The Statistical Side of the NBA - Trade Bait

by Kevin Pelton

I think my three favorite non-holiday days of each year are (in no particular order) the NBA Draft, the NBA's Trade Deadline, and baseball's Trade Deadline. Of the three, I'd say the NBA's Trade Deadline is the least interesting, if only because for all the talk and bluster before it little actually gets done.

Last year, by my loose count, there were four deals consummated on the day of the deadline. Atlanta and Philly swapped centers, Dikembe Mutombo and Theo Ratliff, with the Hawks also getting Nazr Mohammed and Toni Kukoc for their troubles. Toronto made two trades, getting Jerome Williams and Eric Montross from Detroit for Corliss Williamson and change and sending Mark Jackson back to New York in exchange for Chris Childs and a first-round pick. Finally, Washington salvaged its cap future by sending the bloated contract of forward Juwan Howard to Dallas for rookies Courtney Alexander and Etan Thomas as well as veteran forward Christian Laettner.

That's not to say the deadline did not have a significant impact on these teams' fortunes. Philadelphia has to be considered as benefitting from their trade, seeing as they achieved their goal of making the NBA Finals. Atlanta rebuilt in a hurry and looked like playoff contenders this season, though injuries have wreaked havoc with that plan. Toronto, thanks largely to the improved play at the point of Alvin Williams, who replaced Jackson, upset the Knicks in the first round and took Philly to the limit in round two. The Dallas Mavericks also pulled off a first-round upset, beating the Jazz in five games.

Rumor sites, the best of which is run by my esteemed benefactor BskBALL, do an excellent job of providing fans some idea what their teams are looking to do in trades near the deadline. What they don't do quite so well as give us an idea why teams would ever want these players; what the trades are trying to achieve. For that, I guess, it's up to niche people like myself.

I'll take a look at 10 players -- maybe not the 10 players most likely to be dealt, but the 10 I considered interesting to write about -- with (of course) a bit of a statistical leaning. In no particular order:

Nick Van Exel, Point Guard, Denver
It's no secret that Nick the Quick wants out of Denver. Really, it's the best thing for both sides so far as I am concerned. While Van Exel is probably more useful to a poor team because of his streak shooting, he's not exactly young anymore. Denver's team, even with Antonio McDyess, is not good enough to legitimately contend in a tough Western Conference. Thus, it makes sense to me that rookie Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe cash in Van Exel for picks or young players, perhaps in addition to ending contracts to clear roster and salary cap room.

It's been some time now since Van Exel has been in Los Angeles, and it might be interesting to see how he responds to playing around a group of talented players as a (theoretically) more mature veteran. With Denver the last four years, Van Exel has been a low-percentage gunner. He's been a low-percentage shooter most of his career, but has increased his shooting on a team that is only mediocre offensively. With a Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) of 164 last year and 67 so far this year, Van Exel has firmly established himself as a middle-tier point guard. On a better team, his assist numbers would certainly be better and he'd probably score more efficiently, making him a valuable guy to a team.

Raef LaFrentz, Center, Denver
I'll admit it up front -- Raef LaFrentz is one of my least favorite NBA players. I'm a big fan of tough inside players, and LaFrentz would not fit into this category, as he likes to spend most of his time on offense on the perimeter and isn't a very physical guy. That said, it's hard to argue with LaFrentz's effectiveness.

Because he takes so many threes -- 99 so far this year, almost a quarter of his shots -- LaFrentz's field goal percentage (46.5%) is pretty bad for a center. However, his true shooting percentage (56%) more accurately reflects how efficient he is on the offensive end. The other thing LaFrentz does extremely well is block shots. At 3.11 blocks per night, he's currently second in the NBA, and his per-minute average is better than anyone else in the top 10.

LaFrentz's rebounding is also solid, and he's established himself at about 12 rebounds per 48 minutes. Additionally, he's a rare big man who has recorded more assists than turnovers the last three years. All things considered, there's a lot to recommend LaFrentz. His VORP numbers have gone up from 141 his second year (and first full) to 197 to a projected 209 this season. He's not the superstar that some players picked after him -- Vince Carter and Paul Pierce, for two -- are, but you can do a lot worse than Raef LaFrentz as your starting center.

Marc Jackson, Center, Golden State
Jackson is certainly one player who needs no introduction this trading deadline. Have you ever seen such fuss over a player who has only started 35 games? The question, of course, is whether Jackson will be able to carry over the success he had while playing just 48 games -- albeit an impressive 48 games -- last season. 13 points and 7.5 rebounds are numbers most teams would kill to get out of their centers.

What really impresses me about Marc Jackson is free throws. Last season, he averaged about 7 per 48 minutes, but more importantly made 80% of them, a remarkable number for a center. Though he shot only 47% from the field himself, Jackson was a fairly effective scorer because of his free throw shooting. Jackson did not win the Rookie of the Year award because he played so little, but by my methods he was more productive in his 48 games than Mike Miller was in a full season, and thus deserved it nevertheless. As to the question of Jackson's legitimacy, I can't tell any more than anyone else. However, with a fairly low cost in trade, I think he's definitely worth the risk.

Latrell Sprewell, Small Forward, New York
Sprewell's been mentioned mostly tangentially in trade rumors, but I included him nevertheless because I want to discuss him. Since he's gone to the Knicks, Sprewell's game has really decayed, although part of this may be because he's playing out of position. By almost no one's definiton of small foward does Sprewell qualify, but yet that's where he's played the last four years. Amazingly, he's actually been a worse rebounder as a forward in New York than he was as a guard in Golden State. Ideally, the Knicks would be getting an equal benefit in that Sprewell's ballhandling would be better than the average small forward, but that's not really the case. His assist averages have gone down the last three years while his turnovers have stayed constant, leading to a middling 1.14 assist/to ratio.

Another declining number is Sprewell's shooting percentage, which has nosedived from 43.5% to 43% to 40.7% the last three years. Why so bad this year? It could be the fact that he's already taken 153 three pointers -- more than any total season since 1996-97 -- despite making only about a third. His true shooting percentage (48%) is better, but still not up to par. How about Sprewell's defense? Once, he was considered a stopper -- even a defensive specialist out of college -- but I don't think it's fair to describe him like that anymore. His steal numbers have been cut in half, and Sprewell is certainly not strong enough to be a good defender amongst bigger small forwards. This problem would not be if he returned to the off guard position, but I still think he'd be only about average.

In a strange sense, I think the incident with PJ Carlesimo was about the best thing that could have happened to Sprewell from a pr standpoint. Not only did he get to go to a media center, but after the initial backlash Sprewell has probably had more popularity after his run-in than he ever would have as an obscure high-scoring guard. Latrell's also not young, and in the declining portion of his career. If someone trades for him, it will almost assuredly be a mistake.

Shammond Williams, Point Guard, Seattle
A cop out. I've already written a far better analysis than I ever could here for my own website. If you're interested, check out the link:

Shammond Williams Scouting Report

Travis Best, Point Guard, Indiana
The Pacers are in the rather enviable position of having several capable players coming off their bench, with the prevailing theory being that someone (Best? Jalen Rose?) is going to be shipped out to clear room for the others to play. Between you, me, and the wall, Indiana might be better off in the short term with Best, not Jamaal Tinsley, as their starting point. At this point of his career, Tinsley isn't much as a shooter and has only a decent assist/to ratio. However, Tinsley will undoubtedly be a fine pro soon enough, whereas Best has basically peaked.

What has to be disappointing for Indiana, however, is that Best has seen a drop-off in play since he's gone back to the bench. I don't know exactly what to make of that, but it's there. I think there are some players who are better suited to starting and others to backing up, and perhaps Best is simply better off when he is on the court for the opening tip. For his career, Best had a rather poor assist/to ratio, but last season it jumped to to 3.78. This season, it's back to about 3, which is solid, but another odd fact about Best. Best only shot better than 44% from the field one year, but that year -- 1999-2000 -- he jumped up to 48%, making himself rather valuable offensively. On defense, Best is a little small to defend many guards, so he's only mediocre.

I guess at some point, I have to come to a conclusion. Best will be a free agent at the end of the year, so let me write it in stone here. If he goes to a team where he can start, Best will have an excellent final two months. You heard it here first.

Charles Oakley, Power Forward, Chicago
A few years ago, 'creative' journalists liked to come up with all sorts of funny ways to incorporate the word 'Bulls' into headlines. You've seen them all: Mission Impossi-Bulls; Unbeata-Bulls. Well, for Charles Oakley, I'd like to come up with some new similar words. Let's give it a try: Irresponsi-Bull, Unrelia-Bull, Terri-Bull, and finally Unemploya-Bull.

There's been some movement (I think) to claim that part of Toronto's problem this season in the absence of Oakley. I've never been in a locker room with Oakley, but unless he's Knute Rockne incarnate (I somehow doubt this), there doesn't seem to be any way he could make up for his awful play. The last two years, Oakley has shot under 40% from the field, and he has none of the excuses -- lots of threes, lots of shots -- that could make up for that. Oakley is a decent ballhandling bigman, but the only other thing he does even at league-average is rebound. 12.8 boards per 48 minutes are nice, but there are guys on minimum contracts (Art Long of Seattle, for example) that can do the same, and they aren't making 7.5 million this year. Any team that trades for Oakley should have its front office personnel's heads examined.

Juwan Howard, Power Forward, Dallas
I'm not sure how credible any Howard-related rumors are, but he wouldn't be the first to do the deadline dance twice in a row. Howard's a decent power forward who was unfortunate enough to be considered a very good -- perhaps even great -- power forward when he was young, and undeservingly lavished with a contract that has haunted him ever since. With guys like Howard and Vin Baker, amongst too many others to list or count, I wonder if perhaps the contract isn't actually creating the decrease in their play. Fans are often, in my opinion, far too hung up on player X making this and player Y making that. The fact is that in a system in which contracts are pre-determined and performance fluctuates so much year to year, there are bound to be extremely bad contracts and extremely good contracts for one party or another. It's not a player's fault he's being paid what he is; how many of you would turn down a better offer to work because you felt it was unfair? For that matter, what might others think if they knew what you were making? I'm not going to conclude we should feel pity for these guys -- they are, after all, being paid good money to perform the job many of us would for free -- but I also don't think that fans ought to blame these guys for not playing up to their contracts.

Anyway, back to analytical observations. After an awful 1999-2000 season, Howard actually rebounded quite a bit last season. This wasn't, as one might suspect, due to his trade to Dallas. Though Howard shot a bit better in Dallas, he was much improved already in Washington. However, this year he's fallen off again. The main culprit has been his shooting, which is down to a poor 44.6%. His rebounding has remained strong, but outside of scoring and rebounding, Howard doesn't do that much. His performance is thus tied rather closely to those two indicators. If he's down on either, he's not that valuable. Might a trade do Howard much of any good? I doubt that he would, but I'll go out on the limb with an extremely premature view. If Howard signs a make-good type contract two summers from now, say one year at the median exception, I think he might have a very nice season with expectations off of him.

Adonal Foyle, Center, Golden State
The prevailing theory at the current time is that Foyle and Jackson will be packaged together by the Golden State Warriors when the time comes for a move. Why teams would want Foyle, especially when they're already getting Jackson, who's better and cheaper, is basically beyond me. Foyle does two things rather well. He rebounds (13.34 per 48 minutes in 2000-01) and blocks shots (5.14 per 48 minutes that same season). What doesn't he do so well? About everything else.

Foyle is not a shooter, having broken the 50% mark on field goals only once in his career despite spending most of his time quite near the basket. His free-throw shooting is horrific, never having gone above 50% and twice ending up below 40%. Nothing else is particularly special about his numbers. Horrible shooting, good rebounding and shot blocking? Let's be honest here; this is not a particularly special set of skills. There are plenty of guys available on 10-day contracts who can provide the same without costing 4.4 million per season or requiring anything in trade. Foyle is replacement-level talent, end of story.

Brian Grant, Power Forward, Miami
Might part of Miami's decline be explained by the fact that some of their current players just aren't that good? In Grant's case, I think the possibility is very real. Brian Grant is a good player, but another guy who was made by the free-agent process into something he wasn't -- a cornerstone-type player. Last season, Grant was at about 15 points and 9 rebounds. Again, good but not great, as his VORP of 169 indicates. That was a career-high, by the way, and still not nearly as good as Howard's best seasons. In fact, Howard and Grant are fairly similar players. Since they both entered the NBA in the same season (94-95), Howard has a career VORP of 900; Grant 802, with the difference probably accounted for by Grant's decreased playing time in Portland. The main difference is that Howard has been up and down, while Grant has been fairly consistent.

Grant is having the worst season of his career by quite a margin so far in 2002, which I don't think would surprise anyone. His efficiency, which had never before been below .480, has dipped to .454, and he's also missed a string of games with injuries. Again, I'm supposed to speculate whether this will continue, I guess. I'd conclude rather easily that it won't. Grant is 29 years old and coming off his best season. There's nothing in that which would suggest that he should fall off so precipetously, so I'm going to write this one off to injuries and general team malaise and expect Grant to improve his numbers by the end of the year.