Golden State Warriors
Acquired guard Stephen Jackson and center Andrew Bogut from the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for center Kwame Brown, guard Monta Ellis and center Ekpe Udoh. [3/13]
Acquired center Kwame Brown, guard Monta Ellis and center Ekpe Udoh from the Golden State Warriors in exchange for guard Stephen Jackson and center Andrew Bogut. [3/13]
I don't know if I can remember analyzing a deal quite as confusing as the one the Bucks and the Warriors made Tuesday night. Here's the thing: rating each of the three most important players in this swap is complex individually. Add them together and the uncertainty skyrockets. Let's take them one at a time.
Ellis is overrated, but not for the reason you think. The flashpoint for most analysts is Ellis' volume scoring. He's one of nine players in the league using at least 30 percent of his team's plays this season, and among this group only Carmelo Anthony has a lower True Shooting Percentage. However, Ellis' True Shooting Percentage of .516 isn't far below the league average of .522.
Additionally, we know that the more plays a player uses, the less efficiently he will score--but the more efficiently his teammates will score. I use an Adjusted True Shooting Percentage to normalize all players to how we would expect them to score if they used plays at an average rate. Ellis' Adjusted True Shooting Percentage is .570, which puts him in the realm of good but not great.
Still, the Warriors have shown a persistent ability to play worse with Ellis on the floor. This season, they're 5.9 points worse per 100 possessions. A year ago, his net plus-minus was -7.4. In 2009-10, when Ellis was less effective, Golden State was a remarkable 11.5 points worse per 100 possessions when he played.
Using the Four Factors regularized adjusted plus-minus calculated by The City blog, Ellis rates as essentially neutral on offense. He ranks 319th in the league entirely because of his terrible impact on defense, where he rates as costing the Warriors 1.4 points per 100 possessions.
Ultimately, Ellis' biggest problem is that he's a shooting guard in a point guard's body. Though he's improved as a playmaker, he still can't be used as a lead guard on a regular basis. (Partially because it means Stephen Curry is necessarily off the floor, the Golden State offense has been dreadful when Ellis has played the point this season.) And Ellis simply isn't big enough to match up with shooting guards. As I noted in this year's Pro Basketball Prospectus, Ellis has one of the 10 smallest wingspans in the NBA, making it all the more difficult for him to contest shots from bigger players. Add in Ellis' inconsistent defensive focus and it becomes difficult to build a competitive defense around him. That certainly was never going to be the case with the Curry-Ellis backcourt, and the best news of this deal is that--health permitting, and we'll get to that in a bit--the Warriors picked the right one of those two guards to build around going forward.
The ideal scenario for Ellis has always been a situation somewhat akin to the one Allen Iverson enjoyed in Philadelphia in the early 2000s. Eric Snow was the perfect pair for Iverson because he could cross-match defensively and handle playmaking duties. Additionally, the rest of the Sixers were built to excel defensively and on the glass while leaving the scoring to Iverson.
In some ways, Milwaukee makes sense for Ellis. The Bucks have been surprisingly effective on offense this season thanks to an improved supporting cast, but their all-D/no-O history has always cried out for a volume scorer like Ellis. Taking away possessions from equally inefficient scorers and giving them to Ellis is a good idea. Like the 76ers, Milwaukee boasts a number of defensive-minded role players and a defense-first coach who can fill in around Ellis' skills.
The problem here is Brandon Jennings. On paper, Jennings already occupies the Iverson role in the Bucks backcourt. His usage rate, 26.1 percent, doesn't quite reach such lofty heights but Jennings has the ball in his hands most of the time as the focal point of the Milwaukee offense. At a slight 6-1, Jennings is no more capable of defending high-scoring two-guards than Curry, meaning that task will continue to fall to Ellis.
The best thing Scott Skiles can do is minimize the minutes Ellis and Jennings play together. In an ideal world, he'd sell Ellis on the idea of becoming a heavily used sixth man. More realistically, he ought to manage the rotation so that the starting backcourt is only on the floor together for limited stretches, filling in with Shaun Livingston. The 6-7 Livingston, who has primarily played off the ball for the Bucks but has more than enough playmaking chops to handle the point, is a nice match with Ellis. Beno Udrih might also be big enough to offset Ellis' size in the backcourt. But for adding Ellis to work, Milwaukee will need him Jennings to be able to thrive as a duo. That prospect is a question mark at best.
With Bogut, the question is less about ability and more about availability. He's missed 30 games this season and 60 over the last three, limiting his value. No player in the league inspires more questions about whether he's prone to injury or simply unlucky. This is not a case where Bogut's injuries have been related, like Greg Oden's series of knee problems or even Curry's repeated ankle sprains. There's little connection to be drawn between a back injury, a gruesome dislocated elbow and a broken ankle.
There are two factors at play here, actually. Even if we assume that Bogut is no more likely than anyone else to suffer serious injuries going forward, the effects of his elbow injury appear lasting. Over the last season-plus, Bogut has not been nearly as accurate a shooter. His All-NBA-caliber 2009-10 season looks like the high-water mark for his career.
At a lesser level, Bogut remains incredibly valuable because of his defense and rebounding. Actually, Bogut makes me think of an ancient study that Dean Oliver did and I later updated on the records of teams based on the position of their leading scorer. What we found was that teams led by their centers tended to be best, but because of their defense and not their offense. The explanation seemed to be that those centers were good enough to stay on the floor for 35 minutes a night, allowing teams to take full advantage of their defensive prowess. Bogut is a little like that. He might not be a far better defender than Ekpe Udoh, but if nothing else a healthy Bogut will earn heavier minutes by virtue of his name recognition.
So what kind of risk are the Warriors taking by building around two players (Bogut and Curry) with a history of injuries. I'm not sure. In some sense, injury risk is like any other form of volatility in that it tends to bring teams toward the middle. For a losing team like Golden State, then, taking some chances on health might make sense. If the Warriors were destined for the lottery for the foreseeable future, one season where Bogut and Curry stay healthy and lead a playoff run might be enough to justify the pairing. In a scenario where both players miss extended time due to injuries, well, the draft pick is simply that much better. That may in fact be the case this season, should Bogut be unable to return. The Warriors owe their first-round pick to Utah (via New Jersey) if it falls eighth or worse; right now, Golden State would pick 11th. Getting down to seven will be difficult but not impossible.
I recently wrote a thousand words about Udoh and his plus-minus, so I'll save the gory details, but suffice it to say that a player who looks like a bust viewed through the prism of individual stats looks like an elite talent when viewed by plus-minus data. The question I never really answered in that column is Udoh's overall value. At this point, I'd rate him as a solid role-playing starter, an Anderson Varejao-type. If that's accurate, he's an important component of this deal for the Bucks, especially since he still has two years left on his rookie contract.
I suspect that the Warriors organization, for the most part, could never quite convince itself of Udoh's value. So it is that just as Udoh was finally getting the opportunity to play 30 minutes a night on a regular basis, and putting up decent box-score statistics in the process, he was shipped out of town. To Golden State, I don't think Udoh was much more than a throw-in to this trade, especially once they'd secured their center of the future in Bogut.
For Milwaukee, Udoh can be a long-term solution in the middle. Drew Gooden has held down the position since Bogut's injury, and has proven again to be the anti-Udoh. Gooden is the team's second-leading scorer, and decent on the glass, but the Bucks' defense allows 14.1 more points per 100 possessions when he's out there. (That's bad.) In fairness to Gooden, he's miscast as a center. He's not a shot blocker, lacks the length to contest shots and struggles with defensive positioning. These are all areas, not coincidentally, in which Udoh excels.
Ideally, Ellis and Udoh work in concert for Milwaukee. Udoh dramatically upgrades the defense while Ellis replaces some of the scoring punch lost if Gooden sees less action. Fitting all the pieces together may take some time for Skiles, and that's the danger of making a major trade during this compressed season. With so little practice time, the Bucks will have to integrate newcomers on the fly. Now that the race is on for the last spot in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, however, a slight upgrade could make a difference. If so, Milwaukee achieved it without sacrificing long-term thinking. Though Udoh won't replace a healthy Bogut's production, he softens the blow and the Bucks freed some $8.5 million in salary for 2012-13, which could help them re-sign Ersan Ilyasova next summer.
I'm skeptical of the Ellis-Jennings backcourt, but should it fail Ellis will always have value on the trade market, especially as he works toward the conclusion of his contract after the 2013-14 season.
By adding the final season of Stephen Jackson's contract, the Warriors take the opposite cap hit and are now effectively out of this summer's free agency, at least for more than the mid-level exception. They may still try to find some value for Jackson before the trade deadline, rendering this part of the move incomplete. To contribute at this point of his career, Jackson will probably have to reinvent himself as the same kind of role player he was as a hungry young player before developing into a go-to guy.
My choice with Golden State would have been to shop Ellis for a bigger shooting guard who could complement Curry, keep Udoh in the starting lineup and see how that mix worked out. This is a bolder gamble. I think the Warriors probably gave up too much on the periphery in terms of salary and Udoh despite upgrading in the Bogut-Ellis part of the swap. So it's really all on whether Bogut can stay healthy and put together an effective 75-plus games next season. We'll see.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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