What We Talk About When We Talk About Trade Rumors

The speculation about Dwight Howard and will-he-or-won’t-he stay in Orlando has been raging since before the season. It’s even become something of a running gag, with Howard letting it be known which teams he’d like to play for. There was Los Angeles and New Jersey. Then the Bulls. And tomorrow it will be somebody else, perhaps the Harlem Globetrotters. LeBron James’ flex when it came time for him to make “The Decision” has imbued every high-profile player contract negotiation with a new kind of flavor and when Chris Paul forced his trade to the Clippers, it put the entire idea of “the players play and the GMs manage” at risk.

While Howard holds the Magic hostage, on the other coast, Pau Gasol’s good name is being bandied about willy-nilly in all sorts of trade rumors. There are several intriguing (but probably doomed) scenarios in play, per Zach Lowe at SI. Some of them even involve the Timberwolves, where Gasol could come to play with Ricky Rubio in an Iberian Peninsula pairing that would result in more dishes than a tapas course. Lowe is right, though, to point out that none of them are tremendously likely.

Bottom line? Howard seems destined to move on from Orlando, either in a trade in the next couple weeks or at the end of the season. Gasol seems likely to stay in Los Angeles. What’s really fascinating, though, is how people are talking about each situation, and what each reveals about the way we talk about things.

Ben Golliver reported on Kobe Bryant’s perspective on the Gasol rumblings, and his line is just about what you’d expect from a loyal teammate: “[Y]ou got to be able to have all of yourself in the game and invested in the game … [I]t’s hard for [Gasol] to kind of invest himself completely … when he’s hearing trade talk every other day. I wish management would come out and either trade him or not trade him.”

What he’s saying is that all this trade talk is hurting a Lakers team who currently sit at 18-13 in the fifth spot in the Western Conference. That’s pretty good, but it’s not championship good, and championships are what L.A. does. The team is widely seen as underperforming this year. Unless a trade involving Gasol involves Howard, it’s going to be hard to find a trade that will improve the Lakers this season (as opposed to making room for more moves down the line). So what does Kobe do? Paint management (and also the media, clearly) as being behind all this, with the team unified behind the beleaguered Gasol.

Meanwhile, Howard, in an interview broadcast during the Magic/Heat game on Sunday, said, in essence, that none of the trade talk matters. I’m paraphrasing here because I can’t find the clip itself, but what he said was that there was business and there was the game, and that his teammates were with him 100% and that they understood what he was going through. Jeff Van Gundy found that laughable, and most viewers were probably inclined to agree. But it’s also hard to see how Howard saying anything else would help his team. His openness about wanting out of Orlando can’t be a plus for the team (who are 20-12 and sitin the fourth spot in the East), but it’s also probably the case that it’s not as damaging as we might like to believe.

Anything any player says is going to have several audiences, and each of those audiences is going to respond in a different way and with a different understanding. The interviews are conducted, manifestly, for the fans, the viewing public. Some will hear Kobe defending a teammate and Howard shutting out distractions to focus on the game. Others will hear Kobe demonizing the team’s management and Howard lying through his teeth. Management for each team will hear different things in it, as will each player’s teammates. On the surface, Bryant and Howard say almost completely opposite things—trade talk is a terrible distraction that takes away form team unity vs. trade talk is something that doesn’t even enter into the game—but really, each is talking in order to try and pull the team together.

Even more than contract negotiations, trade talks are where the commerce of the game collides headlong with the game itself. It is the place where our desire for a team that feels, works, and performs as a unit must wrestle with the bartering of athletic talent measured in cold hard stats and dollars. We’re never going to stop feeding the Trade Machine any more than the players are going to stop using rumors as fuel, as wounds, as motivation. In the end, what they have to say about them is less interesting than how they talk about them.

Steve McPherson

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