Longtime hoops guru Jerry West had some interesting comments last week about what has become a hot topic in NBA circles. He was indirectly addressing the sad Dwight Howard situation in Orlando, but talking more generally about what tack league decision makers need to make when dealing with star players trying to force their way into new situations.
West feels that the Otis Smiths and Dell Dempses of the world need to mostly stand pat when a player starts to grumble about moving on. In his way of thinking, more often than not, the $30 million or so extra a max-contract player can get by staying put is going to override the desire for better teammates or more glamorous environs. More pointedly, West added that even if a player walks, he'd rather start the rebuilding process from scratch than by taking back whatever assets can be gleaned from trading the player. In essence, West is saying that the Denver would have been better off to just hang onto Carmelo Anthony. Likewise, Demps should have kept Paul and Smith should just ride out Howard's demands.
This theory flies in the face of the default opinion on the subject, which is basically that if you think a player is going to bolt, then get what you can, while you can. The Anthony trade seems to be working out awfully well for Denver, so I'm not so sure I entirely agree with West. However, you're probably not going to last long in the analysis business if you're at odds with West, one of the game's greatest players and executives. (Because you're probably wrong, not because West is going to carry out some sort of vendetta.)
West's comments made me think back to the old Milwaukee Bucks--the perennial bridesmaids. The Bucks were able to land a solid package of talent back in 1975 when they traded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers. The deal jump-started a quick rebuilding effort that set up the 15-year run of success Milwaukee had under Don Nelson and Del Harris. But those Bucks were the NBA's version of a fifth wheel. They were always good, sometimes almost great, but never won a single conference championship. All through those years, they searched in vain for a franchise center while their old one took home five rings with the Lakers.
It's not hard to envision a similar fate befalling the Nuggets. They are an excellent team but if they go on to face the Lakers, Clippers or Thunder in the playoffs, the absence of a superstar player may turn out to be Denver's undoing. We'll have to see how that works out. (And this assumes that you feel that Anthony is a franchise player anyway.)
I thought it might be constructive to look at cases from the past when a franchise player has been moved. What did the jilted team get in return? What ultimate fate befell them? To do this, I analyzed three-year WARP values going back to 1979-80, the first for which we can calculate the metric. I looked at players who met three criteria:
- A three-year total of at least 50 wins above replacement.
- Played each of those three years with the same team.
- Played on a different team in the subsequent year.
Theoretically, this should generate a list of teams that lost a franchise player, whether it be to free agency, a trade or retirement. The first thing you discover is that true franchise players don't change teams that often, at least not while they are playing at their peak. So a rigid analysis of West's premise is doomed to an impossibly small sample size. You could increase the sample by lowering the WARP threshold but, frankly, I wanted to stay away from the murky question of what constitutes a franchise player. These criteria left me with just eight players. I decided to look at them anecdotally to see anything could be learned.
It could. Once I wrote this histories up, I feel like it reiterated two important lessons for Magic GM Otis Smith to heed. You can't replace the elite with the solid, not if winning a title is your top priority. And the road to the top usually leads through the bottom.
1982: Moses Malone, Hou to Phi
Moses was at his absolute peak when his contract with the Rockets expired after his MVP 1981-82 season, during which he averaged about 31 points and 15 rebounds per game. Houston was struggling financially at the time, as were several other teams in the pre-Michael Jordan NBA. The Sixers had been on the cusp of a championship for a half-decade, ever since Julius Erving joined the club after the ABA-NBA merger. Malone was signed to a landmark six-year, $13 million deal.
Under the odd compensation system of the time, Philly sent Houston Caldwell Jones, its co-starter at center with Darryl Dawkins, plus a 1983 first-round draft pick the Sixers had acquired from Cleveland years before in exchange for Terry Furlow. This wasn't even one of the flurry of first-round picks that infamous Cleveland owner Ted Stepien spread across the NBA in the early 1980s. The Cavs were trading picks even before Stepien arrived. Cleveland was coming off a 15-67 season, so a 1983 pick of theirs carried a lot of value.
The Malone deal, whether you call it a free-agent signing or a trade, shaped nearly two decades of what we now know as NBA history. The Rockets lost 68 games in 1982-83 and were accused of tanking games in order to get the top pick of the 1983 draft. The top prize that year was Virginia's Ralph Sampson, viewed as the creme de la creme of NBA prospects. This was pre-lottery and the teams with the worst record in each conference entered into a coin flip to determine who got to pick first. Houston was so desperate to get Sampson that they offered the Cleveland pick (which turned out to be the No. 3 in the 1983 draft), a 1984 No. 1 pick and Caldwell Jones to Indiana just to get the Pacers to concede the flip. Indiana was going through an ownership transition and couldn't pull the trigger on the trade.
The gesture was unnecessary, of course, because the Rockets won the flip. Had the trade gone through, the Pacers would probably still have taken Steve Stipanovich at No. 3 and Houston would have still ended up with Sampson and Rodney McCray. However, the next year Indiana would have been in a position to draft Hakeem Olajuwon or Michael Jordan. The Rockets were again labeled as tankers in 1983-84, when they improved to 29 wins but finished last in the West. This time, they won a flip with Portland, which held Indiana's pick because of the 1981 trade for Tom Owens, and took Olajuwon.
Had the Rockets traded that top pick in 1984, it's unlikely they would have tanked, so it's hard knowing how many games they would have won. As it was, the Clippers only won one more game than Houston. So perhaps it'd have been the Clippers and Pacers flipping that coin and if the Pacers lost, then they'd be picking between Sam Bowie and Jordan. Since they already had Stipanovich, Jordan would have probably been the pick, and the 80s and 90s would have looked much different. There are a 1,000 what-if scenarios you can concoct out of all the traded No. 1 picks from that era.
Nevertheless, out of the rubble of the Malone's departure, the Rockets landed Sampson, Olajuwon and McCray and the Finals within a few years. Sampson's knees gave out prematurely, but Olajuwon went on to become the centerpiece on back-to-back championship teams in the 90s. In this instance, the "get what you, while you can" philosophy bore fruit. However, Houston benefited from the idiocy of teams that wildly misinterpreted the value of upper first round picks, and took advantage of a system that no longer exists. In fact, it was the general rancor over the Rockets' perceived dumping of games that led to the implementation of the NBA lottery.
1992: Charles Barkley, Phi to Phx
Barkley was drafted by Sixers in 1984, just missing their championship window. Philadelphia was still potent, but had slipped well behind the Celtics, who were at their peak. Barkley developed while Dr. J aged and Malone became less efficient. Within three years, Erving retired and Malone had been traded to Washington, leaving Barkley as the franchise player on some increasingly poor editions of the Sixers. Barkley made the All-NBA first or second team for seven straight seasons. The last of those was 1991-92, when the Sixers slipped to 35 wins and missed the playoffs.
Barkley demanded a trade. In fact, he had been more or less demanding a trade for two years. Still, he was under contract, leaving the Sixers with plenty of leverage on the trade market. However, the Sixers had grown tired of Barkley's penchant for controversial behavior on and off the court. Philly GM Jim Lynam ultimately swung a poor deal, sending Barkley went to Phoenix for Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry. While the teams were talking, it was assumed that the Sixers would get back Kevin Johnson. They didn't. Lynam told reporters at the time that while the Sixers had discussed Johnson with Phoenix, he didn't feel like the All-Star point guard could be worked in under the salary cap.
Philadelphia did not have to trade Barkley, and it didn't have to settle for the package it got. Score one for West here--six more seasons passed before the Sixers again made the postseason.
1996, Shaquille O'Neal, Orl to LAL
Ah, Howard's precursor in Orlando, the nightmare that Magic fans wrongly believed could happen but once in a lifetime. O'Neal is a different player and different personality than Howard. Still, they both entered their peaks seasons as members of the Magic and were widely considered to be the most dominant centers in the game. As with Howard, O'Neal's off-court interests seemed to push him past his capacity to handle playing in the Orlando market. The Magic rolled the dice with O'Neal, hanging onto him all the way into free agency. He headed west for a $121 million contract with the Lakers.
The Magic remained competitive after O'Neal left, making the postseason in five out of the next seven seasons. At first, it was Penny Hardaway and Horace Grant leading the way. Rony Seikaly stepped into O'Neal's position at center. Since Seikaly was playing with the same group as O'Neal, you can estimate the difference between the centers at 15 wins, the difference between okay and elite. Orlando was stuck in the middle, so a couple of years later, it traded Hardaway to Phoenix for a megapackage that included two first-round picks.
The 1999-00 season was supposed to be a tank year, but Doc Rivers coached his squad to a miraculous 41-41 record. Orlando, its cap room maximized, took a swipe at Tim Duncan, Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady on the free agent market, basically attempting to do what Pat Riley did with the Heat last season. Unfortunately, Duncan stayed in San Antonio. Hill and McGrady signed with the Magic, but Hill's horrible stretch of injury problems limited him to a just 200 games over seven seasons. The two first-round picks acquired for Hardaway were squandered in non-sequitur deals, and McGrady was left to fend for himself. That led to a few more seasons of mediocrity.
The Magic bottomed out at 21-61 in 2003-04 even though McGrady was still on top of his game. The Magic won the lottery and took Howard first overall. Five days later, they traded McGrady to Houston for a disastrous package that featured Steve Francis. Eventually, the Magic overcame that trade and surrounded Howard with solid complementary talent and reached the NBA Finals in 2008-09. They've been trying to get over the hump ever since, knowing they were in a race with Howard's 2012 option to terminate his contract. That's where we are today.
In this instance, you really have to say West's theory played out--twice. By not gutting the roster when O'Neal left, the Magic delayed their rebuilding for a few years, but they eventually reached the conclusion that bottoming out was the way to go. Bad luck is the only thing that prevented the Magic from being a power in the early part of the last decade. When that happened, Orlando again went into the toilet, but was able to emerge with another elite franchise building block.
1999: Michael Jordan, Chi to retirement
Jordan retired after the Bulls' sixth championship of the '90s, and then came back a couple of years later to toil for the Washington Wizards. The Bulls might have pulled the plug on the Jordan era too soon, but when they did, they had the right idea: tank. The 1998-99 Bulls were a bunch of misfits and lost enough games to land the No. 1 overall pick. Elton Brand was a pretty good get with that choice, and later in the first round they added Ron Artest.
That gave Chicago a nice core to build with and nothing but cap room for the big free agent summer of 2000. Chicago lost 65 games but ended up with the fourth and eighth picks of a poor draft, which after a trade turned out to be Marcus Fizer and Jamal Crawford. The Fizer choice was bizarre, considering Brand was already on hand, but anyway the Bulls had formed a young core of Brand, Artest, Fizer and Crawford. The hope was that, and money, would be enough to attract the likes of Duncan, McGrady and Hill to Chicago.
Obviously, none of them came, leaving the Bulls in much the same situation the Knicks were in last season when they whiffed on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Instead of preserving the cap space, the Bulls squandered it on free agents Ron Mercer and Brad Miller. A cycle of poor personnel decisions, bad luck and impatience ensued. Eventually, the Bulls got lucky in the lottery and landed Derrick Rose. That's how it works out sometimes.
Despite the missteps, the Bulls had the right plan in place for Jordan's departure, which is a design that West would have approved of. They just botched it.
2002: Gary Payton, Sea to Mil
This isn't really a good example. Even though Payton's numbers marked him with elite status, he was in fact 34 years old when the SuperSonics traded him to Milwaukee for Ray Allen. The Sonics were in decline and adding the younger Allen helped to forestall the slide to the bottom. Allen and Rashard Lewis led a resurgent Seattle team to 52 wins in 2004-05. However, Seattle was stuck in the middle before trading Payton and remained there after.
Then things changed, as Sam Presti began the process of acquiring every young asset and draft pick he could get his hands on. Allen was traded, the team bottomed out, drafted Kevin Durant, moved to Oklahoma City and added Russell Westbrook. The Thunder have emerged as an NBA power and legitimate title contender. While the Payton trade can't necessarily be looked at as the first domino in that process, it was in fact the eventual decision to strip down that led the Thunder to where it's at now. West would approve.
2005: Tracy McGrady, Orl to Hou
We touched upon the circumstances of McGrady's departure already. Though it came nearly a decade later, his story is really connected to that of O'Neal and Howard, as far the history of the Magic is concerned.
2008: Shawn Marion, Phx to Mia
I'm not even going to get into this. Yes, Marion rated as a franchise player at the time he was traded to Miami. I hoped he thanked Steve Nash on his way out the door.
2007: Kevin Garnett, Min to Bos
I don't know that the Timberwolves necessarily hit rock bottom on purpose when Garnett was traded to Boston, but they did collect draft picks and young players. It seems like a promising core has emerged. We don't know if Minnesota is going to coalesce into a championship-level team. It still needs to find answers on the wing and a true defensive anchor in the middle would help. However, you can now imagine a path that would get them into the elite. The Garnett trade netted them two first-round picks and Al Jefferson, who was eventually turned into two more first-rounders. That's the way it's done.
In this case, the Wolves traded their franchise player rather than letting him leave, contrary to West's notion. However, they had the right idea in what they got in return. None of the roster-fillers they got back from Boston were going to lift them out of the basement. The draft picks had value. So did Jefferson, but he wasn't going to pull Minnesota out of the lottery by himself. He simply played well enough that he could be flipped for assets that added value to the Timberwolves' bottom line. I think the lesson here is that if you're going to go the trade route with Howard, you don't want to fall into the trap of taking back capable veterans that are going to win enough to slot you with a mid-first round pick. If you have to take back veterans to make a trade work, make sure they have expiring contracts.
2010: LeBron James, Cle to Mia
The Cavaliers went the OKC route by taking back a package of draft picks in the sign-and-trade deal that sent James to Miami. Not that they had much choice in the matter--they hoped right up to the last second that James would stay in Cleveland. Still, it's worked out pretty well. With James gone and no package of solid veterans around to keep the Cavs in the lower-tier of the playoffs, Cleveland sunk like a stone to the bottom of the league. They got lucky in the lottery and landed Kyrie Irving, who certainly looks like a foundation player. Now they have cap space and draft picks to add another core piece, and then build around that. Could be worse, but we of course don't yet know how this is all ultimately going to play out. You have to give this one to West.
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