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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Let’s Make a Deal: Breaking Down this Season’s Biggest Trades

This is a very unusual NBA season: a 50 win team may not qualify for the Western Conference playoffs, while as many as three sub-.500 teams may participate in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Most of the top Western Conference teams made at least one significant acquisition/trade in an attempt to bolster their chances of not being the one team left standing when the music stops and eight teams receive their seats on the 2008 playoff express.

During All-Star Weekend, I asked two-time NBA champion David Robinson why he thinks so many teams have made trades this year. He replied, "I think that part of it is that many teams have been together long enough to know that they need to make changes. Dallas knows that they have had their chances the last couple years and that they need to do something a little bit different. Phoenix, the same way—they’ve had some chances to win a championship the last couple years and they needed to make a change. There are a lot of teams that have been hovering and know that they need to step it up. I don’t remember a time when so many teams have made such significant changes. It’s exciting. I think that this will be one of the best playoffs in a while."

It is way too early to truly evaluate these deals—but that has not stopped everyone else from trying, so here is an attempt to scientifically break down the most important in-season moves involving Western Conference teams (you can find my take on Cleveland’s blockbuster trade here).

1) Lakers acquire Pau Gasol and a second round draft pick in 2010 from Grizzlies in exchange for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, the draft rights to Marc Gasol and first round picks in 2008 and 2010. Lakers’ record since trade: 10-1 (all won-loss records listed in this article are accurate as of 2/26/08).

This is by far the best in-season deal that any team has made this season, for two reasons: impact and potential downside; Gasol has already had a huge impact and there is no potential downside to this trade from the Lakers’ perspective because they did not give up any assets that could have been of value to them during Kobe Bryant’s prime years. Gasol gives the Lakers a proven scorer, a good rebounder and a player who, though not an outstanding one on one defender, blocks shots and uses his length effectively as a help defender. Gasol’s presence lessens the burden on the shoulders of Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum (when he returns from injury); Odom has shown throughout his career that he does not want the responsibility of being the second best player on the team and Bynum is still a bit young and raw to step into that role. Thanks to Gasol, those players will not be asked to do more than they are capable of doing. Gasol in turn benefits from this situation because he no longer has to be the first option, a role that did not entirely suit him for so many years in Memphis.

The only reason that I am not instantly jumping on the "Lakers will win the championship this year" bandwagon is that it usually takes a certain amount of time for a championship team to develop chemistry and continuity. The Lakers are doing this on the fly now with Bryant-Gasol-Odom and then will almost have to start over when/if Bynum returns near the end of the season. However, in the wake of the Gasol trade just about every other Western contender has made a big move, so all of these teams will be dealing with the chemistry/continuity issues that result from adding new players.

Bryant has averaged 6.2 apg in Gasol’s 11 games as a Laker, nearly 1 apg more than he was averaging before the trade. Not to belabor what should be fairly obvious, but it is hard to get assists passing to the likes of Kwame Brown; it is also difficult to get assists when your team is playing four on five on offense because one player cannot catch the ball. This may sound crazy to some people, but there is not a pass that Steve Nash makes that Bryant is not capable of delivering: Bryant has the full repertoire of bounce passes, post feeds, behind the back passes, left handed passes and everything else. If Bryant wanted or need to, he could rack up double-digit assists totals just like Michael Jordan did in 1988-89 when Bulls Coach Doug Collins put him at point guard for the last few weeks of the season. The reality is that Bryant is his team’s best scoring option, so in most cases it makes less sense for him to pass than to shoot (Jordan did not win any titles as a point guard). While Nash accumulates more assists than Bryant due in part to the differences in their roles on their respective teams, Bryant has been the leading playmaker on three championship teams, proving that he can be a very effective passer at the highest level of the game, something that Nash has yet to accomplish.

2) Suns acquire Shaquille O’Neal from Heat in exchange for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks. Suns’ record since trade: 5-4 overall, 2-2 in games that O’Neal played in.

Considering that O’Neal finished second in MVP voting as recently as 2004-05 and that he played an important role on a championship team in 2005-06 it is fascinating that so many people think that adding him to the Suns’ nucleus of Nash-Stoudemire-Hill is a bad move. I have been as critical as anyone of O’Neal’s indifferent attitude toward his conditioning and his reluctance at times to play good screen/roll defense but I have also consistently said that the Suns would never win a title with the previous nucleus of Nash-Stoudemire-Marion. Clearly, Suns General Manager Steve Kerr understood this, too, and that is why he made this trade. It is very revealing that Marion has not expressed the slightest regret about leaving a contending team to play for the worst squad in the NBA; the most important thing to Marion is how much individual recognition he receives and he felt like the third wheel in Phoenix. O’Neal may have been going after it at half speed as the Heat plummeted in the standings but he knows that the Suns can win a title so he will be putting forth his best effort the rest of this season.

The Suns desperately needed rebounding and paint presence at both ends of the court. Marion gets more boards than O’Neal but he also plays a lot more minutes; O’Neal is still an effective rebounder (45 rebounds in just 112 minutes in his first four games as a Sun, well above his career rate) and he provides a physicality that the Suns have lacked in the Nash era. If O’Neal stays healthy then the Suns will be an even tougher out than usual in the playoffs, regardless of how they finish the regular season; their regular season success in recent years has been a mirage based on using their fast break style to pile up wins against the league’s weaker teams but now they can be effective in the half court, which is essential in the playoffs.

Indiana Pacers’ Coach Jim O’Brien recently told me, "I think that Shaq will fit in well and I don’t believe that anybody should overreact to the fact that they are 1-2 after three games. When you have such a big change in personnel it takes a little bit of time for the team and the coaching staff to get used to how to best utilize a new rotation."

3) Mavericks acquire Jason Kidd, Malik Allen and Antoine Wright from Nets in exchange for Devin Harris, DeSagana Diop, Trenton Hassell, Maurice Ager, Keith Van Horn, two first round picks (2008 and 2010) and $3 million in cash. Mavericks’ record since the trade: 3-1.

LeBron James said that he would lead the Cavs to a championship if they acquired Kidd but the Mavs beat them to the punch. The early returns show Kidd putting up his usual numbers—flirting with triple doubles while shooting around .400 from the field--as Dallas beat three non-playoff teams and lost to the New Orleans Hornets. Kidd adds toughness, playmaking and veteran savvy. In certain matchups the Mavs may very well miss Harris’ pure speed, but Kidd is an all-time great point guard who is still very productive and he should help the Mavs to avoid the postseason collapses that happened to them the past two years.

4) Spurs acquire Kurt Thomas from Sonics in exchange for Brent Barry, Francisco Elson and a first round pick in 2009. Spurs’ record since the trade: 3-0 overall, 1-0 in the only game that Thomas played in.

Frankly, the Spurs don’t need Thomas in the regular season and they could put him in the same deep freeze that they use to preserve Robert Horry until playoff time. Last season, the Spurs had a bad stretch midway through the season but Coach Gregg Popovich reassured his players that the team would not make any deals and that it was up to them to work things out. This season, with literally every Western contender adding someone, the Spurs could not very well afford to stand pat. The interesting thing about this move is that Thomas is someone who might not play at all in the first round if the Spurs play Golden State but he could have a very significant role against teams that have a dominant inside player. I think that if you could give Popovich truth serum then he would admit that the main reason that the Spurs acquired Thomas was to match up with Shaq in the playoffs—and if Thomas can give them 10-15 productive minutes versus the Big Cactus then this trade will have worked out perfectly.

Speaking before the Spurs signed Thomas, Robinson explained the importance of having a quality big man: "It comes down to defense. You’ve got to make stops. If you cannot make stops, then you cannot win the game. Every game that is important is going to come down to the last five minutes and it is going to come down to a number of possessions and who can take advantage of those. A big guy helps you make those stops. You are not going to give up away easy buckets and you are going to get the rebounds so you don’t give up second shots. A lot of those open court teams have not been real solid in their half court defense and that is what has hurt them."

Robinson is not overly concerned about how his former team has played this season: "I think that when you are not the champion you tend to rise and fall a lot more with your little win streaks and losses. The Spurs have had some really bad stretches so far this year but you can see that it has not affected their confidence at all. They realize that it’s a long run and they will be there when it is important and you have to build up to that place. You can see that their confidence level never dips and I think that is what being a champion allows you to do."

5) Spurs sign Damon Stoudamire, who had been waived by the Grizzlies. Spurs’ record since the trade: 9-1.

Stoudamire has shot poorly and averaged less than 20 mpg but he provides important insurance in case Tony Parker gets hurt in the playoffs. If Parker stays healthy then Stoudamire may not see much playing time during the postseason; Stoudemire’s value as an outside shooter is counterbalanced by his liabilities as a defender, though Tim Duncan obviously can do a lot to hide such weaknesses.

6) As part of a three team deal including the Grizzlies, Hornets acquire Bonzi Wells and Mike James (plus cash considerations) from Rockets in exchange for Bobby Jackson and Rockets acquire Jackson, Adam Haluska and the rights to Sergei Lishouck. Hornets’ record since the trade: 0-2; Rockets’ record since the trade: 2-0.

The Hornets had the best record in the West just prior to making this deal but they felt that adding Wells and James solidified their bench. The Rockets were happy to get rid of Wells and James because neither player really fit into Coach Rick Adelman’s plans. Of course, from Houston’s standpoint any positive effects from this deal will likely be wiped out by Yao Ming’s season-ending injury. Recent history shows that the Rockets are even more dependent on Tracy McGrady than they are on Yao, so if T-Mac stays healthy then the Rockets should still make it to the playoffs. Wells gives New Orleans a post up threat for their second unit and he is a great rebounder for his size, while James is a solid backup point guard.

7) Jazz acquire Kyle Korver from 76ers in exchange for Gordan Giricek and a protected first round pick. Jazz’ record since the trade: 20-5.

This is the impact move that has flown largely under the radar in the wake of the big name, blockbuster trades but the Jazz have been a vastly improved team since acquiring Korver, whose long range marksmanship opens up the court for Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams. Two of the team’s five losses with Korver have come in the past three games, though, so the bloom may be off of the rose, particularly considering how strong the West is this year.

8) Warriors sign veteran free agent Chris Webber. Warriors’ record since the deal: 7-4 overall, 4-3 in games that Webber played in.

Golden State did not give up anything to get Webber but so far the Warriors have not gotten very much out of him, either; in seven games he has yet to once reach double figures in scoring or rebounding.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:43 PM

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