The Phoenix Suns’ Role in the Patrick Ewing to Seattle Trade, 16 Years Later

16 years ago today, the Phoenix Suns became an unlikely addition to a trade percolating for several months in the New York Knicks’ hopper. Patrick Ewing was unhappy in New York and had demanded a trade. Because of his contract extension demands, coupled with his failing body, the Knicks were all but happy to oblige.

Introduction

In the summer of 2000, Patrick Ewing and his agent, David Falk, had worked with the Seattle SuperSonics and Los Angeles Lakers on a deal that, even in and of itself, would have been a blockbuster. But when the Knicks decided they weren’t getting enough in return, a fourth team was needed, and a blockbuster, became the trade to top all trades: The largest trade in NBA history.

From a local perspective, the trade that will go down as the one that sent Patrick Ewing to the Seattle SuperSonics, could not have been accomplished without the Phoenix Suns, and one particularly bad contract.

The Background

Knicks, Sonics, Lakers

Patrick Ewing had bad knees. And while in 2000 they still had life left, his power, quickness, and agility had all but abandoned him. Although still a decently productive player, the Knicks did not believe he was worth what he demanded to be paid, and according to reports, rejected his request for a two-year extension. Thus, in this now deteriorating relationship, a trade became the only and inevitable, solution.

Ewing and agent David Falk worked throughout the summer of 2000 to find a destination that was both suitable for Patrick, and one that offered a return that the Knicks would be willing to accept. On August 22nd they believed that they had the deal in place.

Shipping Ewing to Seattle, the Knicks would have received Vin Baker in return as well as Glen Rice from the Los Angeles Lakers, formulating the core of a blockbuster deal. However, the Detroit Pistons were also included, mainly to alleviate the three major players of their financial obstacles, and yet it was Detroit who ultimately nixed it. Unfortunately for Ewing, that trade had been originally announced to the public as complete, so when it fell apart, it became nearly impossible for him to return to New York, putting further pressure on Falk and the Knicks to find a solution.

When secondary talks with the Washington Wizards for Juwan Howard ultimately proved fruitless, the Knicks rekindled talks with the Lakers and SuperSonics, the two teams who had been willing to work out a deal from the beginning, though still needing an additional trade partner.

In walks the new team number four: The Phoenix Suns.

Suns

If you do not know the Suns’ history in its seemingly eternal search for a true franchise center, then pick up a recent Suns media guide, flip through the year-by-year team photos, and pick one out.

Better yet, I’ll save you a few seconds and tell you: They have never had one.

Which is why, after Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls following his second successful three-peat, that it seemed like the Suns grabbed a steal in the post-Championship fire sale by trading Mark Bryant (the final remaining piece in the 1996 Charles Barkley trade), Martin Muursepp, and Bubba Wells, as well as a first round draft pick in 1999, for Luc Longley. Coupling Longley with the signing of Tom Gugliotta, and sharing a lineup that included Cliff Robinson, Jason Kidd, and Rex Chapman, the Suns felt that they finally had a force in the middle that could round out a high scoring, solid defensive, exciting roster, to compete in the wild Western Conference.

But, as most of you know, Longley proved to be far from a franchise center. His slow, slogging demeanor did not mesh well with the fast-paced run-and-gun style that best suited star point guard Jason Kidd. So the Suns’ chances of winning a title deteriorating with Longley in the middle, it became clear that the success the Bulls got out of Longley was infinitely more a reflection of Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and less a consideration of his personal skillset.

To top it off, Longley was paid like a top-five player on the roster, yet his statistics were far below what one would expect from someone with his salary. Unable to record a double-double with any consistency, (according to basketball-reference, he had only six total double doubles as a Sun, and recorded over 2 blocks twice, in his two seasons), and by the end of the 1999-2000 season, the Suns needed to do something to rid themselves of his bloated contract.

Undoubtedly, when the Knicks came calling, the Suns were eager to listen.

The Trade

This trade is fascinating for several reasons. First and foremost, it was the trade that moved Patrick Ewing, a career-long Knickerbocker, from New York to Seattle. Secondly, it was a very complex deal as it was only the second four-team trade in NBA history (the first occurring only one month earlier) and unlike the other four and five team trades that have occurred before and since, none have moved so many recognizable players in one move. And finally, it was the largest trade, ever. Twelve players and five draft picks were moved, a record of active players traded at one time that has only been broken once, in 2005 with the NBA’s only five-team trade. According to basketballinsiders, if you include the five picks, the Ewing trade still holds the record for the most moving parts in history.

Per Basketball-Reference, the trade broke down as such:

The Phoenix Suns traded Luc Longley to the New York Knicks

The Los Angeles Lakers traded Travis Knight, Glen Rice and a 2001 1st round pick (Jamaal Tinsley was later selected) to the New York Knicks

The New York Knicks traded Chris Dudley and a 2001 1st round draft pick (Jason Collins was later selected) to the Phoenix Suns

The New York Knicks traded Patrick Ewing to the Seattle SuperSonics

The Seattle SuperSonics traded Emanual Davis, Greg Foster, Horace Grant and Chuck Person to the Los Angeles Lakers

The Seattle SuperSonics traded Lazaro Borrell, Vernon Maxwell, Vladimir Stepania, a 2001 2nd round draft pick (Eric Cenowith was later selected), a 2001 2nd round draft pick (Michael Wright was later selected) and a 2002 1st round draft pick (Kareem Rush was later selected) to the New York Knicks.

The Immediate Reaction

Knicks

Patrick Ewing had been the face of the New York Knicks franchise since David Stern pulled the frozen envelope from the bowl in 1985. For 15 years Ewing did everything he possibly could to bring the Knicks an NBA Championship, regularly falling short to players named Bird, Thomas, Jordan, and Olajuwon, an ultimate record failure that placed a burden very heavily on his shoulders until he could no longer withstand the pressure.

As a result, from the Knicks perspective, it was a “lose-lose” situation. The Knicks were forced to trade the biggest superstar in the history of their illustrious franchise at the end of his career, but were also forced to take on the large salaries of players that were no more suited to put the Knicks over the top than he was. Even before the ink dried on the paperwork, the Knicks knew that they had not received true value for their aging star as they knew the players they received in return were either redundant positionally, or not nearly the player Patrick was. The trade further failed to fill holes, and yet the Knicks had just shipped off the biggest tradable piece on they had.

SuperSonics

The SuperSonics were generally very positive about the trade. With the three top teams in the Western Conference blessed with several of the top big men in the league (Los Angeles with Shaquille O’Neal, Portland with Rasheed Wallace, and San Antonio with David Robinson and Tim Duncan), the Sonics felt that in order to compete for the west crown, they needed a big-time center in their starting lineup to play alongside power forward Vin Baker and point guard Gary Payton.

“We hope this is going to help Vin come back to the player he wants to be…I know Patrick’s going to help our scoring, and it should open up things for me (as well),” said Payton to the press.

Lakers

The Lakers and their fans were generally elated. From the Lakers’ perspective, they traded a little to get exactly what they needed out of the deal, a power forward. At the time, Glen Rice was still a star name in the NBA. However, with Kobe Bryant hogging the same position and all the shots, there was no room for Rice and thus he became “expendable.” The Lakers had also just won a title, and with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe still in their primes, there was no reason to believe that they couldn’t do it again. One Los Angeles Times sports writer lauded Lakers General Manager Jerry West’s “patience, wisdom, and courage” in the face of high odds, to pull off such a trade.

Suns

Arizona Republic sports writers, Bob Young and Dan Bickley*, summed up the trade in two brief thoughts:

Young: “The Suns may not have found somebody (Chris Dudley) who can match up with the Los Angeles Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal, but at least they got somebody who can shoot free throws like him.”

Bickley: “Longley’s laid-back approach to life was evident in his work, and he had targeted the Suns for a simple reason: They had a reputation as a country club team. It was Longley’s ultimate retirement gig, a place where he could open a restaurant, build an Adobe home and put his career on cruise control…(Bryan) Colangelo was blinded by his championship rings, dishing out $6.5 million a year for a player who wasn’t worth half that amount.”

Needless to say, while Dudley was not a star center, and would never be able to compete with the likes of Shaq in his prime, nobody was, and at least the Suns were able to rid themselves of the terrible contract tied to Luc Longley.

Personally, I remember my emotions following the trade as being very blasé. I never did like Luc Longley, and I knew Chris Dudley enough to know that the Suns just traded one mediocre center for an even worse one. The deal also occurred at a point in history when the Lakers were (nearly) unbeatable. I wanted the Suns to be good enough to knock them off their perch, and while I did shine a giddy grin when I heard Jason Kidd announce that the Suns would win upwards of seven championships after the deal that landed Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway from the Orlando Magic, I knew the sport at that time all too well: Unless you had a dominating center – or Michael Jordan – you weren’t going to win, and the Suns did not have a dominating center before, or after, the Luc Longley trade.

*I have a personal subscription to the Arizona Republic Archives, so I am unable to share the links to Bob Young and Dan Bickley’s pieces.

The Result

Knicks

In hindsight, Patrick Ewing regretted demanding the trade, saying in 2010 that “if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t have requested a trade.” The trade of Patrick Ewing to the Seattle SuperSonics doomed the Knicks’ chances at winning a championship due to the salary cap implications that immediately followed, though the inept management of the cap and roster in the years following his departure are also to blame. In the last sixteen years following the trade, the Knicks have made the playoffs (in the Eastern Conference, mind you) a grand total of five times, winning over 50 games once, and averaging a putrid 33.93 wins in non-shortened seasons.

SuperSonics

The SuperSonics didn’t fare much better. Starting the season with Head Coach Paul Westphal, he lasted only 15 games before being relieved of his coaching duties. They missed the playoffs, and after only one relatively injury-free, though statistically unproductive, season, the SuperSonics let the center of the entire trade walk, as he signed a free agent contract with the Orlando Magic.

Lakers

Grant played valiantly throughout the season, and started all 16 games of the playoffs as the Lakers lost only game one of the NBA Finals to the Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers, putting forth the most dominating playoff display in NBA history. Granted, Grant only stayed one season in L.A. and the Lakers completed the vaunted “three-peat” without him in 2002. For a couple more years the Lakers continued to steamroll over the Western Conference until the rift between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant became too great, and Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat in 2004.

Suns

The Suns remained a perennial playoff participant with Chris Dudley, making the playoffs in 2001 – his only season in Phoenix – for the 13th consecutive year. Dudley hardly helped the matter. though, averaging a paltry 1.4pts, 3.5reb, and .5blks, while making 39% of his free throws, far below Shaquille O’Neal’s 51% the same season.

Unfortunately, the Suns missed the playoffs in 2002 for the first time since 1988, though in a roundabout way, Dudley helped the Suns get Amare Stoudemire, one of the best first-round picks in franchise history. As mentioned above, in this four-team trade, the Suns also received a first round pick with Dudley from the New York Knicks.

In the 1999 trade with the Orlando Magic for Penny Hardaway, the Suns traded a future first-round pick, which ended up being the 2001 pick received for Longley, as part of the package. In 2002, the Suns received that pick back in a trade with the Magic, along with Bo Outlaw – another mediocre at best center – in a three-team trade of spare parts that included the Los Angeles Clippers.

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