Quizzing your knowledge of sports cliches and truisms, the best sports trades are:
a) the ones that help both teams.
b) the ones that are never made.
c) the ones that stick the other guys with a real stiff while swiping away an All-Star or even a future Hall of Famer.
The answer, of course, is C, which is why Kevin McHale, Timberwolves vice president of basketball operations, always will be linked with two of the most devilishly lopsided deals in NBA history. First, he was the college player that Red Auerbach had in his sights when Boston sent the rights to the No. 1 pick overall in the 1980 draft - who turned out to be Joe Barry Carroll - to Golden State for center Robert Parish and the third selection (McHale). The Celtics got three championships and two retired jersey numbers out of that one.
Then McHale returned to haunt the Warriors two seasons ago, when he traded Donyell Marshall, a $42 million albatross, for budding All-Star Tom Gugliotta.
But McHale will have to content himself with answer A in assessing his deal with the Atlanta Hawks last February. At the league's trading deadline, the Wolves sent Christian Laettner - both the highest draft pick the team ever has had and its highest profile player - along with backup center Sean Rooks to the Hawks for center Andrew Lang and guard Spud Webb.
Lang's later trade to Milwaukee helped the Timberwolves land Stephon Marbury, and Laettner has been everything the Hawks had hoped for. And more.
'He's a gutsy player,' said Atlanta's Lenny Wilkens, the NBA's all-time winningest head coach. 'And the team is using him more and he is stepping up to make big shots.'
Said Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo: 'I don't know what kind of person people used to see, but playing and spending time with him, Christian is an enjoyable guy.'
That was hardly his image in the Twin Cities. Set up by the success of his Duke career (123-15 record, four visits to the Final Four) and the Blue Devils' seniority system, Laettner chafed at the 75-222 record he endured and contributed to, in three-plus seasons with the Wolves.
He wanted to win. He wanted to be the team's top player. The two ambitions never meshed, so McHale moved him. The thinking was that, with Atlanta's already established, guard-dominated order and a coach who was beyond reproach, Laettner would have to fit into a more narrowly defined role.
Yet Laettner, who will face his former team tonight at the Omni, has been no mere complementary player. Through last week, he was Atlanta's leading scorer (19.2 points), averaging 8.9 rebounds and 39.5 minutes. Against Chicago on Dec. 26, he scored a career-high 37 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and was the best player on a floor that included Michael Jordan.
'He's playing very much up to his potential,' Bulls coach Phil Jackson said.
Laettner's numbers are not all that different from what he posted with the Wolves. But the results are. Different and better.
'I was young, a lot of people were young, and we needed leadership,' Laettner told the Atlanta Journal/Constitution. 'I still say we had enough talent up there; we didn't have the right coaching. The same might be true if someone besides Lenny Wilkens were coaching the Atlanta Hawks.'
At 27, Laettner has admitted to being more content, on the job and off. In September, he was married in the Twin Cities to the former Lisa Thibault and the couple is expecting a child. 'I'm happier on the inside, and emotionally in terms of my personal life,' he said. 'I've matured like anyone else, because that's what happens with growing older.'
Laettner recalls with fondness a moment in November 1994, with the Wolves on their way to losing 13 of their first 14 games. Atlanta was at Target Center and Wilkens, an assistant coach with the 1992 'Dream Team' Olympic squad on which Laettner played, caught his eye.
'I remember Lenny giving me a smile that day,' Laettner said, 'and his smile to me said, `I still like you, son, and if they don't like you up here, then we'll get you.' . . . We only talked for a minute or so. I just remember the smile on his face. It said, `I liked you at the Olympics and I'll give you a shot.' '
1/3 Wolves vs. Hawks
1/3 - When: 6:30 tonight. Where: the Omni. TV, radio: Ch. 23, KFAN-AM (1130). Records: Hawks 21-11, Wolves 16-19. Series: Hawks lead 11-3.
1/3 - Wolves update: The Wolves have had the last two days off; this will be Atlanta's third game in four nights. . . . Last season, the teams split two games sandwiched around the Christian Laettner-Andrew Lang trade. In December, the Wolves won for the first time in Atlanta 85-78. In February, three days after the swap, they shot 31.7 percent and were outscored 48-29 in the second half in a 92-76 defeat. . . . Winning a fourth straight road game would mark a franchise first. . . . The Wolves are 5-15 when shooting less than 45 percent, and Atlanta is holding opponents to 42.2 percent accuracy.
1/3 - Hawks update: On Saturday, Atlanta became only the 10th team in NBA history to play three straight overtime games and only the fifth to sweep them, beating Phoenix, Orlando and San Antonio. . . . The Hawks have won 13 straight at the Omni after dropping their home opener and are 8-1 against Western Conference teams. But they are 2-6 on the second night of back-to-back games.
Starting lineups Hawks Timberwolves G Mookie Blaylock Stephon Marbury G G Steve Smith Chris Carr G C Dikembe Mutombo Stoyko Vrankovic C F Henry James Kevin GarnettF F Christian LaettnerTom GugliottaF