Page 2 columnist
Remember the final scene in "Thelma and Louise," when the girls decide they would rather kill themselves than surrender to police? Louise steps on the gas pedal just as police officer Harvey Keitel realizes what they're doing, the car zooms toward a cliff, and poor Harvey sprints towards them in slow motion, holding up his hand, screaming "Noooooo!!!!!!!"Well, that's me right now. My beloved Celtics are heading for the cliff. They just traded for Vin Baker.
(Me running in slow motion.)(Me holding my hand up.) (Me screaming.) ("Noooooo!!!!!!!") Vin Baker? Vin Baker? Vin Baker? Forget about the fact that he conspired with Derrick Coleman to destroy my fantasy team last spring. If the NBA ever handed out the Jim McIlvaine Award for "Most Untradeable Contract In The League," Baker would have at least two trophies in his living room right now. Seattle acquired him from Milwaukee five years ago, coddled one good season from him and then watched his weight soar and his stats plummet in the lockout-shortened 1999 season. Then, the Sonics gambled and signed him to a mammoth seven-year, $86 million deal and watched him turn into a "VH1: Behind the Music" special. From 1995 to 1998, Baker averaged 19.5 points and 9.5 rebounds a game. During the subsequent four-year span, those numbers dropped to a little more than 14 points and 6.5 rebounds. Yikes. He also gained an estimated 25-30 pounds, denied rumors that he was having problems with drinking and depression, feuded with teammates and coaches, went from Option A to Option D in the Sonics offense. ... I mean, even Michael Ovitz didn't fall this fast. Sonics coach Nate McMillan summed it up best: "I believe the marriage between Vin Baker and the Sonics really had problems. He had lost his confidence out on the floor and just couldn't get it back. We couldn't take another chance on bringing Vin back and having him not want to be here.'' Now there's a quote you probably won't be seeing in the Celtics media guide this fall. From the e-mails I received from Sonics fans over the past week, Baker was apparently plagued by some indefinable, benign form of basketball cancer. One reader writes, Wishing you and all Celtic fans the best of luck with Baker. I really do hope he does turn it around, I'm just tired of watching him try to do it on the Sonics payroll. Another offered, Sports Guy, are you ready to feel Seattle's pain? You won't find a nicer, more stand-up type of guy than Vin. You can't dislike him. You want him to succeed, not just for the sake of the team. You'll feel bad because you feel disappointed in him. For four years. In other words, he's the worst kind of modern athlete: The Overpaid, Underachieving Good Guy. You want to dislike him, but you can't ... even as he's submarining your favorite team. And the Sonics knew it. If you were talking shop with anyone in the Seattle front office over the past two years, you were just as likely to hear "Any interest in Vin?" as "How are things going?" Eventually most NBA teams regarded the Sonics like that guy from your fantasy league who calls to say hello, makes small talk for five minutes, then offers you Jason Varitek and Shane Halter for Alex Rodriguez.
Yet when Seattle called Boston to offer Baker for a package including Kenny Anderson and Vitaly Potapenko, not only did the Boston braintrust fail to hang up, they said "Give us a few days to think about it," then they actually held meetings about it.Wait a second... meetings? For Vin Baker???? Let's see, he's 30 years old, with four years and $56 million remaining on his contract ... struggled adjusting to the pressure of playing in Seattle (that wasn't a typo) ... can't stay in shape ... more likely to say "Pass the flapjacks" than "Pass me the ball" ... struggles moving around on defense (and remember, defense carried the Celtics last season) ... doesn't enjoy rebounding all that much ... hasn't shown he can accept being the third option in an offense, especially one geared around two shooters (see: '97 Bucks) ... has been in a Michael Keaton-esque career free fall for the past four seasons ... needs a bellhop to check all his baggage ... acquiring him ties up nearly two-thirds of the payroll in just three players (Baker, Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce) ... if he fails miserably, it could destroy the chemistry of a team that came within two victories of the NBA Finals last season ... other than that, it's pretty enticing! Let's get this done! Within 10 days, the deal was hammered out. The giddy, borderline-euphoric Sonics received an enormous cap boost -- Anderson's $9.2 million salary gets wiped off after the season, and Potapenko's contract costs about $8 million a year less than Baker's deal -- enabling them to pursue a marquee free agent like Jason Kidd next summer. They also dumped someone who had worn out their fans and clearly needed a change of scenery ... and they avoided giving up draft picks or absorbing a killer contract to make the deal happen. As my editor KJ (a lifelong Sonics fan) said Monday, "It's too good to be true." Everyone in Seattle feels that way. As for the Celtics ... I mean ... what can you say? They were sitting pretty last summer with two All-Stars, three first-rounders and Anderson's contract coming off the books after the 2003 season. Seems like a million years ago. Looking back, they picked the wrong guys in the 2001 draft (Joe Johnson over Richard Jefferson, Joe Forte over Tony Parker), made one crucial mistake (using Denver's 2001 first-rounder to take Kedrick Brown at No. 11, instead of rolling the pick over to the following season), and took one defensible gamble (giving up Johnson and a 2002 first-rounder for Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers last February, even though Rogers was headed for free agency and Boston owner Paul Gaston steadfastly refused from day one to exceed the luxury tax to re-sign him).
Somehow they nearly snuck into the NBA Finals, benefitting more from the ghastly Eastern Conference than anything. Now the third- and fourth-best players from that team (Rogers and Anderson) are gone. Now they don't have a true point guard. Now they can't possibly add another impact player for another four years. And now their immediate future is tied inexorably to Baker, a low-post player who could struggle blending into their freewheeling offense.Questions remain. Is it possible to play Walker, Baker and Tony Battie at the same time? Will the grumpy Boston fans turn on Baker if he struggles early? Will he complain/sulk/pout/bitch/moan/gripe/power-sulk if he isn't getting enough touches offensively? Can he survive without a heady point guard getting him the ball in the right spots? Will he ever get himself in shape? Can the Celtics keep him away from all the renowned bakeries in the North End? And what does my skin smell like when it's burning? We might find out the answers to every one of these questions during Season No. 1 of the Baker Experiment. So why in God's name would they make this trade? Apparently Boston's front office believed this was its best chance to add the elusive "Third Scorer" to the fold; unable to replace create cap space with so much money invested in Pierce and Walker, the Celts used Kenny's salary to bring back an established player while they could. They were also hoping that Baker (a Connecticut native) would get hooked up to the Juvenation Machine by playing closer to home, and playing with two fierce competitors (Pierce and Walker) would motivate him, and that he would thrive down low against weaker Eastern Conference foes, and maybe he would even emerge as the "Comeback Player of the Year." To be fair, all of these things aren't out of the realm of possibility. That's the great thing about sports: You never know. And believe me, I'll be rooting for him. Not that I have a choice, but I'll be rooting for him. Sports teams are like family members ... even when you're watching them re-enact outtakes from SNL's "Bad Idea Jeans" commercial, you still have that fundamental need to support them and say things like, "I think this fourth marriage could be the one that works out" and "Hey, seven DWI's in the last eight years isn't that bad, right?" What else can you say? Family is family. And sports teams are family. Even when they keep screwing up. Still, I can't shake the feeling that this Baker trade was borderline lunacy. When you're tying up your salary cap for the next four years and threatening the chemistry of a likable team that came within two wins of the NBA Finals, shouldn't you weasel away at least one first-rounder in the deal? Why assume all the risk? They could have waited until February to make the trade -- when Anderson's value would have only increased, and Baker's might have even decreased -- or they could have allowed Anderson's contract to run out and used their free-agent exemption for a reasonable replacement. Instead, they willingly accepted Baker with no strings attached, the Overpaid, Underachieving Good Guy, the guy who warms your heart even as he's breaking it. This isn't a gamble, it's a shot in the dark. As a sports fan, few things are worse than that feeling of helplessness -- those precious few seconds as you watch your team head toward that cliff, when you can't stop them, when common sense has apparently been thrown out the window, when nothing will ever be the same. Sports aren't like real life, where you can make mistakes, deal with the repercussions and make the best of an unfavorable situation (well, unless you're in Haiti).
In the age of salary caps and guaranteed contracts, you can't misfire and say, "Well, we'll get 'em next time." One or two wrong moves can have a negative, domino-like effect over the next few years, especially in the NBA, where cap-clogging contracts have destroyed countless teams. Just like that, the window closes. For years.And nobody knows this game than Boston fans, where the post-Bird Celtics were saddled by clunker contracts to Dee Brown, Dana Barros, Dino Radja, Xavier McDaniel, Dominique Wilkins, Anderson, Walter McCarty, Potapenko ... the only deadbeats missing were Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey. For nearly a decade, we were in Basketball Hell. Instead of wondering if we might make the playoffs again, we were wondering things like, "If so-and-so suffered an unfortunate hunting accident, would his contract come off the cap?" and "Can we hire Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckardt as team trainers?" Now we're back. Just when we though the Bad Contract Train had pulled out of South Station, just when we thought things had finally turned around for the Celtics, just when we thought we were free and clear ... here comes Vin Baker. Two hundred and sixty pounds, four years, $56 million. The ultimate roll of the dice. And unless I'm crazy, we're headed right toward a cliff. ("Noooooo!!!!!!!") Bill Simmons writes columns for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. Over the next five weeks, his Page 2 column will only run on Tuesdays ... the old schedule will return in mid-August.