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July 23, 2010
Blockbuster Busts
Trading a Superstar

by Kevin Pelton


When the New Orleans Hornets sit down soon with Chris Paul, their apparently disgruntled star guard, they will make every effort to convince Paul to stay the course in the Crescent City. There's a good reason for that. It's hard to imagine a Paul trade working out to the Hornets' benefit.

There are a handful of obligatory trades that come to mind when we think of superstar NBA players getting dealt before the twilight days of their careers--Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the L.A. Lakers, Charles Barkley to Phoenix--but finding a good comparison for a possible Paul swap is difficult. Simply put, players as good as Paul don't get traded, and especially not this young.

Even during a down, injury-plagued season, Paul posted a .718 individual winning percentage last season. (Because of the injuries, it's more appropriate to use per-minute winning percentage than WARP.) In the WARP era, covering the past three decades, just three players have changed teams after a superior season--Barkley, Moses Malone and Shaquille O'Neal. Of this group, only Malone (signed-and-traded from Houston to Philadelphia after the second of his three MVP seasons) is really comparable to Paul. Barkley was already 29 when the 76ers traded him, while O'Neal left of his own free will as a free agent, not unlike LeBron James.

If we can't learn much from looking strictly at players better than Paul, we'll have to expand our pool. 15 players have changed teams after seasons where their winning percentage was .675 or better. This group includes seven players traded before the age of 30. Let's take a look at their similarity to Paul (in ascending order) as well as how the deals worked out for both team and player.

7. Andre Miller (Cleveland) and Bryant Stith for Harold Jamison and Darius Miles (L.A. Clippers)

Similarity: Low. Miller was a very good player who enjoyed a career year in 2001-02 for the Cavaliers. He'd never play at the same level again and has never been an All-Star.
Team results: Well, this depends on your perspective. Miles was a bust in Cleveland, of course, and the Cavaliers won just 17 games in 2002-03. That was precisely the plan, however, as the poor record gave Cleveland the opening to win the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery and draft a home-grown star, James. This worked out quite well until earlier this month.
Player results: Miller got traded back home, but adding him to a number of other players in contract years left the Clippers unstable on and off the court. Considered a rising force in the Western Conference (Basketball Prospectus would have been all over the 2002-03 Clippers, had the site existed then; John Hollinger's book of the same name certainly was), the Clippers flopped. Miller left as a restricted free agent the next summer.
Takeaway: Unlike crime, tanking does pay.

6. Larry Nance (Phoenix), Mike Sanders and a first-round pick for Tyrone Corbin, Kevin Johnson, Mark West, a first-round pick and two second-round picks (Cleveland)

Similarity: Low. Nance was already in his late 20s by the time he was traded and was a second-tier star at best (he'd only made one All-Star Game at the time).
Team results: The arrival of Johnson helped turn Phoenix shake off the effect of a nasty drug scandal and emerge as a force in the Western Conference. The Suns would finish the season 28-54, but win at least 50 games each of the next seven years.
Player results: It wasn't so bad for Nance either. Cleveland surely knew that Johnson would become a star, but the Cavaliers had a pretty good point guard of their own in Mark Price. He and Nance teamed with Brad Daugherty to become a dangerous team in the East, twice winning 57 games.
Takeaway: If you're going to trade an established star, trade them for a promising youngster.

5. Chris Webber (Golden State) for Tom Gugliotta and three first-round picks (Washington)

Similarity: Medium. Webber was certainly a legitimate star, a year removed from being the No. 1 overall pick and Rookie of the Year, and like Paul the trade came at his request. Webber actually sat out training camp and the start of the 1994-95 season after exercising a one-year out in his contract before the Warriors agreed to trade him to Washington. The biggest limiting factor was that Webber was so young and not as established as Paul.
Team results: The Warriors would deal Gugliotta again (for rookie Donyell Marshall) before the season was out. Don Nelson's subsequent departure and injuries helped tear apart what had been a regular playoff team. Golden State would not make the postseason again until 2006-07. So, in other words, not good.

Player results: Webber went through growing pains in Washington and the Bullets never won more than 44 games in a season. Webber would finally get his career back on track after a 1998 trade to Sacramento.
Takeaway: Be careful what you wish for in trade demands.

4. Charles Barkley (Philadelphia) for Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry (Phoenix)

Similarity: Medium. Barkley was much older, though he had several good years left when he was dealt to Phoenix. Like the Hornets, the 76ers seemed to have slipped out of contention and missed the playoffs the year before dealing Barkley. Team results: The classic quality over quantity trade; together, the three Suns might have been as valuable as Barkley, but stars win in this league. That was exacerbated when Philadelphia inexplicably traded Hornacek to Utah for the older and worse Jeff Malone (creating another West contender in the process). The 76ers wouldn't return to the playoffs for seven years, and never won more than 31 games in that span.
Player results: Barkley led Phoenix to a nine-win improvement and won MVP. The Suns reached the NBA Finals, where like so many Western Conference champs from the 1990s, they ran into a roadblock in the form of the Chicago Bulls.
Takeaway: Quality over quantity, natch.

3. Pau Gasol (Memphis) for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, the rights to Marc Gasol and a first-round pick (L.A. Lakers)

Similarity: Medium. I'm a huge Gasol fan and think he's terribly underrated, but he's not quite in Paul's class. And he didn't entirely force the Grizzlies' hand.
Team results: Not as big a disaster as is conventionally believed. For one, the younger Gasol has pretty quickly developed into a fair center in his own right. Second, it's not as if Memphis was a power with Gasol; the Grizzlies went 22-60 the previous year (Gasol did miss 23 games with injuries).
Player results: Gasol was and is a perfect fit for the triangle offense and helped make the Lakers a force. Two championships later, only a Miami super-team will keep them from being favorites to win again.
Takeaway: Getting traded to a team with an established star whose games complements yours is good.

2. Moses Malone (Houston) for Caldwell Jones and a first-round pick (Philadelphia)

Similarity: Medium. In terms of superstars being traded in their early prime, Malone is the quintessential example. The biggest difference is the Rockets were looking to save money.
Team results: Dealing the reigning MVP for a defensive specialist worked about as well as you'd expect. The Rockets collapsed to 14-68 before turning things around by virtue of getting the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft in back-to-back years, netting Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Player results: Fo' fi' fo', in Malone's parlance. The duo of Malone and Julius Erving led the 76ers to the championship and Malone won another MVP.
Takeaway: Super-teams are fun!

1. Tracy McGrady (Orlando) and Reece Gaines, Juwan Howard and Tyronn Lue for Kelvin Cato, Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley (Houston)

Similarity: High. McGrady was 24 and entering what should have been his prime. An MVP contender the previous season, he was dealt after the Magic inexplicably collapsed in 2003-04.
Team results: The deal itself was disappointing. Mobley was traded within the year and Francis lasted less than two seasons in Orlando. But the Magic won the 2004 lottery and landed Dwight Howard, adding Jameer Nelson the same year. Along with Hedo Turkoglu and newcomer Rashard Lewis, they would eventually lead Orlando to contention.
Player results: McGrady and Yao Ming put the Rockets in the postseason when healthy, but McGrady remained unable to get past the first round of the playoffs before injuries left him a shadow of his former self.
Takeaway: Now, the Magic is a possible destination for Paul. We've come full circle.

Of the seven teams that traded away a star player--using that definition a little more loosely for some than for others--only the Phoenix Suns with Nance apparently won the trade. To the extent the others emerged unscathed from the deal, it was largely because of lottery luck. The Hornets can't count on such a thing, and even then it's hard to imagine them drafting someone with more potential than Paul.

With two years left on Paul's contract, New Orleans holds a great deal of the leverage here. To the extent they reasonably can, resisting a trade demand is the right move. I also think there's a chance the Hornets can improve Paul's state of mind by getting back into the playoffs. New Orleans has lost little in terms of talent this summer, having been able to get near the right side of the luxury-tax limit by shedding the contract of the expendable Morris Peterson.

The additions of first-round picks Craig Brackins and Quincy Pondexter should help the Hornets' depth, and we never really got to find out what the team could have accomplished with a full lineup last season. By the time New Orleans wised up and began playing rookies Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton, Paul was already battling injuries and the season was lost. So perhaps patience is in order for both player and team here.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

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

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2010-07-23 - Blockbuster Busts: Trading a Superstar
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