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February 15, 2012
Evaluating Trades
Too Early to Write Off Paul Return

by Kevin Pelton

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Let's talk about evaluating trades. As I see it, there are two main schools of thought, which generally apply to any move made by a team. One is that we should judge the trade as it appeared at the time, based on the information available to the teams. The other is that we should make our evaluation only in hindsight when enough time has passed to fully capture the effect of the move.

As you might guess, I generally favor the first viewpoint, which favors process over results. The sample size on one move is simply too small for us to draw a direct connection between how it plays out and the quality of the original decision. Individual players are too difficult to predict, as Jeremy Lin has reminded us all over the last two weeks. However, I do acknowledge that this viewpoint is subjective--you and I might both look at the same trade and come to wildly different conclusions--and ignores the inside knowledge teams have that is not public.

Where I think both sides can agree is that the way to evaluate trades is not based on their results two months in. Unfortunately, that seems to be happening with the package the New Orleans Hornets received in exchange for Chris Paul after the lockout. In the wake of the news that Eric Gordon will miss at least another six weeks following knee surgery, and with the Hornets languishing at a conference-worst 5-23, critics are springing up everywhere--most prominently Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

"I don't think it was about which team (Paul was traded to)," Cuban told reporters before the Mavericks hosted the Clippers Monday. "I think it was the fact that, even with the Clippers, we just went through this whole (collective bargaining agreement) and said the incumbent team still has the advantage and then the team the league owns (wimps) out. And look how it's worked out for them. Bad management gets you bad results."

In fairness to Cuban, his particular complaint was more about the decision to trade Paul than the results of the deal. He also noted that "it's hard to judge any trade until it's done." Still, bringing up how the deal has worked out so far taps into the conventional wisdom that New Orleans made a mistake. I'm not ready to jump to that conclusion.

The funny thing about my belief in the return the Hornets got for Paul is that I was always skeptical of one of the key assets New Orleans received--the Minnesota Timberwolves' unprotected first-round pick. Way back in early December, the general sentiment was that could be a top-five pick. SCHOENE saw the Timberwolves competing for a playoff spot, and despite some misfortune in close games, Minnesota is 11th in the Western Conference and two games out of the playoffs. If the season ended today, the Timberwolves pick would be No. 12 overall.

Instead, my opinion of the Paul deal was largely based on my belief in Eric Gordon. In the wake of a terrific 2010-11 season at age 22, three-year SCHOENE projections pegged Gordon as the 15th most valuable player in the league. In fact, players similar to Gordon produced more WARP than players similar to Paul two years down the line. Add in the scarcity of quality young shooting guards in the NBA right now--Oklahoma City's James Harden is really the only other two-guard under 25 with All-Star potential in the league right now--and Gordon looked like a premier asset.

Since then, two things have happened. Gordon has been limited to just two games by his knee injury, which originally did not appear serious, and the Hornets were unable to sign him to an extension prior to the deadline for fourth-year players.

At this point, it's difficult to assess how much Gordon's knee limits his future. New Orleans hasn't said much about the injury, and to this point it's not clear that the team's doctors really understood why Gordon's knee hasn't responded to rest. It's a concern, obviously. (Though, it should be noted, one Gordon shares with Paul.) If Gordon is able to return without significant long-term effects, however, the current hand-wringing will appear wildly overblown. The Hornets never traded for Gordon because of what he could offer the team now, and to the extent more losses translate into a better lottery pick come June, having him sidelined is actually something of a short-term positive.

As for the extension (or lack thereof), I also find the concern overstated. Certainly, because of the NBA's ownership of the New Orleans franchise, this is a unique situation. Still, history overwhelmingly shows us that valuable players do not change teams after their rookie contracts. Since the current system went into place, Andre Miller and Lamar Odom are the lone players remotely comparable to Gordon who have left as restricted free agents, and no prominent player has yet made good on the threat to sign the qualifying offer and take their chances as an unrestricted free agent.

There is certainly a chance a team with cap space forces the Hornets to make the decision whether to match a max offer to Gordon this summer. If so, I don't envy the New Orleans front office. Gordon has the potential to live up to that contract but has yet to play like a superstar thus far in his NBA career. Such a deal would mean paying him on potential more than is ideal.

Still, the worst-case scenario is better than the idea of keeping Paul and letting him walk for cap space at season's end. (A notion that appealed to Cuban, who just happens to be in the market for a max free agent.) Should the Hornets decide not to match on Gordon, they still came up with a late-lottery pick and a decent prospect (Al-Farouq Aminu). Keeping Paul should never have been an option. For the ultimate trade package to prove better than fighting for a playoff spot with veterans Kevin Martin, Lamar Odom and Luis Scola, New Orleans will have to build around Gordon and see him stay healthy. That's a higher bar to clear in terms of results-based analysis, but two months later is far too early to write it off.

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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