The mandate at Hoops Rumors is to consolidate news from throughout the professional basketball world, but nobody ever specified from which decade. Join us as Austin Kent, a grown man with a binder of 1996/97 NBA trading cards beside his desk, cannonballs down the rabbit hole of nostalgia to give significant trades of yesteryear the modern media treatment.
It’s mid-February 2003 and the Seattle SuperSonics are slogging through a fifth consecutive mediocre season. As the club preps for an inconsequential contest with the New York Knicks, their leader, a goateed franchise legend, wears a scowl equal parts “Classic Glove branding” and “I’m too old for this s–t.”
Though they’ve averaged over 44 wins per year in each of the previous three campaigns, the Sonics have just one postseason berth to show for it in the unrelenting Western Conference that crushes the spirits of would-be playoff contenders annually. Gary Payton knows this. What Gary Payton might not know is that this will be the last time1 he wears green and yellow.
Though the Sonics had a rich history in Seattle, it had been half a decade since their last taste of genuine title aspirations. The roster with which Payton battled his way to the 1996 Finals was long gone, his most influential teammate at that time now an overweight footnote2 on the other side of the country.
It’s presumably misting ominously in Seattle on this February 19, a much-anticipated deadline day, when the Sonics decide to formally cut ties with their 13-year veteran. Payton, of course, has plied his trade in the rainy state of Washington since the club selected him with the second overall pick in the 1990 NBA Draft. Payton had been an eight-time All-Star for the Sonics during his tenure and still leads the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise in nearly ever significant guard stat category3.
Also outgoing is Desmond Mason, a 25-year-old scorer on the wing just two years removed from one of the most underrated Slam Dunk Contest victories of the decade.
That Payton is on the move isn’t particularly surprising; the superstar is in the final year of a contract that pays him $13MM a year. Since Payton’s performance hasn’t subsided with age, Rick Sund and the rest of the Seattle executive staff recognize that they’d likely be asked to shell out at least that much on the next contract for a 34-year-old guard on a team spinning its wheels in a constant bid for the West’s eight-seed.
In 2003, Allen is as far removed from winning his first title with the Boston Celtics (2008) as he is from filming He Got Game (1998). This is the Ray Allen that, though technically just entering his prime, history has seemed to have forgotten.
A year and a half removed from playing in Game 7 in the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals, Milwaukee has a considerably less promising forecast in 2003 — the addition of Anthony Mason allegedly impacted team chemistry. Still, Allen – just 27 years old – has made a name for himself as a consistent, All-Star caliber talent, and the Bucks are an annual playoff threat.
Even at the time, the decision to part with Allen was a questionable one, but the most optimistic Bucks supporter might argue that the high-flying Mason’s name carried certain veritable weight. A 23-year-old Michael Redd waiting in the wings to replace Allen presumably helped too4.
Alas, the final packages exchanged ended up being Payton and Mason for Allen, Kevin Ollie, Flip Murray, and a conditional first-round pick that ultimately became Luke Ridnour at No. 14. Considering that Payton played just 28 games for the Bucks before signing with Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and the Los Angeles Lakers the next summer, it’s hard to rate the deal as anything but a disaster for the citizens of Wisconsin.
Hindsight tells us many things, but one detail worth noting is that Payton’s eventual decline arrived quickly and happened swiftly. Though we’ll excuse the Hall-of-Famer for failing to crack the 15-point-per-game plateau alongside Bryant and O’Neal, he was promptly cast aside as a ring chaser, his production diminishing predictably in each subsequent year before he finally won a title off the bench with the Miami Heat in 2006.
The other major parties in the deal would go on to have long – and in Allen’s case illustrious – careers. Mason never did end up being the franchise-leading star the Bucks may have hoped he would become, but his was a respectable career worth remembering in its own right.
Perhaps it was a fear that Allen wouldn’t ultimately re-sign in Milwaukee that worried the Bucks enough to deal the biggest third of the Allen-Glenn Robinson–Sam Cassell Big Three. Perhaps it was overconfidence in Redd’s and/or Mason’s ability to fill his shoes. Nobody can say for sure.
Regardless, the following years yielded little for Milwaukee but early playoff exits until those too fell by the wayside, ushering in the eventual arrival of 2005 No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut and several more years of disappointment.
As for the Sonics, a team that hadn’t finished below .500 since 1987 (15 years before the trade), they immediately petered off. The franchise won just 43% of its games from 2003 to 2008 (which includes an aberrational 52-30 campaign in 2004-05) before relocating to Oklahoma City, just in time to watch Allen win a title in Beantown.
Don’t blame Allen alone for Seattle’s fall from grace — teammates Calvin Booth and Jerome James did little to instill confidence while they started alongside him. Nonetheless, it was an unfortunate end to an era of basketball in the proud city.
While the now-legendary sharpshooter ended up getting the last laugh, playing a vital role with multiple championship contenders in Boston and Miami, there’s nothing quite like the legacy Gary Payton left behind in Seattle. Given what happened next to the franchise, there never will be.
- Also, the 999th time! Which is neat.
- I refer half-heartedly to Orlando Magic era Shawn Kemp during his Fat Elvis phase.
- Payton sits just 646 ahead of No. 2 Kevin Durant in all-time points scored for the franchise. Russell Westbrook sits fourth, more than 4,000 behind.
- By 2003/04, Redd would embark on a six-year streak of averaging 20-plus PPG for Milwaukee.