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

Feb 20, 2014, 9:15 AM EDT

Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony

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.

  1. timberwolvesbrisin - Feb 20, 2014 at 9:50 AM

    LOL @ loul deng being a “star.” Another huge stretch from PBT.

    • asimonetti88 - Feb 20, 2014 at 9:58 AM

      “But players like Clyde Drexler and Baron Davis come closer to representing realistic expectations.”

      So if Clyde Drexler is the realistic expectation… your expectation should be to win the NBA title?

  2. pfic15 - Feb 20, 2014 at 9:58 AM

    Star? Lol. OK.

  3. sportsfan18 - Feb 20, 2014 at 4:11 PM

    Let’s see whether he’s a star or not…

    His career PER is 15.9

    Here is a break down of PER and where the levels place a player.

    A Year For the Ages: 35.0
    Runaway MVP Candidate: 30.0
    Strong MVP Candidate: 27.5
    Weak MVP Candidate: 25.0
    Bona fide All-Star: 22.5
    Borderline All-Star: 20.0
    Solid 2nd option: 18.0
    3rd Banana: 16.5
    Pretty good player: 15.0
    In the rotation: 13.0
    Scrounging for minutes: 11.0
    Definitely renting: 9.0
    The Next Stop: DLeague 5.0

    So Deng is a bit above league average and a bit below a 3rd banana. That SCREAMS STAR to me!

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