The Mazzola Minute
Issue   |   Wed, 02/14/2018 - 21:53

The Cleveland Cavaliers just traded a former NBA Finals MVP, the youngest MVP in NBA history and last season’s fifth-place finisher in the MVP race (and three other role players) for four players with no major accolades, yet these transactions may have been a smart move for the struggling franchise. The Cavaliers are 6-4 in their last 10 games, a dismal record for a team that has contested the past three NBA finals.
LeBron James’ dissatisfaction with the Cavaliers may lead him to opt out of his contract at the end of the season, and, although he likely won’t “take [his] talents to South Beach” again, he has been linked with numerous other teams. As a result, the Cavaliers are making moves to simultaneously entice LeBron to stay and prepare for his potential departure. In one of the bigger roster reconfigurations at the trade deadline in NBA history, the Cavaliers shipped off Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and both their 2020 second-round and their 2018-first round picks in three separate trades, receiving George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and a heavily-protected second-round pick in return.
In considering these trades, I first looked at the individual players involved and assessed the impact of each acquisition and loss. The deals, however, were only possible through the combination of players, so I will focus on the net impact of all acquisitions and losses. We will define an “acquisition” as a player Cleveland gained from the trade and a “loss” as a player Cleveland traded away. I will only look at the current NBA season in assessing the players, a particularly important consideration for the players the Cavaliers traded away, as this will account for how well they had fit with the Cavs before their departures.
The real plus-minus statistic (RPM) provides a good starting place for comparing the impact of the acquisitions and losses. By measuring the scoring difference in the game when a player is on the court as opposed to when a player is off the court, RPM adjusts for lineup changes to isolate the impact of each individual player. As such, a player’s RPM is not heavily impacted by the quality of the teammates with whom they are playing. The collective RPM of Cleveland’s acquisitions (Hill, Hood, Clarkson and Nance Jr.) is -3.85, considerably higher than the collective RPM of Cleveland’s losses, -10.42.
Isolating defensive RPM (DRPM), Cleveland’s losses (-2.95) actually outperform their acquisitions (-4.29). This is a somewhat surprising statistic, as Cleveland currently ranks 28th of the 30 NBA teams in defensive rating, so it was assumed they would target strong defensive additions at the trade deadline. Nance Jr. ranks 10th among NBA power forwards in DRPM, but the struggles of Hood, Hill, and Clarkson on the less glamorous end of the court outweigh Nance Jr.’s positives.
Although RPM is useful in judging the quality of players, it does not account for differences in playing time. The win-shares statistic estimates how many wins a player’s contributions resulted in for their team. Interestingly, the cumulative win-shares of Cleveland’s acquisitions (9.5) greatly outnumber those of their losses (3.5), even though the Cavaliers have a better record than all the teams to which they dealt players. The defensive win-shares of the acquisitions (3.9) also outweigh those of their losses (1.9).
One of the more fascinating considerations in player comparisons concerns the pace at which a team plays. Analysts at FiveThirtyEight alluded to the pace (measured in possessions per 48 minutes) differential between the Lakers (102.90 possessions/48 min, first in NBA) and Cavaliers (99.85, 13th) as a crucial issue, one to which Nance Jr. and Clarkson must adjust. In reality, pace adjustments may prove more difficult for Hill and Hood. While the Jazz (97.40, 25th) and Kings (97.26, 26th) play at paces more comparable to the Cavaliers than the Lakers, Hill and Hood played at slower speeds than their teams did. Considering the differential in pace between each acquisition and the Cavaliers (calculated by taking the absolute value of a player’s pace minus Cleveland’s pace), Nance Jr. (2.49) and Clarkson (2.79) will actually need to make smaller adjustments than Hood (2.85) and Hill (4.25).
More important than comparing the acquisitions with each other is comparing the acquisitions with the losses. The average pace differential of the acquisitions (3.08) is considerably higher than that of the losses (1.70). At first glance, this difference indicates a significant adjustment period, but these figures are inherently misleading. Since the recently traded away players were on the Cavaliers, the pace of the Cavaliers was partially dictated by the pace at which they played. Further, the pace at which a player plays is not determined solely by their individual style of play, as the overall pace at which their team plays is a factor. Looking at the acquisitions relative to their previous teams in terms of pace differential yields a value of 0.74, suggesting that these players conform better to the pace of the Cavs than the recent trade losses did. It’s worthwhile to note that there is no significant relationship between the pace at which a team plays and their win percentage, and the top 10 teams in the league are almost equally distributed among the bottom, middle and top thirds of teams by pace.
Chief among non-statistical considerations related to these trades is how they will affect Cleveland’s locker room dynamics. The good news for Cleveland is that it can’t get much worse, and better news for Cleveland is that they’re unloading two significant sources of drama. Dwyane Wade’s veteran leadership presence will be missed, but Isaiah Thomas’s petty conflict with Kevin Love and Derrick Rose’s threats to quit basketball will not. George Hill, on the other hand, has already embraced his (and his teammates’) new role as Robin to LeBron’s Batman, and Larry Nance Jr. is excited to join his father’s former team.
Considering all these factors, I would argue that this trade is to Cleveland’s benefit in the short term. Advanced statistics seem to be in their favor, their locker room dynamic will inevitably improve and the adjustment for new acquisitions shouldn’t be too steep. The real winner of all this player movement, however, is the Lakers. In unloading Nance Jr. and Clarkson, the Lakers opened up enough cap space to sign two max contract free agents next season (hello Paul George and LeBron James?), while picking up a first-round draft pick and some additional role players (sorry, Isaiah Thomas, but “role player” is a generous term given how you’ve played so far this season). Kevin Love’s recent injury will make it hard to assess this trade in terms of Cleveland’s team performance before and after. However, comparing RPM figures of the acquisitions after the trades to the players they replaced should provide a usable metric in evaluating the moves.