Around the NBA trade deadline, fans often wish for their team to pull off a blockbuster deal that will help turn things around. This year, big names such as Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin, Al Horford and Dwight Howard have been bandied about, and the Houston Rockets continue to shop around for a team willing to make a move for Howard. Anthony insists he's not going anywhere. But the biggest deals from this week may appear less obvious: the acquisitions of future draft picks that pay off big time in the years to come.
It's important to note that teams employ different game plans for in-season trades than they do for offseason roster moves. Teams make deals at the deadline mostly to create roster spots and dump unwanted salaries. One thing is certain: Recent championship-caliber teams do not make deadline deals because they already have properly built rosters. Can you name the only two players picked up at the deadline in the past five years by teams that reached the NBA Finals? They were decidedly non-factors: Austin Daye to the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 and the rights of Ricky Sanchez to the Miami Heat in 2013. So recent history tells us that any team looking to shuffle its rotation with a new player this time of year likely won't claim an NBA title. Still, that doesn't mean teams can't find the next cornerstone to build around in the form of a future pick.
So which is a better move, going for the short-term payoff of a rotation player or taking a chance on a first- or second-round pick? With a research assist by ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton, we reviewed data from the past five years on all transactions made during the week of the trade deadline and highlighted the players traded and players obtained from traded picks who are still with the teams that acquired them. They are sorted by their win shares per 48 minutes with that franchise. Here's what the numbers say:
Notable: Deron Williams (Jazz to Nets), Mo Williams (Cavaliers to Clippers), Chauncey Billups (Nuggets to Knicks), Shane Battier (Rockets to Grizzlies), Kendrick Perkins (Celtics to Thunder).
Notable: Enes Kanter (Nets to Jazz), Gorgui Dieng (Nets to Jazz), Tobias Harris (Blazers to Bobcats), Norris Cole (Raptors to Bulls).
The deal that landed the Kyrie Irving draft pick has been mutually beneficial for the Cavaliers and Clippers. Cleveland traded Jamario Moon and Mo Williams for Baron Davis ($13 million) and a 2011 first-rounder. Ultimately, the Clippers used the cap space created by dumping Davis to land Chris Paul from New Orleans later that year, while the Cavs built around Irving once they got him with the first overall pick of the draft.
Then-Clippers general manager Neil Olshey said at the time that the team had weighed its options carefully: "The drill is, as always, 'Is the player you're getting back more valuable than the potential you could get in the draft?' Our analysis at this point in February is that it was more valuable to get a 28-year-old All-Star point guard that we have for the next few years, cap flexibility to make sure we take care of business and re-sign DeAndre Jordan and have flexibility to take care of Eric Gordon as well, as opposed to speculating on another kid that's 19 years old with one year of college experience. And I'm not that high on the draft to begin with this year."
The Draymond Green deal is an example of a second-round pick paying dividends in a rare way. At the time, the Nets traded Troy Murphy ($11.9 million salary) and a 2012 second-round draft pick to the Warriors for Dan Gadzuric and Brandan Wright. The Warriors wanted no part of Murphy and his oversized contract and bought him out five days after the deal was completed. Wright was an intriguing talent who had been productive in limited minutes, but he played only 16 games in a Nets uniform. Gadzuric managed only 14 appearances. The Warriors were slogging through a 36-win season when they acquired the pick that landed them Green, and they have gone an astonishing 213-85 (.715 winning percentage) since drafting him in 2012. Green has developed into an elite forward, and on Sunday, he appeared in his first All-Star Game.
Notable: Monta Ellis (Warriors to Bucks), Richard Jefferson (Spurs to Warriors), Gerald Wallace (Blazers to Nets).
Notable: Will Barton (Rockets to Blazers), Mitch McGary (Lakers to Rockets).
The Nets traded Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams and a first-round draft pick that became Damian Lillard to get Gerald Wallace from the Trail Blazers. Within two seasons, Portland was a 54-win team that reached the Western Conference semifinals with Lillard leading the way. Meanwhile, Wallace hardly proved to be worth a first-rounder for the Nets -- he averaged 15 points in a partial first season in New Jersey but became an afterthought the next season and was thrown into the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade after just 85 games in a Nets uniform.
The Nets made it clear at the time that they coveted only three players in the 2012 draft: Kentucky's Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kansas' Thomas Robinson. So giving up an unprotected pick wasn't a big concern. "In meeting with our scouts, we felt the player that we may draft beyond the protection would be somebody that would probably take a couple years [to develop], and at this point, we're trying to speed the process up a bit and start winning [more]," then-Nets GM Billy King said. "I can understand the fan base [wanting the team to keep the pick], but I'd rather try to balance the roster, add a piece and still have cap flexibility."
Notable: J.J. Redick (Magic to Bucks), Beno Udrih (Bucks to Magic), Josh McRoberts (Magic to Bobcats).
Notable: Isaiah Canaan (Suns to Rockets).
After two years of brisk player movement at the deadline, 2013 was fairly quiet for both players and picks. The four picks dealt were all second-rounders, ranging from 34th to 60th overall, and none proved to be game-changers. The player deals were nothing to write home about either.
Notable: Aaron Brooks (Rockets to Nuggets), Evan Turner (76ers to Pacers), Marcus Thornton (Kings to Nets).
Notable: Three future picks were dealt, including two for the 76ers.
Another snoozer, 2014 saw more second-round picks traded, two of which were used on the likes of Arturas Gudaitis and Vasilije Micic -- internationals who haven't seen NBA action yet. Jerami Grant has shown flashes of potential while toiling for a dreadful 76ers team.
Notable: Arron Afflalo (Nuggets to Blazers), Pablo Prigioni (Knicks to Rockets).
Notable: Eleven future picks also traded.
It's still too early to evaluate how the picks that were traded at last season's deadline panned out, given that 11 of the 12 picks haven't been used yet. In terms of traded players, stars such as Isaiah Thomas and Reggie Jackson changed teams and have made an impact. So if you want to find the next star player who might help turn around a franchise who arrives via a pick traded in 2015, keep an eye on the Phoenix Suns and Philadelphia 76ers -- they each hold three of the 11 future picks.
What pays off more, players or picks?
The players acquired from traded picks have a better retention rate in three of the five years we examined. And when you average all the win-shares-per-48 totals, look below to see how it shakes out. Keep in mind, the average NBA player's WS/48 is about .100. Also take note of the rounds in which these traded picks fell -- it's not just lottery picks that are paying off; second-round selections such as Green and Grant are working out well, too:
Statistics through Friday, courtesy of basketball-reference.com.