Trades set NBA stage

Feb 27, 2001 7:21 AM

Last season, the NBA trading deadline came and went with barely a whimper. It was a different story this year. Four major trades went down just before 6 p.m. (Eastern) on Thursday. Each trade involved probable playoff teams. At least three of them could have major impact on the post-season.

Of course, the biggest deal involved the Sixers and the Hawks, with Dikembe Mutumbo and Roshown McLeod heading to Philly for Theo Ratliff, Toni Kukoc, Nazr Muhammad and Pepe Sanchez. The common perception of the deal is that both teams made out well, and the Sixers are now even bigger favorites to come out of the East, but this is by no means a perfect deal for Philly.

Mutumbo is huge, the league’s best rebounder, and well-respected by officials and players alike. But he’s an awful offensive player, and the Sixers already play great defense.

Ratliff leads the league in blocked shots, and was second on the Sixers in scoring when he was dealt. He runs the floor better than Mutumbo, is much younger and doesn’t make nearly the money that Mutumbo does. Still, Ratliff has a history of injury problems the last couple of seasons. When he’ll return from this season’s broken wrist is still up in the air.

Kukoc had been a disappointment since coming to Philadelphia. He had a tough time getting off Larry Brown’s bench this season, but he’s been a proven scorer throughout his career. They may miss him when the games turn more defensive and points are harder to come by in the playoffs. McLeod will see time on the floor for Philly. He’s more than a throw-in in this deal, because he’s young and athletic. Muhammad and Sanchez were little more than spare parts in Philadelphia. Both should see more run with the rebuilding Hawks.

The Sixers’ biggest rival (and possibly the Eastern Conference crown) are the Knicks. New York didn’t get Mutumbo, but a defensive center might not have been the team’s greatest need. The Knicks are the top defensive team in the league. They’ve out-rebounded their opponents on the season so far. Those two aspects are the strengths of Mutumbo’s game.

What the Knicks did, though, was maybe just as important as what the 76ers did. They re-acquired Mark Jackson, bringing the NYC native back home, and giving up just Chris Childs and the Sonics’ first round pick this season to get him.

Childs had clearly worn out his welcome in New York. He signed a major deal as a free agent a few years ago and was never able to play at the level expected of him. He’s a fine defender and tough, but he’s often a reckless player and thinks his game is better than it is.

Jackson is a consummate pro. He just moved into fourth place on the All-Time assist list, averaging over nine assists per game. With the number of offensive options the Knicks have, they desperately needed a confident and unselfish point guard to distribute the ball. Jackson isn’t a great defender. His feet aren’t as fast as they used to be, but he has the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league. Also, Jackson is a big point guard, who can post-up smaller defenders. He worked in the post often with the Pacers, setting up Reggie Miller, Sam Perkins, Austin Croshere, Jalen Rose and the rest of the Pacers’ three-point shooters. Allan Houston, Glen Rice and Latrell Sprewell should be salivating to get on the court with Jackson.

Which leads us to the Raptors, who made two deals Thursday. The Jackson deal was strange for Toronto, but their other move made perfect sense. Corliss Williamson has been a non-factor all season. They dealt him to Detroit, where he’ll get a chance to play.

They got back Eric Montross, the mediocre big man, and Jerome Williams, one of the league’s more active rebounders. Williams will help them defensively, as will Childs, but who besides Vince Carter is going to score? And are they rebuilding or trying to make a playoff run? These trades are confusing and show a team that doesn’t have much of a plan, either for now or for the future.

The other major deal involved the Wizards. They sent Juwan Howard and his monster contract to Dallas for Christian Laettner, Courtney Alexander, Etan Thomas, Hubert Davis and Loy Vaught. Howard will help the Mavs. He’s been hammered in the media for being overpaid, but he’s a fine player who can do a bit of everything. He’s big and mobile, as is Dirk Nowitzki, giving Dallas a couple of very difficult matchups in the frontcourt for opponents.

The Wizards are just happy to finally be out from under Howard’s contract. They didn’t get much back, but it’s much easier to get rid of five average contracts than it is to get rid of one major salary. Alexander and Thomas are the keys for Washington. Alexander hasn’t played much, and Thomas hasn’t played at all, but both were first round picks in this year’s draft, and could be cogs in the Wizards’ rebuilding.

All in all, last Thursday was an interesting day in the NBA, with a number of good players changing addresses. The two strongest teams in the East got even stronger, while needy teams like the Lakers, Suns and Heat kept the status quo.