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.
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.**
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.
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|
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.