The New Jersey Nets were so convinced they were trading Jason Kidd back to his original team on Wednesday that they held him out of their game in Toronto.
By night’s end, New Jersey and the Dallas Mavericks were in limbo, reduced to believing that they will ultimately find a way to convince Mavs reserve forward Devean George to sign off on the deal.
You read right. The same George who recently announced a desire to be traded if his playing time didn’t increase in Dallas has taken advantage of a little-known league rule to block this trade, most likely on a temporary basis but potentially for good.
“I don’t think the trade is going anywhere,” George said, suggesting that the deal will still happen as planned by insisting that he merely wanted to wait for the late-night arrival of agent Mark Bartelstein from Chicago to hear all the details involved before making a binding decision.
“I think it’s right there, but it’s kind of messed up how all the fingers are pointing at me.”
They’re pointing at George because, with both teams about to submit trade details to the league office for approval, he stunned the Mavericks by informing them that he wouldn’t agree to be included in the seven-player swap. Although trades almost always get rammed through when they’re as close to completion as this one, sources close to the situation were not unanimous about the deal being salvaged, even with a full week to go before the league’s annual trade deadline.
Earlier Wednesday, NBA front-office sources told ESPN.com that the teams had verbally agreed on a seven-player deal in which Dallas would send 24-year-old point guard Devin Harris, veteran swingman Jerry Stackhouse, center DeSagana Diop, guard Maurice Ager and George — along with a league-maximum cash inducement of $3 million and two future first-round picks — to the Nets for Kidd and forward Malik Allen.
But an obscure rule, as opposed to a no-trade clause, enabled George to put the league’s third blockbuster trade already this month on hold, at least for the moment.
Although Kobe Bryant is the only player in the league with a specific no-trade clause in his contract, league rules dictate that players on a one-year contract — but who are also eligible for Early Bird free-agent rights at the end of the contract — cannot be traded without their consent. George, who earns $2.4 million this season, is one of 18 such players in the league at present, afforded the right to either approve or veto trades because those Bird rights are lost if they do get traded.
“It would have been done tonight if not for [George],” said one team official involved in assembling this follow-up to the Pau Gasol and Shaquille O’Neal blockbusters.
Mavericks sources say that the club never envisioned any protest from George because he’s been hoping for an opportunity to play more, which New Jersey would likely offer. Yet when George said no, Dallas went from making tentative plans to have Kidd join them in Phoenix for Thursday’s showdown with the rival Suns to starting George in Wednesday’s home game against Portland.
But George would figure to face an uncomfortable future with his teammates, coaches and bosses if he does prevent Kidd’s return by staying with the Mavs, which has some team insiders optimistic that the 30-year-old will eventually accept his move to New Jersey. It might already be uncomfortable for George with Mavs fans, some of whom booed and heckled him during the late stages of an 0-for-11 shooting night in Dallas’ 96-76 win over the Blazers after news of George’s stance began to spread.
George said: “Fans were like, ‘C’mon, what are you doing? Stop it. You’re holding things up. … Quit being selfish. C’mon, we want Kidd.'”
Before his flight to Dallas, Bartelstein told ESPN.com by phone: “We’re not trying to block anything. The issue is that if he agrees to this deal, he has to give up his Bird rights. To lose that tool in today’s world of free agency is a difficult thing to do. In this day and age, the sign-and-trade is a valuable tool that I don’t want to lose for Devean. We’re not trying to cause a problem. Teams have to do what’s in their best interest. Sometimes players do, too. I hate to cause grief, but I have to do what’s best for Devean. It’s not a power play. My job is to protect him.”
The Nets wanted George included because his contract expires at season’s end, adding to their long-term salary savings from the transaction. If he doesn’t budge, both teams would likely have to put other players in the deal to save it.
The Mavericks, for example, could try to tweak things slightly by substituting Eddie Jones and rookie Nick Fazekas or Jones and veteran Juwan Howard for George. The Nets would likely be inclined to add guard Darrell Armstrong to keep the Nets from going over the 15-man roster limit.
Another option is Dallas signing and trading the retired Keith Van Horn in George’s place. Although he’s been out of the game since the end of the 2005-06 season, Van Horn hasn’t filed official retirement papers with the league, allowing Dallas to retain his rights. The Mavs, then, could create an expiring contract for the Nets by adding Van Horn to the deal in name only, because only the first year of a contract must be guaranteed in a sign-and-trade arrangement.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban, though, insisted to ESPN.com last week that “we won’t use [Van Horn] in any deal for anyone.”
That’s because Kidd would cost the Mavericks nearly $40 million next season, thanks to the luxury tax, if they only sent Harris, Van Horn and salary-cap filler to the Nets. Even the much simpler step of taking George out and plugging Van Horn in would still add to what was already a substantial bill for Cuban.
If George stays in the trade, Dallas’ luxury-tax bill at season’s end rises from $9.1 million to $15 million, along with the $3 million cash that Dallas has agreed to add to the deal. If George stays on the Mavs’ roster and Van Horn is signed, Dallas’ tax bill rises to $17-plus million at season’s end.
Before news of George’s resistance surfaced, members of both organizations were treating the trade as a done deal.
“I love him,” Nets coach Lawrence Frank told reporters in Toronto before the Nets’ Kidd-loss to the Raptors. “He’s a very special person, but it’s time for both him and the organization to part ways.”
Said Stackhouse: “I think Devin has a lot of upside, but Jason Kidd is the type of all-league point guard our team needs. We just need a jolt. Adding a player like him can re-energize a team, hopefully.”
New Jersey was originally expected to buy out Stackhouse’s contract immediately, with Dallas hoping to re-sign him once Stackhouse sits out the 30 days required by rejoining a team that just traded you.
“I feel great,” Stackhouse told the Associated Press. “I get 30 days to rest, then I’ll be right back. I ain’t going nowhere.”
Dallas had widely been considered the favorite to win the Kidd trade sweepstakes from the start, tantalized by the prospect of bringing Kidd back more than a decade after the pre-Cuban regime drafted him out of Cal, watched him share NBA Rookie of the Year honors with Grant Hill in 1995 and then traded him to Phoenix one day after Christmas in 1996.
The Mavs’ biggest reservation wasn’t sacrificing Harris, who signed a contract extension over the summer. Sources maintain that Dallas, while reluctant to part with one of Cuban’s favorite players and its point guard of the future, has been resigned for some time to losing Harris if it meant getting Kidd back.
The greater hesitation, sources said, is that they would also have to part with Stackhouse and Diop, weakening Dallas’ depth. Even if the Nets do waive Stackhouse and Dallas is able to re-sign him after a 30-day wait, losing Diop is a significant blow. His departure would leave the inconsistent Erick Dampier as the Mavericks’ only veteran center at a time when potential playoff foes like the Los Angeles Lakers (Pau Gasol) and Phoenix Suns (Shaquille O’Neal) are getting bigger.
But Dallas appears more motivated than ever in spite of those concerns, believing that Kidd — although he turns 35 in March and is threatening to establish a new career low with his 36.7 percent shooting from the field — is still a prime source of leadership and mental toughness.
Kidd displayed those qualities in abundance during a strong summer with Team USA and those areas are well-chronicled weak spots for the Mavs, who followed up a historic collapse to Miami in the 2006 NBA Finals with a first-round flameout against Golden State after winning 67 games last season. A point guard of Kidd’s caliber, influence and experience would undoubtedly please demanding Mavs coach Avery Johnson and reinvigorate a team that has been lacking energy and confidence. It would also supply Dallas’ coach with a dangerous four-man core of Kidd, Josh Howard, Jason Terry and reigning MVP Dirk Nowitzki.
Nowitzki is the player Kidd has had in mind when privately telling associates in recent months that he hoped to go back to Dallas.
Although his desire to leave New Jersey had been suspected all season, Kidd didn’t go public with that wish until late January, when he told ESPN The Magazine’s Ric Bucher that it’s time for him and New Jersey “all to move on” in separate directions.
Kidd was acquired by the Nets in the 2001 offseason in a trade with Phoenix featuring Stephon Marbury. He sparked New Jersey to the most successful period in the team’s NBA history, starting with back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003. After giving strong consideration to signing with San Antonio in the summer of 2003, Kidd elected to stay with the Nets. During the past four-plus seasons, however, New Jersey has not advanced past the second round of the playoffs, despite the 2004 arrival of Vince Carter and Kidd’s successful recovery from microfracture knee surgery.
The Nets were prepared to deal Kidd to the Lakers at the trade deadline last season but pulled out of the deal when L.A. refused to part with center Andrew Bynum, who has since blossomed. But this would also be a good haul for New Jersey president Rod Thorn and new assistant Kiki Vandeweghe, coming away with a younger heir to Kidd in Harris, expiring contracts in Diop and George and the two future first-round picks plus cash.
But if George’s veto ends up spiking this trade — as well as a separate trade that would send Nets swingman Antoine Wright to Dallas for a future second-round pick — it wouldn’t be the first time that a peripheral name caused a monumental deal to collapse. In the summer of 2000, Matt Geiger’s refusal to waive his trade kicker squelched a four-team deal between the Sixers, Pistons, Lakers and Hornets that would have sent Allen Iverson to the Pistons.
Said Kidd in Toronto, confident that the deal would be completed as agreed upon: “There’s been mention of a snag, but everything works itself out at the end of the day. I had a great time here in New Jersey. … We’ve done a lot to turn this franchise around. So it’s been a good time.”