Nobody was surprised when Pat Riley was named a co-recipient of the 2011 Executive of the Year Award. You could make the case that Riley signed the top three names on any GM’s list of the top-10 available free agents. You could also make the case that Riley signed two more names off the top-20 list when he snagged Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem.
The real reason that Riley was able to sign more than two guys off that list was because of a trade he’d made back in February of 2009. You’d have to go even further back to another trade he’d made in February of ’08 to really understand how Riley has made the term “untradeable” practically obsolete.
The trade deadline of ’08 will probably go down as one of the most exciting ever. In the aftermath of the Lakers trading for Pau Gasol, the other contenders in the Western Conference felt the need to keep up. There were rumors for weeks that the Heat and Suns were talking about a trade involving Shaquille O’Neal but nobody took them seriously. Why would any team be willing to trade for the two-plus seasons left on Shaq’s contract at $20 million per year?
Even though Shaq and the Heat had won a championship less than two years prior, the Heat were swept in the first-round of the ’07 playoffs and Shaq had been dealing with a serious hip injury that had kept him out of a number of games prior to the trade.
But the Suns did it anyway. They sent Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to the Heat for Shaq. Marion had a player option for the 2008-09 season and the Suns were sure that he was going to opt out. They wanted to get something for him while they could rather than see him walk for nothing.
The Heat had their eyes set on the Summer of 2009 so it didn’t matter to them whether Marion exercised his option or not. If he opted out, they would have been completely relieved of Shaq’s contract. If Marion were to exercise his option to remain in my Miami, they could either try to trade his expiring contract or just let him walk the following summer.
But Banks was another story.
In 2006, the Suns had signed Banks to a 5-year/$21 million contract to be Steve Nash’s back-up. But he never lived up to the contract. After averaging more than 30 minutes per game with the Timberwolves the season before, Banks averaged less than 5 points in just 11 minutes per game his first year in Phoenix.
By the time the Suns had made the Shaq/Marion trade, Banks still had three-plus years left on his contract, including a $4.85 million salary in it’s final season (2010-11). Pat Riley must have felt that he had enough time to move Banks. Heck, if he was able to trade Shaq, then surely he’d find someone willing to take on Banks’ contract.
And that’s exactly what happened.
In February of 2009 Riley had found that partner in Bryan Colangelo, GM of the Toronto Raptors. It was Colangelo who had made a trade with the Indiana Pacers for Jermaine O’Neal just seven months earlier. 30 games into O’Neal’s tenure with the Raptors, Colangelo had realized that he’d needed to make some moves that would convince Chris Bosh that the team was moving in the right direction.
Jermaine O’Neal had an option on his contract for the following season and there was no way he was going to opt out since he was due more than $23 million. Colangelo knew that if he could move O’Neal for an expiring contract then he’d have a little bit of financial freedom in the Summer of ’09 to improve the team before the start of (what would be) Bosh’s final season.
But by February of 2009, Riley was already focused on the Summer of 2010. He knew there weren’t any realistic free agent targets for the Heat with only the mid-level exception to play with. The Celtics were the defending champions and he wasn’t going to make his team a contender with just the MLE to play with.
So Riley dangled Marion’s expiring contract in front of Colangelo with the caveat that he take the remainder of Banks’ horrible deal. Toronto wouldn’t be able to get completely out from Jermaine O’Neal’s contract but they’d free up a lot of cap space, even with another season-and-a-half owed to Banks.
The question at the time was, “What the hell was Colangelo thinking?” Did he not think for a second that by taking Banks off Riley’s payroll he’d be giving the Heat more cap space in 2010 with which to steal his team’s best player? Was he stupid enough to believe Riley even if he’d pinkie swore to him that he had no intentions of pursuing Bosh in 2010?
Here’s what I wrote a week prior to the trade when it became clear that the Raptors were intent on moving O’Neal:
“The problem with trading O’Neal is that the Raptors don’t want to trade him in a way that would do another team a favor by handing them a huge expiring contract that will give them the cap space to steal Bosh away from them.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
Had Riley not found a taker for Banks by the 2010 trade deadline then there’s no way he’d have been able to both re-sign Dwyane Wade and sign LeBron James and Bosh.
Does James sign with the Heat if Bosh doesn’t come with him? Even with all of the other player s on the current Heat roster, are they a more attractive destination than the Bulls or even the Clippers were last summer with just Haslem at power forward?
I certainly don’t think so.
In fairness to Colangelo, he was able to make some off-season moves before the 2009-10 season to try and impress Bosh. His big move was obtaining Hedo Turkoglu, Devean George, and Antoine Wright in a 4-team trade with the Grizzlies, Magic, and Mavericks. Who was the primary player he sent to the Mavs?
That’s right. Shawn Marion.
The next summer Bosh fled Toronto and scooped up some of that cap space that Colangelo handed to Riley on a silver plate. Turkoglu, who never worked out in Toronto, was traded to the Suns for Leandro Barbosa and Dwayne Jones.
Fast-forward to today and Bosh and Marion are on opposite sides and major players in the NBA Finals.
The good news for Colangelo is he still has a job.
The only question is whether or not he gets a ring, regardless of who wins the title.
Andrew Ungvari is a professional screenwriter and co-lead blogger for SirCharlesInCharge.com. Follow him on twitter.