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March 12, 2012
Sudden Impact
Do Deadline Deals Work?

by Bradford Doolittle

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Few things in the NBA get analyzed more than the trade deadline and for good reason. It's exciting, for fans and analysts alike, when teams shuffle the deck. As is the nature with trades, there are two sides to every deal and the immediate reaction to a team making a move usually stems directly to how likely that team is to make a late-season run.

For instance, think back to the 2008 trade in which the Lakers sent Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Marc Gasol and a couple of first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol. At the time, the Memphis part of that trade was lambasted, then dismissed, until three years later when we suddenly realized the move worked out awfully well for the Grizzlies. When it happened, we knew that the Lakers' acquisition of Pau Gasol was clearly a move meant to push L.A. over the top and, indeed, they went on to face the Celtics in that season's Finals.

To varying degrees, many trades completed in the run-up to the deadline are similar to that Grizzlies-Lakers swap. One team is looking for maximize its chances to win in the short term; the other is taking a big picture approach. Sometimes both teams in a trade are trying to get better for the finishing kick, such as back in 2003 when the SuperSonics and Bucks tried to shake things up by swapping Ray Allen for Gary Payton. Most of the time, however, there is a clear win-now team in these late-season deals.

When you are trading future assets for short-term gain, your sacrifice is meant to pay off with extra wins over the course of the rest of the season in which the deal is made. That makes the process of evaluating the success of the strategy easy. If a team's winning percentage improves after a deadline trade then, theoretically, it has accomplished its goal. With that in mind, let's look at the recent history of deadline trades to see how these win-now teams have done.

To create our pool of transactions, we made a list of every trade completed in February going back to the 2001-02 season. (The third week of February marks the league's annual deadline, though this year is obviously an exception.) That gives us 10 years worth of deals to look at. For each trade, we tried to identify the teams seeking a short-term boost, even if it was acquiring a player that, like Pau Gasol, would help beyond that season. Some trades, such as the aforementioned Seattle-Milwaukee move, had more than one win-now team. Some had zero -- a lot of trades are made just to move around spare parts or for salary cap reasons. Those have been omitted.

When the virtual dust settled, we ended up with 72 trades in our pool, or an average of 7.2 per season. The largest number of matching deals in a season was 12 at the 2005 deadline. Most of those deals were relatively minor, involving a lot of role players. But that season also saw Chris Webber going to Philadelphia to join Allen Iverson and the Warriors dealing for Baron Davis. The fewest number of deals was one, in 2007, and that involved Melvin Ely going to San Antonio, which you could debate as a win-now move. Let's hope this year's deadline is more like 2005 than 2007, just to keep things interesting.

So how did the win-now teams fare? Pretty good. Collectively, they had won 51.8 percent of their games before the trade deadline. After making their deals, they improved to 54.2 percent. So as a group, the short termers improved from a conceptual 42-win team to a 44-win squad.

The three biggest improvements all came in 2005, though only one of them could be attributed to the deadline maneuvering. The Nuggets won 24 of their last 28 games that season after trading for Eduardo Najera. Najera is as scrappy as they get, but we can agree that there were other factors in play for the Nuggets. Same for New Jersey, which acquired the by-then aging Clifford Robinson and went 19-8 down the stretch. The Warriors took off after acquiring Davis, going from 16-38 before the deadline to 18-10 after. They didn't make the playoffs, but it was a nice run and the move for Davis was the catalyst.

At the other end of the spectrum are the teams that tanked after their deadline aggression. The best examples in deals that didn't involve strict role players both occurred last season. The Celtics dropped like a stone after trading Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder for Jeff Green. In a different vein, the Jazz unsuccessfully tried to straddle the line between short and long term when they traded Deron Williams to New Jersey. They got back plenty of future assets but also acquired a new starting point guard in Devin Harris who was supposed to keep them in the playoff hunt. He didn't.

Another approach to this is to look at the frequency with which teams have "won" these deals, with a win defined as an improved post-deadline winning percentage. The won-loss record by this definition has been 44-28, a 61.1 percent success rate. We'll leave it up to you whether or not you think that's impressive. You would think that teams behaving in a short-sighted manner that are dealing for players with established track records would fare pretty well. Whether or not 61.1 percent qualifies as "pretty well" is a subjective observation.

TEAM TRACK RECORDS ON WIN-NOW TRADES
TEA W L TEA W L TEA W L OKC 6 0 PHI 1 0 MIL 1 2 DEN 3 0 DAL 3 1 NWO 1 2 MIA 3 0 MEM 2 1 BOS 1 3 POR 3 0 SAS 2 1 CLE 1 3 LAC 2 0 ATL 3 2 PHX 1 4 CHA 1 0 CHI 1 1 MIN 0 1 GSW 1 0 HOU 1 1 TOR 0 1 IND 1 0 LAL 1 1 DET 0 0 NJN 1 0 UTA 1 1 SAC 0 0 ORL 1 0 NYK 2 3 WAS 0 0

If we reduce our pool further by flagging "splash" trades involving starting-caliber players, the results improve, but not enough to make any qualifying statements. In these 31 trades, teams have improved by 4.4 percent, an improvement of about 3.6 wins per 82 games. They have "won" 20 of the 31 deals, a 64.5 percent rate. By and large, it seems like teams that tweak their rosters at or near the deadline tend to improve their position, if perhaps not quite as much as we'd think.

Is there a commonality among the trades that have worked? Not really. Some of them involved giving up real assets and fit the "you have to give up something to get something" cliche. (Think Payton/Allen, or last year's Denver-New York blockbuster from the Nuggets' perspective.) Others were outright fleecings, such as the 2002 trade in which Chicago sent Ron Artest, Ron Mercer and Brad Miller to the Pacers. Three of them involved trading away Drew Gooden, which apparently is always a good idea.

The bottom line is that smart teams make smart moves. Whether or not you want your team to make a splash over the next three days depends on whether or not you feel like you're rooting for a smart team.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

(Get your copy of the most comprehensive guide to the new NBA season. Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12 is now available in .PDF and paperback format.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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