The Billups Trade As It Was, As It Is Imagined, and As It Can Be

One of the very first papers I ever published was “Trading Players in the National Basketball Association: For Better or Worse?”  Co-authored with Stacey Brook, it appeared in Sports Economics: Current Research (edited by John Fizel and Larry Hadley) in 1999.  Stacey and I wrote this paper early in our careers (I was a graduate student and he was a young professor) and looking back, one can tell.  As is often the case, graduate students and young professors (and of course undergraduates) are not the best researchers in economics and the social sciences (and we can frequently see evidence of this observation on-line).  This is because research isn’t just about playing with spreadsheets.  Like much in life, research requires experience.  And back in 1997 – when this paper was originally written (and yes, it often takes two years to get your work published) — Stacey and I were short on experience.

Today both Stacey and I have done a bit more. Between the two of us, we have more than 40 publications (and an excellent book).  So it’s possible that we could go back today and revisit the subject of our first publication in the field of sports economics.  Certainly I think, given our skill sets today, we could write a better paper.  Unfortunately, basketball has changed some since the 1990s and our visions of a better paper might be hard to realize.

In our paper we looked at the outcome of NBA trades.  The focus of these trades – again, back in the 1990s – was the specific players involved.  Today, though, often the focus appears to be less about players and more about cap space.  And with this new focus, it is increasingly difficult for researchers to evaluate whether or not a specific trade made sense.

The Billups Trade As It Was

To illustrate, consider the recent trade of Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson.  As I noted when this trade was made, trading Billups for Iverson is not a good move for the Pistons.  Billups has consistently been more productive than Iverson.  To see how much “more productive”, let’s look at some numbers.

Last year the Pistons won 59 games with 60.6 Wins Produced.  As Table One notes, given the performance of its current roster last year, the Pistons should expect a Wins Produced of 49.6 when the 2008-09 season ends.  In sum, the team has lost about 11 wins from last year.  And almost the entire decline is due to the fact Billups is more productive than Iverson. 

Table One: The Detroit Pistons in 2008-09 after 54 games

This year Iverson and Billups have played 1,938 minutes for the Pistons (this is after 54 games, or after Sunday’s embarrassing loss to Cleveland).  In 2007-08, Chauncey Billups posted a 0.304 WP48.  Had Billups played those 1,938 minutes – and posted a 0.304 WP48 – he would have produced 12.3 wins after 54 games this season.  Across an 82 game season, this production would be worth 18.6 wins.

Now let’s look at Iverson. Last year Iverson posted a 0.134 WP48.  Across 1,938 minutes that level of production is worth 5.4 wins.  Or across 82 games, that’s 8.2 Wins Produced.  A bit of simple subtraction reveals the difference between Billups and Iverson – across the entire 2008-09 season — is 10.4 Wins Produced. In sum, virtually all of the difference between what the Pistons did last year and what the team should have expected this year is tied to the trade.

Of course the Pistons are not on pace to win 49 or 50 games this year.  After Sunday’s devastating loss to the Cavaliers, the Pistons have fallen back to the 0.500 mark (and after tonight’s loss to the Heat, the mark is now below 0.500).  And with a negative efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) the team is actually on pace to win less than 41 games. 

If we look back at Table One we can assign responsibility for this outcome as well.  And again, part of the answer is Iverson.  As noted, Iverson posted a 0.134 WP48 last season.  This year he is only posting a 0.070 mark.  Consequently his expected Wins Produced is 3.7 off what we would expect given what he did last season. 

We should note that Pistons are also getting less from Richard Hamilton and Amir Johnson.  But fourteen of Detroit’s lost wins in 2008-09 can be tied to the Answer.  And that means Iverson is the indeed the primary reason the Pistons have slipped.

The Billups Trade As It Is Imagined

The team — and many observers of this team — has trouble with the Iverson answer.  The latest story – from Antonio McDyess – is that the Pistons are suffering from a lack of leadership. 

For a different take, we turn to Reggie Miller.  During the television broadcast of the Pistons loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, Miller argued that Piston’s supporting cast (the cast supporting Iverson) is not good enough.  He even argued that Chauncey Billups has a better supporting cast in Denver.   Miller was not dissuaded from this argument even when Marv Albert noted that Denver lost Marcus Camby this past summer.  Consequently, it seems likely – as Albert noted — that the supporting cast Chauncey has in Denver in 2008-09 is less capable than the cast Iverson had in Denver in 2007-08.  Again, Albert’s observation failed to persuade Miller.

This leads us to wonder, how could Miller offer such a story? The problem Miller has – and other observers of the Pistons share – is that he “knows” Iverson is one of the all-time great players.  Given this belief, Miller has to find another explanation.  And even if that explanation makes little sense, it’s preferable to admitting that Iverson is not the answer.

The Billups Trade As It Can Be

One person who does seem to get the story of this trade “as it was” is Joe Dumars.  Thanks to Iverson’s expiring contract, the Pistons will be well below the NBA’s salary cap this summer.  Dumars was asked if he plans on spending this money in 2009, or if he is going to wait for the much anticipated free agent market in 2010. 

Dumars responded as follows:

“Given the fact we have to play a season next year, I think I need to use that money,” Dumars said of the expected $20 million or more the Pistons are expected to have available under the NBA salary cap.

“If we weren’t going to play next year I probably wouldn’t do anything with it, but I think we’re going to tip it off next year so I’m going to try and put a (good) team on the floor.”

Dumars said options will be plenty in the summer, and that could mean a trade or trades. He laughed when asked if he might wait for the much-ballyhooed free-agent class of 2010.

“You can’t wait,” he said. “You can’t sit here and two years down the road hope we get somebody. You have no idea what could happen. We’re not going to shut down. We’re going to keep going.”

Here is how I read this statement from Dumars:

1. The Pistons – as currently constructed – are not good enough.

2. Although some believe Iverson is Detroit’s best player (Marv Albert claimed he was definitely a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame player), Dumars did not indicate that re-signing Iverson was in his plans.

3. Assuming point #2 is true, ultimately Dumars has traded Billups for whoever he can get in the free agent market – and/or via trade – next summer.  In sum, we shouldn’t look at this trade as it was, or as it is imagined.  We must look at what this trade can be.

So let’s do some imagining.  When we look over the 2009 free agent market, one player stands out (from a Wins Produced perspective).

Carlos Boozer entered the league in 2002-03.  Through the 2007-08 season Boozer posted a 0.262 WP48.  To put this in perspective, Billups came to the Pistons in 2002-03 and across the next six seasons he posted a 0.238 WP48.   Boozer is also five years younger than Billups.  Yes, he might ultimately be more expensive.  And yes, Boozer might not be healthy (and as people in Utah suspect, he might have an attitude problem).  But if the Pistons had traded Billups for Boozer at the start of the season (and Boozer stayed healthy), this would have looked like a much better trade than the trade for Iverson.

Again, Boozer does have some problems.  So it’s possible the Pistons will look elsewhere.  The elsewhere list includes Trevor Ariza (unrestricted free agent), David Lee (restricted free agent), and Josh Childress (restricted free agent).  And if these players are not available, the Pistons – as Dumars suggests – do have options in the trade market.

In sum, Dumars has some options to turn what looks like a bad trade into a very good transaction.  So evaluating this trade – at this point – is quite difficult.

Dumars Hypothetical State of the Pistons Speech

Let me close by noting that as I write this, President Barack Obama is explaining his plans to resolve our current economic problems.  One can imagine Dumars making a similar speech to fans of the Pistons.  Such a speech might be as follows:

“As we look at the Pistons fall below the 0.500 mark tonight, it has become obvious to all fans of the Pistons that our team is not what it was last year or in recent seasons.  The days of title contention have clearly passed. 

As I come here tonight I acknowledge that the trade for Iverson was not the Answer we advertized.  I say that not to pass blame, or to focus on the past, but to make clear that I understand where we are today.  And with a complete understanding of the current state of the team, I want to assure fans of the Pistons that I do indeed have a plan to bring this team back to heights we have come to expect.

This plan begins with the money we have available to spend this summer.  I come here tonight to make it clear that it is indeed my full intention to spend our money to restore the Pistons to the title contenders we demand and deserve.

Yes, I know I have claimed to have “the Answer” before.  And yes, I understand the skepticism.  Yes, I get it.  But I assure each and every fan of our team, we do have a plan to turn today’s losses into tomorrow victories.  And I can assure fans of the Pistons that tomorrow is not far away.”

Now some will read this speech and note

a. I clearly need to avoid watching political speeches as I write.

b. Dumars may not believe Iverson is the problem.  Dumars might be passing on Iverson strictly because he is old.  So Dumars might not “get it.”

Regardless of what we believe about Dumars, I do believe that the Pistons will emerge stronger from the 2008-09 disaster than they were before (okay, I really need to stop listening to these speeches).

- DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

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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