Sunday, February 28, 2010

Twenty-Four Months Of Perspective On Trades

Back in February 2008, three big trades altered the balance of power in the Western Conference:

(1) The L.A. Lakers traded Kwame Brown, 2007 first-round draft pick Javaris Crittenton, 2007 second-round draft pick Marc Gasol, a 2008 first-round draft pick, and a 2010 first-round pick to Memphis for Pau Gasol and a 2010 second-round pick.

(2) Phoenix traded Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to Miami for Shaquille O'Neal.

(3) Dallas traded Devin Harris, Desagana Diop, Trenton Hassell, Maurice Ager, a 2008 first-round draft pick, and a 2010 first-round pick to New Jersey for Jason Kidd, Malik Allen, and Antoine Wright.

Each of these transactions was roundly slammed at the time for its one-sidedness: Folks thought that the Lakers, Heat, and Nets fleeced their respective counterparties. However, assets in the NBA (i) are relationship-specific, i.e. their value changes depending which team gets them, and (ii) have dynamic values that can change significantly over time. Ultimately, each of these trades turned out to be far fairer than once thought.

We know that Pau Gasol helped propel the Lakers to two NBA finals and one championship (after successive first-round exits in 2006 and 2007), so the trade was a home run for Los Angeles. Yet the deal now looks better for Memphis than once thought. Marc Gasol, hardly mentioned in initial accounts of the trade, now performs rather equinely every night, regularly turning in double-doubles and serving as a scary defensive presence. He was mentioned by several pundits as worthy of a 2010 All-Star spot. Moreover, the 2008 first-round pick in that trade became Darrell Arthur, who is now Memphis's only decent forward off the bench. Memphis, at 30-29 and unexpectedly striving for a playoff spot, is one of the most surprising squads of 2009-10. It is actually hard to imagine now that Memphis could have done significantly better in the trade, given the teams bidding to acquire Pau at the time. Chicago allegedly offered Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas, but neither of those guys has Marc Gasol's dominant offensive instincts.

SUNS-HEAT (O'Neal, Marion)
Early in the 2007-08 season, following a first-round sweep by Chicago the previous spring, Heat watchers declared Shaquille O'Neal "done". O'Neal, though, recovered from early-season doldrums following his trade to Phoenix and improved his rebounding from 7.8 per game to 10.6. Phoenix lost in the first round of the playoffs that season to San Antonio, which eventually beat the Hornets in the second round and lost to the Lakers in the conference finals. Whether Phoenix could have surpassed the West's best that season is uncertain. The Suns could not get past San Antonio with a full complement of Nash, Stoudemire, and Marion in the 2007 playoffs, so it is uncertain whether they could have reversed their luck in '08.
In 2008-09, O'Neal was selected to the Western Conference All-Star team and was voted to the All-NBA third team in June. That Phoenix struggled in the 2008-09 season and missed the playoffs was largely the fault of their new coach, Terry Porter, who failed to run a system suited to the run-and-gun, pick-and-roll strengths of the team's biggest stars, Nash and Stoudemire. O'Neal turned in a very good year, featuring his best scoring rate since 2005-06 and his best free throw percentage since 2002-03.
Meanwhile, Marion, once called the most athletic player in the NBA, is no longer thought of as a top 10, top 15, or even top 30 superstar. After the big trade in February 2008 he seemed to sulk, playing under his supposed potential on Miami and later Toronto. Now a starting small forward for Dallas, he is merely a top-notch role player who once was great.

Is there any controversy here? The Nets are 6-52 and Dallas is 38-21. The 2008 draft pick that the Nets picked up became Ryan Anderson (who was eventually flipped, with Vince Carter, for Courtney Lee), who is a decent ninth man. Save for Hassell, all the other role players in the 2008 draft — Diop, Ager, Allen, Wright — now play elsewhere. Jason Kidd turned in a 19-17-16 game on Friday night at nearly age 37. Following the 2008 trade, he helped the US Olympic team to a gold medal in Beijing, followed by a second-round playoff showing in 2009, knocking off the hated Spurs. This year he averages 10 points, 9 assists, nearly 2 steals, and 42 percent from long range. Looking beyond statistics, he is the unquestioned general of his team and often appears spryer than men nearly half his age. Harris had a nice 2008-09, finishing a very close 2nd in the Most Improved Player voting, but this year he is shooting under 40% from the field -- as a point guard -- while, again, leading his team to a 6-52 record.

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