Sunday, February 17, 2013

Trading (Blank) Spaces

Trade rumors need not be true to be revealing. Sportswriters rarely make them up anymore, a practice that was quite common when I began that trade in the '80s. These days, behind every rumor there's a source, an unreliable source perhaps, but a source with an agenda, and in that agenda, there's meaning.

Parsing the rumor that the Celtics and Lakers are talking about exchanging Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard is simple. There can be only meaning -- unless we are willing to accept that Danny Ainge has lost his marbles, which I'm not and no one else should be either. Yet another person in the Lakers' organization is heartily sick of Howard's act, and has found a creative way of making this known without leaving fingerprints.

Lakers sick of Howard is not exactly news. In the last month Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash have both publicly questioned Howard's commitment to winning or even showing up for work on a regular basis. Nobody outranks Bryant in the Laker table of organization, after all. But the Rondo rumor is more than a complaint, it's a cry of anguish.

"Dwight," it shrieks, "get this through your thick and self-absorbed head. We, a franchise full of old players and designed to win the title this year before franchise patriarch Jerry Buss succumbs to illness, are willing to trade you away for a guy who CAN'T play this year. That's how much we value your contribution."

This will likely make no difference to Howard. He will remain a tremendous talent who never quite fits in, is never quite happy with his lot in life and most of all never quite improves. But I'll bet seeing the rumor go public made the leaker feel much better. I'd be willing to take a little flyer at the right odds that the source of the rumor might be one K. Bryant. That would have given the Laker front office plausible deniability, while assuring the reporter the leak had maximum credibility. If so, nobody's too upset in Lakerland. A happier, less-stressed K. Bryant is good for business.

In his getting on for long tenure as boss of the Celtics, Ainge has shown a willingness to try anything, which has led him to both spectacular failures (those first seasons were rough) and even more spectacular successes. That reputation is likely why Boston was the other side of this rumor. Ainge's reputation made it more plausible, possibly even more plausible to Howard.

More plausible is not the same as just plain plausible. Aside from the Boston community of Rondo-haters, there can't be anyone who can think of a reason why Ainge would make this deal except for an accidental mescaline overdose. It's the oldest law of capitalism. An offer of something for nothing is always the most expensive transaction of all. This deal wouldn't be the Celtics borrowing trouble. They'd be renting it.

Celtics' ownership, a sensitive lot, used to think I had it in for Ainge when I was at the Herald. But at my most jaundiced moments, I had more than enough respect for Ainge to imagine that his thought process in this case would be anything but the following paragraph.

 The Lakers, fighting for the last playoff spot, are willing to trade me All-Star center Howard for my point guard they can't use? The All-Star center who STILL hasn't signed a long-term contract? The All-Star center L.A's Hall of Fame superstar thinks is a malingering dog? Ha, ha, ha, ha! (Repeat that sentence for thirty seconds) Boy, they must be desperate out there to come up with this story. Now, where did I put that cell phone number for the Clippers GM?"

There's a good deal of fraternization at All-Star weekend. Again, I'd be willing to bet that out of earshot of Howard, Bryant and fellow vet Kevin Garnett share a hearty chuckle. What else are rumors good for?


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