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.

LeBron James again leads NBA jersey sales, Giannis Antetokounmpo second

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Combine the brands of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers and it’s going to sell a lot of jerseys.

If you needed confirmation of that — and why would you? — the NBA announced that LeBron leads the league in jersey sales through the start of this season (October 2019 through the end of the calendar year). Giannis Antetokounmpo is second, and Stephen Curry rounds out the top three. Then the list gets interesting.

Here are the top 15 players in jersey sales:

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors=
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics=
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
6. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
7. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
8. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
10. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
11. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
12. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
13. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
14. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
15. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Tatum climbing up to fourth — in front of Harden and some other established stars — shows both the growth in his popularity and the power of Celtics’ nation.

The fast-rising popularity of Luka Doncic also is evident with him being sixth, in front of Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, both of whom switched teams (which often can spike jersey sales).

Also, note Zion Williamson is 15th without having stepped on an NBA court. Yet.

The Lakers head the list of the team with the most merchandise sold, with the Celtics second and the 76ers third. Toronto is fourth after its championship run (their first time in the top five), and the Brooklyn Nets are in the top 10, a first for that franchise.

These results are based on NBAStore.com sales from October 2019 through December 2019.

Frustrated Bradley Beal reportedly “angry with and emotional about” Wizards

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Just before the start of training camp, Bradley Beal locked himself in with the Wizards agreeing to a two-year, $71.8 million contract extension. That new contract meant not only some bigger paychecks down the line but also Beal could not be traded during this season — a season everyone realized would be difficult with no John Wall.

All the losing is wearing on Beal, however, who said after Thursday night’s Wizards loss to the Bulls:

“I don’t like losing. I’m sorry — especially winnable games… I don’t like losing, so [my frustration is] gonna keep building up for me until we starting winning and changing our culture.”

How do you change the culture?

“Winning games. Have a winning attitude, winning habits.”

This is more than just frustration of the moment with another loss, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Bradley Beal’s pique after his team’s 115-106 loss to the Bulls was real. Really real. A source who was also there told me Thursday that Beal was as angry with and emotional about his team as he’s ever been since being drafted by the Wizards in 2012.

Beal may have intellectually understood what he signed up for this season, that doesn’t make going through it easier emotionally. This season in Washington was going to be about finding players to go around Beal and Wall and make this team a threat. They found a few — Davis Bertans has had a breakout season (but may be tough to keep as a free agent this summer), rookie Rui Hachimura showed promise before his groin injury, Jordan McRae and Thomas Bryant have had their moments.

The concern for GM Tommy Shepard and the Wizards is Beal gets so frustrated he demands out, throwing off Washington’s plan. Technically, Beal cannot be a free agent until the summer of 2022 (or 2023 if he picked up a player option), but that has not stopped players in recent years from leveraging their way out in “pre-agency.” Maybe Beal doesn’t go that route this summer, but you can be sure a lot of teams will be calling Washington just to check on his availability. (This is where we say “the league is cracking down on player-to-player tampering/recruitment,” but if you think that will stop players I know a Nigerian prince who needs a loan and wants to talk to you.)

Much like with Karl-Anthony Towns, expect teams to be monitoring this situation. Just in case. Wizards fans may want to monitor it, too.

 

 

Barrier to entry for NBA playoff race is historically low

NBA playoff race includes Grizzlies, Nets
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
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As free agency neared last summer, Andre Iguodala told his wife he suspected he’d get traded. She asked, where?

“I’ll probably end up in Memphis or some s—,” Iguodala replied.

The tone seemed apt. The Grizzlies were in the initial stages of a rebuild. Hardly a fit for 35-year-old Iguodala. In fact, Memphis – which of course traded for Iguodala – has agreed to let Iguodala sit out since training camp began. The Grizzlies could search for a trade. Iguodala could stay fresh for a team ready to win now.

But a funny thing happened: Halfway through the NBA season, Memphis is in playoff position.

The Grizzlies are exceeding expectations, of course. Ja Morant and a young core are thriving far sooner than expected. That isn’t the whole story, though.

Memphis (19-22) has won just 46% of its games. That would have been good for 11th place last season. In the East.

The Grizzlies are fortunate to play in Western Conference with a weak middle class. Memphis on pace to become the first sub-.500 Western Conference playoff teams since the conference expanded to 15 teams.

And it’s not as if the Grizzlies are getting pushed hard from behind. The ninth-place Spurs (17-22) are on pace for the worst ninth-place finish in the West in this era (since 2004-05).

It’s a similar story in the East.

The Nets (18-22) are in playoff position with a winning percentage barely ahead of the 2003-04 Celtics, who went 36-46 and made the postseason. That Boston team set the low watermark since the Eastern Conference expanded to 15 teams (since 1995-96).

Like Memphis in the West, Brooklyn faces uninspiring competition. The ninth-place Bulls (15-27), 10th-place Pistons (15-27) AND 11th-place Hornets (15-29) are all on pace for the worst finish for their spot in the standings in this era.

Here’s how each team’s win percentage in each conference compares to teams in the same place in the standings in prior 15-team conferences. The 2019-20 teams are shown by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15. After the graphics, 2018-19 teams are compared to the worst, average and best teams ever to finish in each place, 1-15.

Western Conference

NBA Western Conference standings

NBA Western Conference standings

Eastern Conference

NBA Eastern Conference standings

NBA Eastern Conference standings

At least several decent teams are lurking in the West. Even the 14th-place Kings would rank ninth in the East. Between the Grizzlies, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Suns, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Kings, one probably emerges with a winning record.

Both conferences feature relative strength in the 3-6 range. That could mean a high-quality first-round series or two in each conference.

So, why do the conferences look how they do? I wouldn’t rush to ascribe meaning.

The NBA implemented lottery reform last season, and that might have something to do with a lack of teams deeply bottoming out. But it’s too soon to say with certainty how the new lottery odds will affect things. After all, the shape of the standings looked quite different around this time last season.

The league getting further removed from the 2016 cap spike might also play a part in producing parity among good teams. Again, though, it’s too early to carve conclusions into stone.

Mostly, I think there’s just a randomness to it. Some years, the standings shake out a certain way. Other years, it’s a different way.

But now that we know how this year looks, we can see that only a few teams are out of the playoff race. Twelve teams ought to believe they have at least a fair chance of winning a postseason series. That could produce more buyers than usual before the trade deadline.

PBT mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and more

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The 2019-20 NBA season reached its midpoint by games played last night. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Yesterday, we picked Most Valuable Player and All-NBA. Now, we’re onto the other major honors.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

This is the hardest award for me to pick mid-season, but the Jazz put more on the plate of Gobert this season and he has responded amazingly (even if the Jazz’s defense is a little off from its usual highs this season). A lot of other players still in the mix here for me including Joel Embiid (if he plays enough games), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Smart.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Even as reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert doesn’t have the final award sewn up. Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Kawhi Leonard are in the mix. But in a tight race, Gobert gets the benefit of the doubt. Utah’s strong defense is built entirely around Gobert’s rim protection.

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

This is a runaway award, but not for the guy we expected to run away with it. Zion Williamson makes his debut next week and maybe he could climb to third in this race, but he’s not winning the award. Morant and his fluid athleticism have turned Grizzlies into must-watch television, and he looks every bit the franchise player. Kendrick Nunn is a clear second in this race.

Dan Feldman: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

Some rookie point guards put up big numbers. Some rookie point guards produce electric highlights. Some rookie point guards show promising flashes of winning basketball. Few rookie point guards are actually good. Morant is actually good. His athleticism, shooting and overall offensive control form an incredible package for his age. Sure, Morant is sometimes too reckless. He doesn’t completely break the mold of a young point guard. But Memphis has a gem.

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Devonte' Graham (Hornets)

Last season, Graham was an end-of-the-bench guy in Charlotte. This season, he’s averaging 18.7 points a game, hitting 38.7 percent from three and is the team’s best player. Nobody saw that coming and it’s a radical improvement. Also in the mix for this award are Bam Adebayo and Luka Doncic — yes, the MVP candidate, he as made a massive leap this season.

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

It’s a two-man race between Doncic and Devonte’ Graham. As the reigning Rookie of the Year, Doncic will get overlooked. He’s a second-year player. He was supposed to be this good. BS. The leap into superstardom is generally more difficult than the climb from non-rotation player to good starter, which Graham made. For Doncic to get this good this quickly is unprecedented.

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

Harrell was in the mix for this award last season and came back this season as a better defender and more efficient on offense. He’s a critical element for a contending Clippers team, and closes games for them at the five. However, this is not a decided race by any means, both Derrick Rose and George Hill deserve serious consideration. Also, Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn could be in the mix, but likely starts too many games to qualify.

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

I nearly chose Harrell for this award last season. Since, he has improved his offensive skill and defensive effectiveness. His big role in L.A. gives Harrell the edge over another highly productive reserve, the Bucks’ George Hill. Derrick Rose and Harrell’s teammate, Lou Williams, also warrant consideration.

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Erik Spoelstra (Heat)

This is a wide-open race and my spreadsheet goes eight deep with worthy candidates: Nick Nurse has done an impressive job in Toronto, same with Brad Stevens in Boston and Frank Vogel with the Lakers, and the list goes on. Spoelstra, however, leads for me because of a combination of player development — Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, etc. — and smart utilization of the players’ he has. Plus, Spoelstra is getting it all to mesh around Jimmy Butler.

Dan Feldman: Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Nurse kept Toronto humming when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left. Nurse kept Toronto humming when key players, including breakout star Pascal Siakam, got hurt. Nurse kept Toronto humming when unproven young players had to join the rotation. Nurse’s defenses are particularly exemplary – both his creativity and ability to get everyone up to speed. The Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Pacers’ Nate McMillan aren’t far behind.