Trade Thoughts

Normally when there is a trade I offer a post talking about how the transaction impacts each team.  But this past week there were too many trades for a post on each one.  So here are a few comments on the winners and losers from the flurry of the past week.

The Big Winners

The big winner didn’t do anything this past week.  Of all the trades this season, the Lakers acquisition of Pau Gasol still ranks as the best.  The Lakers acquired an above average player for basically nothing.  What Memphis received — Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Marc Gasol, and two low first round draft picks – is unlikely to offer significant productivity either now or in the future.  Certainly these assets were not going to help the Lakers this year. Consequently the Lakers defied the adage “you must give up something to get something.”

The Spurs are another team that might be defying the common trade wisdom.  The Spurs traded Brent Barry and a first round draft pick to the Sonics for Kurt Thomas.  The Sonics then cut Barry, who may re-sign with the Spurs after 30 days.  Given that a low first round draft choice from the Spurs also has little value, San Antonio has acquired Thomas – a player with a  0.274 WP48 this year (and a career mark of 0.120) – for basically nothing.  Of course, the “nothing” argument assumes Barry returns.  If not, the Spurs may not be much better.

After these two, though, every other team had to give up something to get something.  Cleveland comes the closest to emulating the Lakers and Spurs.  The main commodity Cleveland game up was Drew Gooden, who has been above average in the past.  This year, though, Gooden has not played well. So the Cavs really have given up nothing to get Ben Wallace – who is still above average (although not what he once was) and Wally Sczerbiak.  The latter is below average, but still better than Larry Hughes.

Maybe Winners

After the Lakers, Cavaliers, and Spurs, we see a few teams that are probably better.  As noted, the Mavericks added Jason Kidd (which helps) but had to give up Devin Harris and DeSagna Diop (which hurts).  The net effect, I think, is positive.

The Hornets gave up Bobby Jackson (which hurts a bit) and added Mike James (which hurts if he doesn’t start playing better.  But they added Bonzi Wells, which helps. 

The Rockets did the reverse, so they might be helped if Luther Head – who probably gets more minutes now that Wells is gone – plays as well as he did last year.  Minutes do impact performance, so perhaps Head will start playing better.

The Rebuilders

The Bulls and Nets both entered the season hoping to make the playoffs.  But it didn’t work out.  Now each team is rebuilding.

With the trade Chicago gets to find out if Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas can play.  I think both players, if given consistent minutes, can produce.  The team is still weak in the backcourt, where the play of Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon conspired to destroy the team’s season.

As for the Nets, Diop definitely helps.  Sean Williams and Josh Boone are also above average players, giving the Nets a solid frontcourt.  This is something they have not had for many years, so that problem might be solved. Unfortunately, the team still has problems elsewhere. Richard Jefferson, for example, is not quite the player he once was (he especially has problems rebounding).   Nevertheless (and this might be surprising) it might be possible that the Nets are better after the trade of Kidd.  It does depend on who plays, and whether some players can re-gain what they were in the past.  Still, both teams involved in the Kidd trade might be better after this deal.

And then there are the Sonics.  This team has exactly two above average players, Nick Collison and Chris Wilcox.  After that, the team appears to have an aversion to employing productive talent.  Right now the Sonics are heading back to the lottery.  My sense is the future team of Oklahoma City is hoping to add a productive rookie, and then hoping that Kevin Durant and Jeff Green develop into productive players.  If Durant and Green do not develop, then Oklahoma City will be hosting lottery parties for many years to come.

The Big Picture

Okay, how does this all impact the playoff picture?  Here are my top teams in each conference:

Eastern Conference: Boston and Detroit are on top.  These two are followed by Cleveland, Orlando, and Toronto.  After that we have a collection of teams who could make the playoffs but will probably lose in the first round.

Western Conference:  If Bynum comes back and produces, the Lakers will be the top team.  They may not finish with the best record, but if this team is healthy they will be the favorites entering the playoffs.  After the Lakers are a collection of very good teams.  This collection is led by San Antonio, and includes in no particular order, New Orleans, Utah, Dallas, and maybe Phoenix (although I do not like the Shaq trade).  And then close on the heels of these teams we have Houston, Denver, and maybe Golden State.  All of these teams can’t make the playoffs, so at least one very good team will miss the post-season in the West. 

Although I see the Lakers the favorites in the West, it is still going to very hard to predict the playoffs in the West.   The 1 through 8 seeds are all very good teams.  And any one of these teams has a chance to be in the NBA Finals. 

A Note on Team and Player Evaluation

You will observe that I have not forecasted wins for each team involved in these trades.  That’s because such a forecast requires that I guess how minutes are going to be allocated on each team.  And that can be hard to do when so many pieces have been changed.  Because it is hard to predict minutes, it is hard to pin down exactly how the teams will be impacted (see the discussion of the Nets above). 

In addition the minutes problems, there are some other issues to consider in looking at these trades.  NBA players are not robots.  When we look at the link between present and future performance here is what we find:

1. For the most part, what you see is what you get.  NBA players, relative to baseball and football players, are quite consistent across time.

2. That being said, player performance is adversely impacted by switching coaches and teammates.  Plus, changing minutes will also impact productivity.

3. And then there is the issue of diminishing returns.  If you move a player from a bad team to a good team, performance will be reduced.  In other words, diminishing returns – as explained clearly in The Wages of Wins – does apply to the NBA.  For the most part, this is not a huge effect.  Again, generally what you see is what you get in the NBA.  But any reader of The Wages of Wins would expect Jason Kidd going from the Nets (a bad team) to the Mavericks (a good team) will now offer less production (and/or someone else on the Mavericks will offer less).  And this less production will take the form of fewer rebounds, fewer shot attempts, etc…  In other words, it’s not just one stat that declines.

One last note on diminishing returns…. this is how this effect is measured in research I have published.  First we measure how productive a player has been.  This can be done via Win Score or Wins Produced. We then look at how the productivity of teammates impacts performance.  And this is done via a model that controls for many other factors that impact performance. 

In sum, you can’t look at how one factor (x) impacts (y) if you don’t control for other factors that impact (y).  Well, you can.  But your analysis won’t tell us much.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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