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.

Chris Paul says players don’t really talk about money in locker room

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Locker room banter flies all over the conversational map: Clubs/restaurants to first cars to rappers to Fortnite to why Player X never has any lotion and always has to borrow someone else’s.

What doesn’t come up? Money.

That according to Chris Paul, who should know after 14 years in the league and now serving as the players’ union president. He was talking about his campaign to help players become more financially aware and said this to Clevis Murray of The Athletic.

“I think the reason why I’m so passionate about this is because I’m finishing up my 14th year in the NBA, and I’ve been around long enough to realize that guys in our league, we talk about everything in the locker room except for finance, except for money,” he said. “Nobody talks about money, because it’s one of those uncomfortable things.”

It’s a strange dynamic in an NBA locker room because everybody knows what everybody else makes, it’s very public, and that provides a certain measuring stick of worth.

Yet how does one player tell another “man, your entourage is too big, you’re blowing your money.” Players finally making money understandably want to take care of family and close friends, but other people come into their life and things can spiral fast. CP3 says he gets it, and he is working with Joe Smith — who made $60 million in NBA earnings and lost all of it — to help prepare rookies.

The stories of NBA players blowing through their money absolutely happen, but they also are not the majority, and the numbers are shrinking. More and more players are learning to be smarter with their money and set themselves up on some level for life after basketball. Not all, but guys who stick in the league a few years tend to learn. If Paul and the union can come up with ways to reach players at an earlier age and prepare them for what is to come, all the better.

Bobby Portis says watch out for underrated Knicks, they could make playoffs

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You don’t want a player on your team that heads into the season thinking, “we suck, I just hope we can get to 20 wins and not be embarrassed every night.” Even if that might be the reality for that roster.

Enter Bobby Portis of the New York Knicks. The Wizards let him walk to save money and he has ended up on a Knicks team with a lot of guys who see themselves as underrated: Elfrid Payton, Marcus Morris, and Julius Randle. Plus New York has young players with a lot to prove — especially after Summer League — in Kevin Knox, R.J. Barrett, and Mitchell Robinson.

Portis likes this underdog team, he told Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype.

I love being underrated, man. I’m an underdog. I say that every day. We’re the team that’s being counted out right now. People are looking past us. They’re talking about stars going to new teams and this and that, and that’s okay. Everybody on this team has a huge chip on their shoulder. We’re the guys who are always picked second. I think that’s going to make us close. Our practices are going to be top-notch; we’re all going to be competing and that’s going to make us better. We have a lot of dogs on this team, which will help us out as well. Collectively, we all have a chip on our shoulder – a log on our shoulder – so we’re going to go out there and play with an edge. I think that’s great for us.

So… playoffs?

Yeah, for sure, for sure. The naysayers, the haters, the people who are doubting us will say that we’re crazy as hell for saying that. But we have a bunch of guys who are coming in each and every day with that log on their shoulder and that’s going to push us to become a great team. We have a lot of pieces who can play. I think we’re loaded at every position; there are two-to-three players who could start at every position. When you have that much talent, that rises the competitiveness and improves the team as a whole.

That is exactly the attitude you want to see heading into the season.

The Knicks are going to struggle this year, talent wins out in the NBA and the Knicks don’t have enough of it. However, if the goal is to build a culture of gritty players who go play all out and are tough to play against — the cultures the Nets and Clippers developed that drew stars to them — the Knicks are on a decent road. New York didn’t pull a classic Knicks this year and overspend on a couple of second-tier stars when they struck out on the big guns, they went out and got decent players on short contracts. Stay flexible, build a culture.

We’ll see if Portis will be part of that going forward, but he has the right attitude.

Report: Lakers claim Kostas Antetokounmpo off waivers

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is a 24-year-old MVP playing in Milwaukee and heading toward a super-max decision that could have him hit 2021 unrestricted free agency.

Big-market teams are licking their chops.

That probably has something to do with the Lakers adding his brother, Kostas Antetokounmpo.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kostas Antetokounmpo was the last pick in last year’s draft. He spent the season on a two-way contract with the Mavericks, who just waived him. He’ll remain on a two-way deal with the Lakers. The 21-year-old was alright in the NBA’s minor league, but he’s not a tantalizing prospect.

Except for his connection to Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said he could never see himself playing for Los Angeles. But maybe he’d change his mind if someone close to him has a positive experience there. That must be the Lakers’ hope, at least.

It’s worth a shot, and the Lakers aren’t the only team trying this angle. The Bucks also signed Thanasis Antetokounmpo this summer.

Harden on fit with Westbrook: ‘When you have talent like that, it works itself out’

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It was the question everybody asked about 30 seconds after they heard Russell Westbrook had been traded to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul (after the initial shock of the deal wore off):

Do Westbrook and Harden, two of the most ball-dominant, isolation heavy players in the NBA, actually fit together?

Harden says yes. Of course, what else is he going to say, but he was earnest about it in comments to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle at the Adidas and James Harden ProCamp event last Friday.

“When you have talent like that, it works itself out. You communicate. You go out there and compete possession by possession. You figure things out. Throughout the course of the season, you figure things out. That’s just what it is. When you have talent, you have guys with IQ, you have guys willing to sacrifice, it always works itself out.”…

“It works,” Harden said. “It’s that trust factor. I trust him; he trusts me. And with the group that we already have and the things we already accomplished, it should be an easy transition for him to be incorporated right in and things are going to go.”

That is essentially is what Mike D’Antoni said, and what Rockets GM Daryl Morey is betting on.

Will Westbrook, and to a lesser degree Harden, be willing to make sacrifices and adjust their games? It is the question that will define the Rockets’ season.

My prediction: The duo works it out on offense and becomes one of the hardest teams to stop in the NBA. They will work it out. However, having to play Harden and Westbrook together on defense for extended stretches will cost Houston in the playoffs earlier than they planned.