to move to his preferred position of power forward. There aren't many guys in the conference who can play with him at that spot. Miller is tough, can make outside shots, and can rebound. Artest is an excellent defender, something Indiana had lacked at the swing position since Al Harrington went down.

"We've become a tougher team," Walsh said. "We've filled in the blanks with matchups that we like."

Mercer has always had a deferential, Joe Johnsonish personality, and that is why he probably played his best basketball in Boston, when there was no pressure on him to be the man. That was not the case in Denver or Chicago. (He wasn't in Orlando long enough.) That will be the case in Indiana. He can come off the bench as a sixth man and, Walsh said, will help reduce Reggie Miller's workload.

"Reggie is playing way too many minutes," Walsh said.

Ollie is a suitable backup to Jamal Tinsley, on whose shoulders the Pacers' offense now rests. And they still have Jonathan Bender, Jeff Foster (an underrated defender and rebounder), and Austin Croshere.

Another plus for Indy is that the deal gives the Pacers enormous flexibility in two years. If they so desire, the Pacers can blow things up, because a lot of contracts will be up at that time. Walsh could have enough money in the summer of 2003 to re-sign O'Neal (who reportedly likes it in Indiana) and chase one of the many valuable free agents who may be available, such as Jason Kidd or Antonio McDyess. Then again, if things work out, he could keep everyone around.

One thing seems clear: The Pacers have to start playing better than even-steven. They're too good for that, and the conference is too mediocre. That also was the Celtics' approach, although they most definitely are not under achieving. They perceived, as Indiana did, that everything is on the table and you might as well go for it while you can.

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