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February 18, 2008
Game Reax
The Jason Kidd Trade

by Bradford Doolittle

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Geesh, seems like all we've been doing around here lately is transaction analysis. Not that I'm complaining -- this sort of punditry is one of the keenest perks of the job.

Jason Kidd is once again...finally...we promise...a member of the Dallas Mavericks. The speculation can stop and the analysis can begin.

First, a quick personal history of my reactions to these ongoing Jason Kidd rumors. Initially, without looking at it too closely, I thought the deal would be exactly what the Mavericks needed. My knee-jerk perception was that Dallas had plateaued. In light of what the other contenders in the West have been doing, they needed to add another big piece to get over the hump. Kidd seemed like a perfect fit. That was the consensus reaction.

Then, rumors of Kidd going to the Nets for, among others, Devin Harris surfaced. After further review, but still no rigorous study, my opinion turned. There was the fact that Dallas was giving up too much of its depth. Even more, I was struck by the sudden and potent feeling that Kidd is not really that much of an upgrade over Devin Harris. If true, that means that Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson have effectively mortgaged the Mavericks' future just to throw a few coins into a slot machine.

Last Wednesday, the first version of the trade happened. Like many, I was surprised given Cuban's reasonable comments only a few days before, about how Dallas would be giving up too much to make Kidd a Maverick. Analysis was written. Then, as I watched the Jazz carve up the Sonics that night, Kevin Calabro, the fine Seattle play-by-play announcer, blurted out in a conversation with his cohort, "Snapper" Jones, that Devean George--Devean George, of all people!--had the blocked the trade. In doing so, George killed the last vestiges of my hopes of ever feeling like I had a grasp of the vagaries of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement by unearthing a clause so arcane, you'd need to take the LSAT just to prove you were qualified to write about it.

I was mad at George because his actions struck me as inordinately self-centered. If I'd been in Dallas that day, I would have shown up at his nicely-timed 0-for-11 flop against Portland with a whole list catcalls and other verbal harangues. Later on, though, after sane reflection, I thought of it this way: If any of us, in our day jobs, were transferred to a less desirable branch of our company against our will and then discovered that we had within our rights the means to block the transfer and keep our current job, would we not exercise that right? The insular sports universe offers a much different dynamic for its employees than the regular corporate world, with its own set of rules and a level of compensation that most of us can only dream about. The instinct for self-interest, however, is the same for everyone and is only natural.

George is going to be a free agent this summer. Given his age and record of performance, whether or not he retains his Bird rights is almost certainly irrelevant--he'll be lucky to catch on with anyone, period. Nevertheless, he was playing on a good team that is sure to be a focus of attention in the postseason. If because of a favorable matchup, George were to find himself a key component in a playoff series, a good performance could make him a lot of money. It wouldn't be the first time a player has made a fortune because of a surprise playoff showing. Besides, he'd get to play for a team with an infinitely better shot at winning the championship than New Jersey. Sure, it's selfish, but can any of us really blame Devean George for doing what he did? I sure can't.

Then, on Friday, it leaked out that the NBA might disallow the trade anyway because Jerry Stackhouse let slip that the plan was to be bought out by the Nets so that he could return to Dallas after a league-mandated 30-day waiting period. Reports were that the NBA frowned on such arrangements, reports that David Stern confirmed during his All-Star Weekend press conference. Whether or not the NBA would have actually torpedoed the trade for this reason was a matter of speculation, but what is clear is that at some point after the original agreement, Stackhouse's inclusion in the trade became unacceptable for the Mavericks. It's pretty clear they were uneasy about their chances of getting Stackhouse back, and that was a deal killer for them.

I fail to see the grounds for the league's indignation on this issue. The system allows for the types of agreement that the Nets and Mavericks apparently reached regarding Stackhouse. It's not like the clause was without consequence--New Jersey would have been on the hook for the remainder of Stackhouse's contract. Dallas would have been without someone whom they consider an important player for a full month. What is the problem here? How is that type of arrangement any more unsavory than doing what the teams did when Stackhouse was taken off the table, which was to sign a retired player (Keith Van Horn) and have him pocket $4 million for pretending like he's actually going to play for the Nets? Stackhouse-style pre-arrangements are almost certainly not unusual in the NBA. The only unusual part of the situation is that Stackhouse stupidly told everyone what was going to happen. The NBA didn't care about the flaunting of its rules, it only cared how the deal was perceived in the public eye.

All that is water under a bridge, as they say, and this type of ranting about semantics is nothing but a by-product of the midseason break. What's done is done and now all that matters is how the trade works on the court.

Before I get into that, let's look at the dollars and various components of the trades to try and understand how a team that is more than $40 million over the NBA's soft cap can acquire a player of this stature, making these dollars. I'm including the Antoine Wright part of the original scenario, a separate deal that hasn't yet been consummated but really has no material bearing on any evaluation of the trade.

Nets get:

Asset           Age  Pos     Ht/Wt   WA3280  (2007)    08$  Contract
Devin Harris     24  PG   6'3"/185      1.4   (1.9)   4.00  Next year starts
a 5-year, $50 million deal DeSagana Diop 25 C 7'0"/280 1.2 (-0.1) 2.15 Expiring Maurice Ager 23 SG 6'5"/202 -9.6 (1.3) 0.97 $1.04 million
next season, then a team
option for 2010 Trenton Hassell 28 SG 6'5"/233 -4.9 (0.6) 6.75 Two years, $? Keith Van Horn 32 SF 6'10"/220 n/a (n/a) 4.00 Expiring $3 million cash 2008 first-round pick 2010 first-round pick future second-round pick

Nets don't get:

Asset           Age  Pos     Ht/Wt   WA3280  (2007)    08$  Contract
Devean George    30  SF   6'8"/235      1.2  (-1.6)   2.37  Expiring
Jerry Stackhouse 33  SG   6'6"/218     -1.7   (1.0)   6.75  Two years,
$14.25 million remaining

Mavericks get:

Asset           Age  Pos     Ht/Wt   WA3280  (2007)    08$  Contract
Jason Kidd       34  PG   6'4"/210      1.7   (5.8)  19.73  $21.37 million for next season
Malik Allen      29  PF  6'10"/255     -1.0   (0.4)   0.96  Expiring
Antoine Wright   23  SG   6'7"/215     -4.4  (-2.9)   1.68  Expiring

NOTE: the WA figures are the wins added/3280 minutes figures for this season and last

That is plenty to process. In terms of prorated 2008 wins added, based solely on this season's performance, the Mavericks have spent 0.20 losses to obtain 1.02 losses. The dollars are mostly a wash for this season, of course, or else the trade wouldn't have worked under the NBA's complex salary cap structure. Dallas will be on the hook for more than $21 million owed to Kidd for next season. Michael Finley and Shawn Bradley are still on Mark Cuban's books this year, and with Hassell, Harris and Eddie Jones all off the payroll, by the summer of 2009, Dallas may actually have something close to payroll flexibility. The Mavericks are giving away some legitimately good, young talent in Harris and Diop but the deal isn't really hamstringing Dallas in the long term. Well, except for those first-round draft picks that are headed to Brooklyn.

Looking at it from Nelson's and Cuban's perspective, franchise centerpiece Dirk Nowtizki is 29, while super reserve Jason Terry is 30. Josh Howard, at 27, is in his prime. In terms of optimum output from core players, this is as good a season as any for the Mavericks to go for it. As we've written on multiple occasions, this year's Western Conference is ripe for the picking. So, like Phoenix's Steve Kerr attempted to do with the Shaquille O'Neal trade, short-term gain is the overriding factor for the Mavericks. Even though Harris and Diop are and will continue to be fine players, replacing them in a couple of years shouldn't be a franchise-killing burden for Dallas. Trading them will turn out fine if it makes the Mavericks better right now.

That's the real question, though. How much does this trade really boost Dallas' chances of winning it all this season? Does it even help? Kidd's decline in performance this season muddles things from a talent-for-talent perspective for the Mavericks. In my system, he's dropped from 6.0 wins per 3,280 minutes to 1.7 over the span of one season. Harris' WA3280 is 1.4.

Will Kidd's inconsistent offense improve when he is surrounded by Nowitzki, Howard, Terry and company? One would think so. The Mavericks have not had a passer of Kidd's ilk since Steve Nash left town. His rebounding will bring a dimension that Harris lacked and improve Dallas' already solid performance on the boards. Harris has a stronger ability to get to the basket and the foul line than does Kidd, and his outside shooting, while not a strong point, is still better than Kidd's. In a different way, he puts more pressure on a defense than Kidd does. Jason Terry will have to get used to playing a more pure two-guard role; with Harris, he shared much of the ballhandling responsibility, which will no longer be necessary when he shares the backcourt with Kidd. The Mavericks had the second-most efficient offense in the league as they were previously constructed. Their offense will now be different but it could hardly be any better. Even maintaining the status quo will be difficult.

Meanwhile, the Mavericks have lagged in terms of perimeter defense this season and, overall, their defense ranks just 14th in the NBA. Kidd has made the NBA's all-defensive first team four times, the last time coming in 2005-06. However, he's 34 years old now and at times looks statuesque when trying to keep with younger, quicker point guards. My individual defensive metrics show that his counterparts have been about 4.5 percent more efficient when playing against Kidd than in their other games, figures which jibe with his below-average counterpart Player Efficiency Rating (PER) numbers at 82games.com. His once-haughty steal rate is the lowest of his career and, in fact, is worse than Harris' rate of thievery. Defensive rebounding is the only remaining standout aspect of Kidd's defensive game and, as I mentioned, Dallas was already doing a solid job on the boards.

If non-improvement or worse for the Mavs' perimeter defense worries you, then you might have to pop some Rozerem after thinking about Dallas' defense in the interior. While attempting to traverse the roaring waters of the Western Conference playoff bracket, Dallas will have contend to with post players like Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Amare Stoudamire, Carlos Boozer, David West, Pau Gasol and Andruw Bynum. Who do they have in response? Erik Dampier, a solid but unspectacular 32-year-old center, who is currently averaging 22.5 minutes per game. Diop was their best shot blocker and post defender as well as an outstanding rebounder. His loss will be felt much more acutely than Harris' and, don't fool yourself, Malik Allen is not going to fill those shoes for Dallas.

Young power forward Brandon Bass, one of the NBA's most-improved players, will probably play an even bigger role now, while Nowitzki may get more minutes at center as Dallas tries to spread the floor and create Phoenix-style mismatches. With Kidd's tendency to dominate the ball, this may be the new look for the Mavericks: Kidd patrolling the point, Nowitzki rolling out to set a high pick, Terry and Howard perched on the perimeter and Bass working the box.

This will be a different Dallas team, perhaps even a more interesting one, but I'm not sold on whether it will be any better. That puts the same onus on Cuban and Nelson that is now on Steve Kerr: Was his roster, as constructed, good enough to win the NBA title? I think so but conventional wisdom is going to be that it was not. They'll get lots of kudos for "going for it." Whatever. In any event, it's going to be fun. If I weren't enjoying the regular season so much, I'd be chomping at the bit for the playoffs to begin so I could see all of these new combinations butt heads.

As for the Nets...

New Jersey's dreadful roster was in need of a serious shake-up. Rod Thorn has made a fine haul with this trade in getting a new starting point guard in Harris and a probable starting center in Diop to play alongside promising young post players in Sean Williams and Josh Boone and serve as a counterpoint for defensively-challenged Nenad Krstic. Richard Jefferson has been terrible this season but, at 27, he's not someone you can give up on just yet. Thorn is a Vince Carter trade away from seriously reviving the long-term outlook for Jersey/Brooklyn fans. (Good luck moving that albatross contract.) The extra picks Thorn acquired will also help. There's much that needs fixing in New Jersey and this is just a start, but it's a good start.

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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