Revisiting the Seikaly/Utah Fiasco

I was recently thinking about the complaints that some fans (and writers) have that NBA players are wielding too much power in choosing a path to their preferred team and/or making super teams.  With the possibility that Damian Lillard may force his way elsewhere, the drumbeat has gotten louder.  In fact, Charles Barkley has gone on the record as rooting against the Nets because he doesn’t like super teams

This latest talk about player/owner leverage balance reminded of the old and strange saga of Rony Seikaly and the Utah Jazz.  To recap briefly, in February 1998, Seikaly was a relatively solid NBA center playing for a .500ish Orlando.  The title contending Utah Jazz traded a first-rounder (as well as salary throw-ins Chris Morris and Greg Foster) for Seikaly.  Then things got really weird.  Seikaly balked at the trade but it wasn’t clear why. Ultimately, the trade was voided and the Magic dealt Seikaly to New Jersey.  Utah and Seikaly were left accusing each other of being the bad actor that killed the deal.  I thought we could go back 23 years and see what we can learn about the deal in retrospect.

Some background on Seikaly

Seikaly is still a fairly well-known commodity.  He was not an All-Star center but was a notch below for the Miami Heat (he famously grabbed 34 boards in a game for Miami), maxing out at 17.1 ppg and 11.8 rpg.  During the 1997-98 season, Seikaly was 32 but still looked facially effective.  Orlando had traded for him before the 1996-97 season and his stats over the two seasons were as follows:

-1996-97: 35.3 mpg, 17.3 ppg, .567 TS%, 9.5 rpg

-1997-98: 31.6 mpg, 15.0 ppg, .524 TS%, 7.6 rpg

There were some definite red flags in those stats.  Seikaly was aging and his TS% was the lowest since 1990-91 (his third year).  Still, Utah was stacked with Karl Malone, John Stockton, and Jeff Hornacek and only needed a capable center (starter Greg Ostertag wasn’t great and was hurt at the time of the attempted trade).

The other problem Seikaly had arose from a previous stop in Golden State.  Seikaly was very happy in Miami at the beginning of his career but was abruptly traded to Golden State before the 1994-95 season.  The Warriors were terrible and Seikaly was miserable there because his minutes and touches waned (in addition to the toxic work environment after Don Nelson’s firing).  Here are Seikaly stats in Miami from 1989-90 through 1993-94 (he played less as a rookie in 1988-89) compared with his time in Golden State:

-Miami: 33.9 mpg, 16.3 ppg, 12.2 FGA/pg, .488 FG%, 11.1 rpg

-Golden State: 28.5 mpg, 12.1 ppg, 8.8 FGA/pg, .506 FG%, 7.7 rpg

Seikaly hated his reduced role so much he held out before the 1996-97 season to force a trade.  In a 1996 story for Sports Illustrated, Seikaly said that he was forced to set up on the perimeter far from the basket : “acting as a traffic cop. [Chris] Mullin and I got pushed outside. We’d be at the three-point line doing nothing. He’d look at me and say, ‘What are you doing tonight? Want to play cards?’ This was during the game. Then we’d go down and play defense–the rest of our team didn’t play defense–they’d score. We’d come down on offense, set up in the same place, and Chris would ask me, ‘So, where do you want to eat tonight?’”

Seikaly wasn’t just miserable with the offense, he said it was personal.  He relayed the following story: “I’ll never forget the day I decided I’d never go back there. The trading deadline [February 1996] had passed. A guy in our organization–I won’t say who–sneered at me. I said, ‘What’s your problem?’ He said, ‘You’re my problem.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you trade me?’ He said, ‘We’re not going to trade you. We’re going to sit you at the end of the bench until you rot.’ This was during a game. I said, ‘I don’t need you. I don’t need basketball. And don’t ever threaten me.’”

At the beginning of the 1996-97, Seikaly was 31 and had four years and about $16 million left on his deal (he had signed a huge nine-year $31 million deal 1991 while with Miami).  In order to help facilitate a trade, Seikaly agreed to forego the guarantee on the final two years (1998-99 and 1999-00 when he would be 33 and 34), which would permit him to be cut at any time (risking $8.5 million in previously locked in money).  Orlando traded for Seikaly to ostensibly replace Shaquille O’Neal, who had just bolted for Los Angeles.

In Orlando, Seikaly did regain his offensive groove but the team was middling and Orlando actually played better in the 1996-97 playoffs when he was out with injuries.  It was clear that Orlando didn’t need an aging center to teeter at the edge of the playoffs.   It made sense to deal him for whatever they could and it made sense for Seikaly to go to a contending team.  So, the deal to a really good Utah team seemed perfect for all parties.  The Jazz had been to the Finals in 1996-97 and were on the verge of going again.  Win-win deal, right?

The Trade Gets Weird

The trade immediately was a mess.  The Orlando Sentinel reported that Seikaly was “furious” about being told about the deal in the locker room right before a game. Rony said: “I can’t believe that [Magic General Manager] John Gabriel couldn’t have told me just to stay in the hotel until everything was resolved.  This is the sort of thing that you would expect from a CBA team. I never thought the Magic would do this to me.  They at least could have had the decency to tell me what was going on….This is embarrassing for me to be sitting here in limbo. I don’t understand it.”

The article linked Seikaly to potential deals with Boston, New York, and New Jersey.  Seikaly complained that a recent slump was not due to injuries but traded rumors: “People wonder why my game has been suffering.  It’s because of all of this s—- going around about the trades.”  A February 19, 1998 Orlando Sentinel article had this gem: “[Seikaly] was seen screaming on the phone at his agent, Steve Kauffman…..saying: ‘I’m not going to Philadelphia.  I’m not going to Philadelphia.’”

No, Seikaly was not a happy camper.

Despite this report, Seikaly supposedly told Utah he was happy with the deal.  He told reporters that it was “a dream to play in that [Utah] situation.”  In addition, Michael C. Lewis wrote in “To The Brink,” that “Seikaly  had spoken by phone with Malone and Stockton, and in both conversations said he was eager to play with them and on a team that had a chance to win a championship.”

Despite all this, Seikaly never reported to Utah.  The Jazz wanted him to take a physical before finalizing the deal and Seikaly refused.  The report in Orlando was that Seikaly wanted the guaranteed money he had given up to leave Golden State reinstated.  Lewis reported the Jazz had actually heard that “he wanted them to promise to not guarantee them.  Seikaly apparently wanted to play out the rest of the season with the Jazz, then be able to either leave as a free agent or sign a new (and more lucrative) deal to stick around a few more years.”  But this made little sense.  Seikaly was an aging center was not likely to get more money or years in a contract as a free agent after the 1997-98 season.  Jazz owner Larry Miller told Sports Illustrated that Seikaly’s motivations were a mystery: “His agent never would land on anything concrete that he wanted from us.  He made allusions to things, but he would never pin it down.”

Seikaly also was giving a questionable story.  Sports Illustrated reported that Seikaly was claiming, perhaps disingenuously, that “the Jazz rejected him” and “Utah lost interest in him because it thought a stress fracture in his right foot would keep him on the sidelines for eight weeks. (As it happens, the injury is expected to keep him out for four weeks.)”   Lewis wrote that Seikaly said “I had my bags packed ready to go [to Utah before they voided the deal].”

The Jazz killed the deal due to Seikaly’s refusal to report.  Orlando was able to flip Seikaly to New Jersey, which did not guarantee any of Seikaly’s money but did waive the physical.  Seikaly did return from the injury on the shorter timetable but was terrible for New Jersey:  9 games, 16.9 mpg,  4.7 ppg, .317 FG%, 4.0 rpg.  Seikaly was more effective in the playoffs but only as a bit player.  Despite the fact that they could’ve waived Seikaly, the Nets brought him back for 1998-99 and he was even worse.  He played only nine games and shot only 20% from the field.  New Jersey finally waived Seikaly after the season, ending his NBA career.  He played a year in Spain and was last seen as a really successful club DJ.

Upon closer inspection, why did Utah want Seikaly?

You didn’t have to look too closely to see that there were some serious red flags in Seikaly’s play right before the attempted trade to Utah.  While Seikaly called it a slump, it was much more profound.  Check out Seikaly’s stats to start the 1997-98 season versus his 11 games prior to the trade: 

-Seikaly, 10/31/97-1/16/98: 33.6 mpg, 17.1 ppg, .467 FG%, 8.1 rpg

-Seikaly, 1/17/98-2/13/98: 25.3 mpg, 8.2 ppg, .302 FG%, 5.9 rpg

This could’ve been a random slump but the stats were so bad they indicate diminished ability more than bad luck and were completely consistent with his post-trade numbers in Jersey.  He was clearly dragging from the soon-to-be-diagnosed stress fracture.  This was particularly bad at Seikaly’s age and he never recovered from that injury.  It’s fair to wonder why Utah would even have wanted to upset chemistry for an expensive player who appeared to be cratering.  (As an aside, advanced analytics hated Seikaly most of his career and had him pegged as a negative value player for Orlando even in his healthy 1996-97 season).

What did Seikaly want?

The reporting is contradictory and Seikaly had said repeatedly that he wanted to go to Utah but it’s pretty clear he did not want to go there.  If Seikaly wanted his contract guarantees reinstated, he would’ve had to meet with Utah.  If he didn’t want them reinstated, he had no reason to fear reporting.  Seikaly was an aging player who wanted to pick a situation that worked for him: he wanted to get more money if possible but it can be inferred from his actions that his main priority was to be on the East Coast and, secondarily, to play on a good(ish) team (New Jersey was okay at the time).

After the aborted trade, Miller complained: “I’m worried about the direction of the league.  When guys are under contract, they should play the contract out.  I’m sure players don’t always like to be traded, but when they are, it’s part of the game.  We can’t have players dictate where they go and where they don’t go.”  But Doug West, who was traded around the same time as Seikaly, and also initially refused to report, pointed out that “[m]ost times you’re powerless over trades unless you have a no-trade clause in your contract.  Sometimes [threatening not to report] is the only way you have of making your voice heard.”

In that sense, I am sympathetic towards Seikaly.  He wanted some say in where his career ended up and was willing to risk his contract to do that.  Seikaly’s story shows how prominent the business side of the game was.  He was run badly through the ringer in Golden State and that experience colored all of his decisions afterwards.  He wanted to control his destiny as best he could and it ended up costing him about nearly $5 million dollars (he was cut before the 1999-00 season, the final year of his deal).  It’s hard to feel too bad for a guy who made so much cash but his motivations were rational and not unfair.  When we consider players today with a bit more control, we can think back to Seikaly for a prime example why players today don’t give a crap when fans and owners complain about power imbalances skewing more towards star players.