Trading for a star mid-season to make an immediate impact? Don’t count on it

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The Luol Deng trade gave us something we hadn’t seen in three years – a star dealt mid-season.

The trade might even give us something we haven’t seen in even longer – a star dealt mid-season actually improving his new team.

Teams make mid-season trades for several reasons, but we’re going to examine one archetype of the mid-year swap: Moving a star for future help.

You know what this is when you see it. A team is not as successful as hoped, so it trades its star player in exchange for draft picks, younger players and/or salary relief. On the other end is a team trying to make a splash, either because it’s falling well short of expectations or because it’s greatly exceeded them and now believes it can’t wait to add a star later.

Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love and/or Pau Gasol could all be involved in that style of trade later today, though it can be subjective which trades fit this model. So, I developed a few hardline rules to get a sample and test the impacts of these stars acquired mid-season.

Criteria

First, let’s define define star. For these purposes, a star:

  • Was an All-Star the season of the trade or any of the three preceding years (so he has cachet at the time of the trade and isn’t viewed just as a prospect who reached All-Star status only after the trade)
  • Was also an All-Star at least twice in the seven-year span with the trade year at the center (so we avoid fluke All-Stars, but also don’t restrict our pool too tightly to only those who made multiple All-Star games before the trade)

The other requirement is star-for-star trades don’t count. That’s a different type of trade altogether. I’m looking at only trades where a team got a star without surrendering one.

In theory, these trades should usually make the team acquiring the star better. They’re getting a star! It’s not rocket science. Adding a star without losing a star should mean improvement – at least in the short term. The typical cost (draft picks, young players, salary relief) should be felt later.

But it often doesn’t work that way.

To judge, I’ve assessed the 35 qualifying trades – mid-season, at least one star traded without another sent in return – since the NBA-ABA merger based on the team’s record before and after the trade. For simplicity’s sake, the pre- and post-trade records are put in 82-game equivalents and then subtracted to produce what I call Win Change Equivalent (WCE).

For example, if a 30-20 team trades for a player and then goes 26-6, the WCE would be +17.4.* If a 26-6 team trades for a player and and then goes 30-20, the WCE would be -17.4.**

*((26/(26+6))*82)-((30/(30+20))*82)

**((30/(30+20))*82)-((26/(26+6))*82)

A positive WCE means a team got better. A negative WCE means a team got worse. The higher the WCE, the better. The lower, the worse.

Results

Just 18 of the 35 players had a positive WCE of at least a single game. In other words, nearly half the stars either saw their news teams get worse or improve an insignificant amount.

Here are the full results with the season, star traded, team traded from, team traded to, new team’s record before the trade, new team’s record after the trade and Win Change Equivalent:

Year Player Traded from Traded to Before After WCE
2014 Luol Deng Chicago Bulls Cleveland Cavaliers 11-23 11-10 +16.4
2011 Carmelo Anthony Denver Nuggets New York Knicks 28-26 14-14 -1.5
2011 Chauncey Billups Denver Nuggets New York Knicks 28-26 14-14 -1.5
2011 Deron Williams Utah Jazz New Jersey Nets 17-40 7-18 -1.5
2010 Caron Butler Washington Wizards Dallas Mavericks 32-20 23-7 +12.4
2008 Jason Kidd New Jersey Nets Dallas Mavericks 35-18 16-13 -8.9
2008 Ben Wallace Chicago Bulls Cleveland Cavaliers 30-24 15-13 -1.6
2008 Pau Gasol Memphis Grizzlies Los Angeles Lakers 29-16 28-9 +9.2
2007 Allen Iverson Philadelphia 76ers Denver Nuggets 14-9 31-28 -6.8
2006 Steve Francis Orlando Magic New York Knicks 15-38 8-21 -0.6
2005 Chris Webber Sacramento Kings Philadelphia 76ers 26-27 17-11 +9.6
2005 Antoine Walker Atlanta Hawks Boston Celtics 28-28 17-9 +12.6
2005 Vince Carter Toronto Raptors New Jersey Nets 7-15 35-25 +21.7
2005 Baron Davis New Orleans Hornets Golden State Warriors 16-38 18-10 +28.4
2004 Stephon Marbury Phoenix Suns New York Knicks 14-21 25-22 +10.8
2004 Rasheed Wallace Atlanta Hawks Detroit Pistons 34-22 20-6 +13.3
2001 Dikembe Mutombo Atlanta Hawks Philadelphia 76ers 41-14 15-12 -15.6
1999 Terrell Brandon Milwaukee Bucks Minnesota Timberwolves 12-7 13-18 -17.4
1999 Eddie Jones Los Angeles Lakers Charlotte Hornets 5-12 21-12 +28.1
1997 Jason Kidd Dallas Mavericks Phoenix Suns 8-19 32-23 +23.4
1996 Tim Hardaway Golden State Warriors Miami Heat 24-29 18-11 +13.8
1995 Clyde Drexler Portland Trail Blazers Houston Rockets 30-17 17-18 -12.5
1990 Maurice Cheeks San Antonio Spurs New York Knicks 34-17 11-20 -25.6
1989 Mark Aguirre Dallas Mavericks Detroit Pistons 32-13 31-6 +10.4
1988 Larry Nance Phoenix Suns Cleveland Cavaliers 28-27 14-13 +0.8
1988 Ralph Sampson Houston Rockets Golden State Warriors 3-15 17-47 +8.1
1984 Reggie Theus Chicago Bulls Kansas City Kings 21-30 17-14 +11.2
1983 Micheal Ray Richardson Golden State Warriors New Jersey Nets 31-18 18-15 -7.2
1980 George McGinnis Denver Nuggets Indiana Pacers 26-28 11-17 -7.3
1980 Maurice Lucas Portland Trail Blazers New Jersey Nets 23-34 11-14 +3.0
1980 Bob Lanier Detroit Pistons Milwaukee Bucks 29-27 20-6 +20.6
1979 Bob McAdoo New York Knicks Boston Celtics 23-32 6-21 -16.1
1979 Jo Jo White Boston Celtics Golden State Warriors 24-28 14-16 +0.4
1979 Truck Robinson New Orleans Jazz Phoenix Suns 26-17 24-15 +0.9
1977 Bob McAdoo Buffalo Braves New York Knicks 11-13 29-29 +3.4

Lessons?

Let’s cherry pick a few examples and see whether we can learn anything.

Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the Knicks

The Knicks’ 28-26 start in 2011 put them on pace for their best season in a decade. But their early success just raised the bar higher, so they traded for Melo and Billups.

Teams experiencing more success than expected and trying to parlay that into even more success very quickly have become the common description of teams trading for a star mid-season. Seven of the last 10 stars traded mid-season went to a team that already had a winning record. Seven of those 10 stars also had a negative WCE.

Teams like the Knicks were good for a reason, and though winning inflated the value of the players they traded for Melo and Billups, those players (Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Timofey Mozgov) helped New York win in the first place. It was a symbiotic relationship.

It’s not as easy as it seems for winning teams to just trade for a star and improve. Those teams were winning before for a reason, and there’s always a chance a star disturbs that fragile ecosystem.

Dikembe Mutombo to the 76ers

Mutombo is remembered as a great midseason acquisition, because he helped the 76ers reach the 2001 NBA Finals. But Philadelphia had the NBA’s best record (41-14) when it made the trade and slunk to a 15-12 finish. Considering how good eventual-champion Lakers were, it’s likely Mutombo helped the 76ers go as far as possible. Still, his WCE was a woeful -15.6.

If anything, perhaps Philadelphia’s playoff success with Mutombo reveals a flaw in my methodology, which accounts only for regular seasons.

Maurice Cheeks to the Knicks

No player in the sample had a lower WCE than Cheeks, who clocked in at -25.6 in 1990. When they acquired him from San Antonio, the Knicks were second in the East behind only the Pistons.  But New York slipped to fifth by the end of the regular season. Cheeks’ career was winding down while the player the Knicks traded, Rod Strickland, was just learning how to get over his immaturity enough to become a very good player.

All’s well that ends well, though – at least in 1990. After acquiring Cheeks, the Knicks fell just far enough to make their first-round win over the Celtics a historical upset, and Cheeks played a key part in the series.

Baron Davis to the Warriors

On the other side, the best WCE in the sample belongs to Davis. He helped the Warriors go from 16-38 to 18-10 in 2004-06, good for a WCE of +28.4, but they were too far back to make the playoffs regardless.

Still, adding a star injects enthusiasm to a team. ESPN:

When news of ESPN.com’s report that the Warriors were closing in on Davis circulated around the Arena in Oakland on Wednesday night, Richardson was thrilled.

“I’m on the phone right now,” he said. “Me and B.D. are good friends. That would be huge for the franchise. He can do a lot of things when he’s healthy.’

It took Davis a couple years to get healthy, but eventually, he and Richardson led the “We Believe” Warriors to an upset over the top-seeded Mavericks in the first round of the 2007 playoffs.

Rasheed Wallace to the Pistons, Clyde Drexler to the Rockets, Mark Aguirre to the Pistons

These three are why teams trade for stars at the deadline. Each was the missing piece who helped his new team win a title in his first year.

Wallace (+13.3 WCE) became the Pistons’ lone skilled two-way big, complementing the defensive Ben Wallace and offensive Mehmet Okur. Drexler (-12.5 WCE) gave Houston some much-needed perimeter firepower to complement Hakeem Olajuwon inside – once he brought down the Rockets go from 30-17 to 17-18 in the regular season after trading for him. Aguirre (+10.4 WCE) was a better fit in the locker room with Isiah Thomas than the traded Adrian Dantley.

Rasheed Wallace and Pau Gasol (+9.2 WCE), who helped the Lakers win a title the year after acquiring him from the Grizzlies, have become the standard-bearers for mid-season star acquisitions. They helped their new teams immediately and immensely.

But players like Clyde Drexler and Baron Davis come closer to representing realistic expectations.

If you trade for a star expecting him to immediately boost your season, you’re flipping a coin. But if you can afford to be a little more patient and wait for his contributions, you’re probably in luck.

DeMarcus Cousins thinks refs are giving him techs off reputation alone

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New Orleans Pelicans big man DeMarcus Cousins is a fiery personality on the court, often arguing foul calls at length despite no official in NBA history reversing a call directly after player complaint.

Crafty veterans — your LeBron Jameses and your Chris Pauls — slowly and pointedly chatter with officials as a means to influence their subconscious leaning on calls (and to protect them against earning techs when they do decide to straight up yell at refs).

Cousins hasn’t used that kind of angling to success in his career, instead going hard at referees with some consistency. Cousins has tried to change that approach this season, but instead has found that his prior actions have earned him a reputation the Pelicans forward believes doesn’t befit his actions in 2017-18.

Speaking to The Undefeated’s Marc Spears, Cousins said that despite letting more calls go and changing his candor, NBA refs are not responding proportionately.

Via The Undefeated:

I am going out of my way. I am going over and beyond,” Cousins said. “I am coming in saying, ‘We can’t do this, this and this …’ Even calls I know I should be arguing, I’m letting go. And they’re still like … it’s a one-sided thing. Everything is changing from one end. But with them, it’s like, ‘We are not letting go of the past. You are who you are. You’re getting a tech.’

“So, when it comes to me getting a tech for saying, ‘Good call, referee …,’ vets and coaches tell me to butter them up. Switch it up a little bit. Do a little reverse psychology. Tell them it’s a good call. And you still getting a tech for it? They’re not trying to make it work. They’re stuck in their ways, and it is so obvious.”

Cousins added that he believes foes are taking advantage of his troubles.

“Now it’s to the point where teams are saying, ‘Yeah, just go over there and beat the s— out of him.’ I don’t get calls, and I’m not protected like other players are,” he said.

It’s interesting to see that Cousins has at least tried to change things up, and indeed acknowledges that he should be trying to work with the officials rather than antagonize them.

Still, we’re not sure what the tone of his “good call” comments are toward the refs. Are they sarcastic? Or are they contrite? You can see how one might earn Cousins a tech from an official — who seem to be particularly sensitive this season — and the other might endear you to them.

James Harden is playing with a bruised right knee

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James Harden, Chris Paul, and the Houston Rockets are on a 13-game winning streak. They have a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference. But it’s not all rosy in Space City.

Harden suffered a bruised right knee against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, and almost had to sit out the Rockets’ win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday.

Speaking to reporters after the win over the Bucks, Harden said that he was in some pain but a doctor told him he would be able to play and that he would not make the condition worse.

Via ESPN:

“I wasn’t feeling well at all, but the doc came in and just told me that there’s going to be pain for a bit, but you can play through it,” Harden said. “It can’t get worse, but it’s going to be pretty painful until obviously you give it some time. Once he said that, I was like, ‘Let’s go.'”

“I wasn’t moving like I usually move, but we won,” said Harden.

If Harden wasn’t feeling well, it sure didn’t show. He had 31 points, although on 8-of-21 shooting against Milwaukee. Chris Paul chipped in with 25 points, six assists, and five rebounds.

It doesn’t sound like Harden will be missing a game any time soon, which is par for the course for him. He’s played in a minimum of 89 percent of his team’s regular season games since entering the league in 2009.

Meanwhile, the Rockets are blasting their way into 2018. They play the Warriors next on January 4.

Nuggets say Paul Millsap won’t return until after All-Star break

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The Western Conference has been a blast this season, with the Houston Rockets playing strong after the arrival of Chris Paul. The team has 13 straight wins, and a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors.

That’s just part of the results of the West getting a boatload of stars sent its way over the summer. One team is lacking their new addition, however, and his absence has been a quiet disappointment. The Denver Nuggets still sit in sixth place out West, but new forward Paul Millsap has been sidelined with a wrist injury.

The original timeline for Millsap said he would be out for three months, which would put him back around the beginning of March. That plan was confirmed by Nuggets head coach Mike Malone, who said that he expects Millsap will be out until at least the All-Star break, which starts on February 16.

Malone also seemed to indicate it’s possible Millsap is out longer than that.

Via Twitter:

At least Millsap is on schedule? It’s hard to tell inflection from text, but let’s just hope Malone’s “at the earliest” isn’t an indicator of slow recovery on Millsap’s part. The Nuggets certainly don’t need to rush Millsap back. They have a 16-13 record and instill more confidence than most the teams floundering below them in the standings.

LeBron James on talk with Lonzo Ball: “Some things could be held private”

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LeBron James was caught on a hot mic this week speaking with Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. The conversation came after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Lakers in Ohio, 121-112.

In their talk, LeBron told Ball that he needed to stay in his zone and be aggressive. Pretty generic stuff, to be honest.

Meanwhile, LeBron was asked about whether he thought having microphones record those types of conversations between players was good for the league. He was less than enthused.

Via Cleveland.com (response is at 0:50 in the video above):

Some things could be held private. Like my conversation with Lonzo. Everything doesn’t need to be said. Should be some type of privacy. I’m OK with it.

It does raise an interesting question in terms of player privacy and separation between media, fans, and players. On one hand, you could see how what they say on the floor, in a public arena meant for spectators, could be deemed public and therefore fair game.

But it’s also common for media not to publish — or for TV not to broadcast — the things players say during the game. We don’t hear trash talking, even if we see it, and if you’ve ever sat near the floor at an NBA game you hear a lot more colorful language than you do watching the game on TV.

However you come down player privacy on the court, it doesn’t seem like LeBron needed to speak with Ball in front of media like that. He could have spoken to him in the tunnels below the Q, or got his phone number and texted him. He could have sent him a DM on Twitter and it would have been more private.

It feels like there was a performative aspect to this, like LeBron wanted to create a mystery around his conversation with Lonzo but it got turned on its head. It’s just too bad what was said between them wasn’t actually that interesting.