With the March 15th NBA trade deadline looming, many players league-wide are wondering what jersey they are going to don by week’s end. Although it’s hard for the average sports fan to feel sympathy for multi-millionaire athletes dealing with uncertain futures, you have to wonder just how much the psyches of players are being affected by swirling trade rumors. One would think that the growing shroud of uncertainty constantly hanging over them wears in one way or another – both on and off the court.
We’ve seen several high-profile players being shopped around over the last few years. This season has been no different; rumors involving Dwight Howard Rajon Rondo, and Pau Gasol have been under the most scrutiny. How have they been personally handling these rumors? And what can we expect from them going forward after the trade deadline this Thursday?
We recently heard Kobe Bryant stick up for his teammate Gasol by calling out GM Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers’ management. He was publicly trying to relay just how difficult it is for Gasol (or any player being shopped around) to put his whole heart into playing for a team that’s actively trying to trade him. Due to the sensitive nature of trade rumors and the private manner in which teams address them to the media, we have a relatively limited idea of how much of an effect they have on the implicated players. We just saw the Lakers management tell their players to cut the external chatter short, in an attempt to minimize the drama caused from trade rumors. So unless players publicly speak about their feelings, our opportunities to gauge their psyche are limited. For that reason, the performance of these players in the midst of trade rumors may be our best way to make an assessment.
Now, let’s examine a sample of prominent players that were involved in trade rumors and blockbuster trades over the last 10 seasons. Whether these players were driving the trade talks themselves, or their respective teams put players on the trading block against their will, here are some of the more notable cases below. The blocks highlighted in green denote a 10% improvement after the trade, while the red blocks indicate at least a 10% decline in the respective stats as shown. For better resolution quality, please click on the figure. Special thanks to ESPN TrueHoop blogger Ian Levy of Hickory High, who was a great help in putting these numbers together.
If you go by a case-by-case basis, some players on this list wanted to be traded, and some didn’t. And some, well, could have cared less. Obviously, every player’s situation was different, and many variables factored into each player’s performance. Nonetheless, the before/after comparisons are something very interesting to look at in light of Kobe Bryant’s aforementioned assessment on the impact of trade rumor drama.
Bar none, Vince Carter gained the single-most benefit from the resolution of his situation after being traded from Toronto to New Jersey – and his gargantuan improvement shown in these stats reflect that. But as he admitted, this was largely attributed to his half-hearted effort during his waning days in Toronto. More than any star player in the last decade, Vince’s performance was directly correlated to how motivated he was. In Toronto, he publicly criticized Raptors management for failing to put together enough talent around him to build a contending team. When traded to New Jersey, he did all the things he failed to do during his last couple years in Toronto: attacking the basket, playing some defense, and just putting in more effort overall. Playing alongside Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson was a huge motivator for him, as he spent years being the lone star in Toronto. All of this led to a vast improvement in nearly every statistical category. Of course, this was all short-lived, and Carter was not always engaged in subsequent years to date. To learn about his ups and downs some more, take a look at my in-depth take on his career as a whole, which tries to explain his sporadic effort over the years.
In contrast to Vince’s case, some players didn’t exactly benefit from being traded. Of everyone listed here, Chris Webber seems to be the one who suffered the most from changing jerseys. Of course, injuries played into his decline (and eventual retirement) more than anything. Nonetheless, then-Sixers GM Billy King’s experiment of pairing him up with Allen Iverson was obviously a failiure – as the Sixers only managed to obtain a 7th seed and only win a single playoff game that season. But given Webber’s and Iverson’s respective situations at the time – as two perennial All-Stars yet to win a title – both felt it was an experiment worth attempting. I’m not entirely sure if Chris Webber was forcing his way out of Sacramento the same year he was traded, even though he did express a desire to leave before he became a free agent in 2001. But I suspect that his decline was due to a combination of his injuries, his lack of cohesion with Iverson, and the realization that he had a pretty damn good team in Sacramento compared to his new team in Philly.
Unlike Rondo and Gasol, we know Dwight Howard has publicly requested to be traded. Since he has been under the most scrutiny as far as trade rumors are concerned, let’s compare his situation to other superstar players demanding a trade in years past: Shaq, Allen Iverson, Ron Artest (BTW, I still refuse to call him by his new name), and Carmelo Anthony. Shaq showed slightly greater improvement and efficiency after being traded, which was to be expected after a bad situation (the most memorable part being his feud with Kobe Bryant) got worse in LA prior to being traded. But of course, pairing up with the young but highly-gifted Dwyane Wade had something to do with that. Iverson and Artest welcomed a change of scenery, but their +’s and –‘s in their stat comparisons were a relative wash; Iverson’s shot attempts went down, but he had to get used to having a high-volume shooting teammate in Melo. Years later, Melo benefited from more shot attempts being in Mike D’Antoni’s system, but overall has been playing at about the same level since the trade. So in the end, the superstars we’ve seen publicly demand a trade have neither improved nor regressed on a significant level.
While we don’t see too much of a distinct pattern (at least, not to the same degree as with Vince Carter and Chris Webber) with most of the players on this list – at least in terms of individual performance – this analysis does show that there is some precedence to the situations of Howard, Gasol, and Rondo. In terms of a prediction, it’s tough to see any of them improving from their already-solid productivity with their current teams. All three have been able to put up stellar numbers regularly, but they have all expressed disdain over the lack of resolution on their respective situations. Their individual performances have not suffered, but their uncertain futures have had an effect on the success of their teams as a whole. We saw the 2010-11 Nuggets improve significantly after Melo’s departure, even with Melo maintaining his productivity in Denver. So while trades and trade rumors do not have a huge overall effect on individual performance (with a few exceptions), teams as a whole are put at ease upon resolution of the trade talk.