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Trading for a star mid-season to make an immediate impact? Don’t count on it

Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony

Brooklyn Nets guard Deron Williams (8) trips over the legs of New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) as they compete for a loose ball in the first half of their NBA basketball game at Barclays Center, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

AP

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:

YearPlayerTraded fromTraded toBeforeAfterWCE
2014Luol DengChicago BullsCleveland Cavaliers11-2311-10+16.4
2011Carmelo AnthonyDenver NuggetsNew York Knicks28-2614-14-1.5
2011Chauncey BillupsDenver NuggetsNew York Knicks28-2614-14-1.5
2011Deron WilliamsUtah JazzNew Jersey Nets17-407-18-1.5
2010Caron ButlerWashington WizardsDallas Mavericks32-2023-7+12.4
2008Jason KiddNew Jersey NetsDallas Mavericks35-1816-13-8.9
2008Ben WallaceChicago BullsCleveland Cavaliers30-2415-13-1.6
2008Pau GasolMemphis GrizzliesLos Angeles Lakers29-1628-9+9.2
2007Allen IversonPhiladelphia 76ersDenver Nuggets14-931-28-6.8
2006Steve FrancisOrlando MagicNew York Knicks15-388-21-0.6
2005Chris WebberSacramento KingsPhiladelphia 76ers26-2717-11+9.6
2005Antoine WalkerAtlanta HawksBoston Celtics28-2817-9+12.6
2005Vince CarterToronto RaptorsNew Jersey Nets7-1535-25+21.7
2005Baron DavisNew Orleans HornetsGolden State Warriors16-3818-10+28.4
2004Stephon MarburyPhoenix SunsNew York Knicks14-2125-22+10.8
2004Rasheed WallaceAtlanta HawksDetroit Pistons34-2220-6+13.3
2001Dikembe MutomboAtlanta HawksPhiladelphia 76ers41-1415-12-15.6
1999Terrell BrandonMilwaukee BucksMinnesota Timberwolves12-713-18-17.4
1999Eddie JonesLos Angeles LakersCharlotte Hornets5-1221-12+28.1
1997Jason KiddDallas MavericksPhoenix Suns8-1932-23+23.4
1996Tim HardawayGolden State WarriorsMiami Heat24-2918-11+13.8
1995Clyde DrexlerPortland Trail BlazersHouston Rockets30-1717-18-12.5
1990Maurice CheeksSan Antonio SpursNew York Knicks34-1711-20-25.6
1989Mark AguirreDallas MavericksDetroit Pistons32-1331-6+10.4
1988Larry NancePhoenix SunsCleveland Cavaliers28-2714-13+0.8
1988Ralph SampsonHouston RocketsGolden State Warriors3-1517-47+8.1
1984Reggie TheusChicago BullsKansas City Kings21-3017-14+11.2
1983Micheal Ray RichardsonGolden State WarriorsNew Jersey Nets31-1818-15-7.2
1980George McGinnisDenver NuggetsIndiana Pacers26-2811-17-7.3
1980Maurice LucasPortland Trail BlazersNew Jersey Nets23-3411-14+3.0
1980Bob LanierDetroit PistonsMilwaukee Bucks29-2720-6+20.6
1979Bob McAdooNew York KnicksBoston Celtics23-326-21-16.1
1979Jo Jo WhiteBoston CelticsGolden State Warriors24-2814-16+0.4
1979Truck RobinsonNew Orleans JazzPhoenix Suns26-1724-15+0.9
1977Bob McAdooBuffalo BravesNew York Knicks11-1329-29+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.