Mar 13, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Miami Heat point guard Goran Dragic (7) calls a play against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Freelance Friday is a project that lets us share our platform with the multitude of talented writers and basketball analysts who aren’t part of our regular staff of contributors. As part of that series we’re proud to present this guest post from Carver Low. Carver lives in Brooklyn and works in advertising. He’s originally from Seattle and yes, he’s still bitter. Carver has written for Mango Prism and not much else, but you can find him on Twitter at @thisisthecarver.
The hours and days following the February 19th NBA trade deadline consisted of a flurry of recaps and evaluations, as the NBA media machine tried to make sense of the volume of trades that were made right at the wire. Things got so crazy the preeminent arbiter of trade rumors himself, Adrian Wojnarowski, tweeted this mid-deadline:
37 players ended up being traded that day, 27 in the final two hours before the 4:00PM deadline. Players were traded 78 times in total this season.
Published on deadline day (perhaps in anticipation of the uptick in trade activity) Patrick Patterson’s Player’s Tribune piece sheds light on the “human-cost” — to completely overstate a point – of any individual trade. I would not respond well if someone told me to report to work in Toronto tomorrow, and I doubt I’m alone (sorry, Drake). The warmth of Kevin Garnett’s recent homecoming to Minnesota was especially nostalgic because it seemed to oppose the growing trend that players and fans are slowly becoming less emotionally invested in each other. An increasing number of trades lends credence to this idea.
I’m a hypocrite in these thoughts though, as one of the roughly 41 million people playing fantasy sports every year. At 2:45 PM on February 19th, I was having the time of my life monitoring the NBA trade activity and chatting with everyone in my fantasy league. But what is so intoxicating about trades?
It’s an NBA Internet joke that Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Mavs owner Mark Cuban have an arms race going this season. It has culminated in, among other things, a video uploaded to YouTube of Chandler Parsons signing a contract with Mark Cuban, in a nightclub with his mom, plastic cup in hand. The signing seemed intentionally public, and it wasn’t hard (though not necessarily correct) to conclude that Cuban was purposefully throwing this one in Morey’s face. All of this was endlessly commented on via social media and sports journalism, contributing to the overall impression that we have become more interested in the management of NBA teams than the on-court action.
This is the language of money. Players are only understandable as a commodity if they can be quantified, their limitations and potential drawn out with statistics and per-minute evaluations. So, an NBA player’s increased movability is only made possible because of the language of analytics. Where did we learn to be so objectively analytical about the game, where fans used to be emotionally invested in their players to a fault?
The Trade Rumor Era is a difficult idea to disagree with, especially considering the increased focus on the men making the personnel decisions for each team. As far back as 2005, Neil Paine described the Cult of the General Manager. While he referred to baseball’s GMs, it wasn’t long until basketball’s own versions of Billy Beane and Theo Epstein arrived. Mark Cuban bought the Mavericks in 2000. Daryl Morey started his tenure as head GM of the Rockets in 2007. Masai Ujiri was named GM of the Raptors in 2011. Sam Hinkie didn’t start as 76ers GM until 2013, but he was busy apprenticing under Morey in Houston until 2011. All of these general managers have embraced analytics in their management in some significant way, and they have been a polarizing presence in the league.
Bryan Curtis’ recent article delving into the meaning behind Charles Barkley’s vitriolic comments on Daryl Morey and NBA analytics culture as a whole correctly pulls out the most important insight from the analytics trend – the growth of NBA analytics, and the business discourses it employs, is all about power. However, Curtis frames the conflict within the endless struggle of sportswriter versus sportsman. But it’s not just about the power to evaluate a player’s value or individual performance in the NBA. It’s about an NBA player’s power to understand who he is as a basketball player. It’s also the power to communicate with the millions of NBA fans around the world. And most of all, it’s about the profits.
The cult of the GM is real, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise in our post-recession society, where the path to fortune is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Only a tiny subset of the population will ever have the talents required to play in the NBA, but being a savvy businessman doesn’t require any athleticism. We have found other figures besides the players to focus our fandom on, one that conveniently shields us from becoming too attached to any individual player.
Besides their own management philosophies and views on players, these new era front offices also bring with them an entire lexicon: Asset, pivot, win share… Business terms applied to what is a very human product. It’s not that the NBA hasn’t always been a business. It’s that the NBA has always been a league that built its business around basketball. Analytics were mostly applied to merchandise, ticket sales, and salary projections – traditional “products.” Only recently, owners and GMs have been applying business concepts to the game itself, and fans are following suit.
As the interest around NBA personnel decisions and team management intensifies, it’s not surprising to find there has been an accompanying increase in total trades made.
The 37 players traded on February 19th are easily the most that have ever been transacted on a deadline day, with the second most occurring in the 2004-05 season. The 2014-15 season also broke the record for most total trades made in a season, surpassing the 2004-05 season by eleven trades.
Jumping back to three season samples from the 1990s and 1980s shows a fairly level range of 40-60 trades per season. Even accounting for the increasing total number of players in the NBA over time, the percentage of players traded each season has clearly increased.
Large jumps in the NBA salary cap are one incentive for owners to make moves. For example, the 133 players traded in 2000-01 was likely prompted by a 20 percent increase in the salary cap from $35.5M to $42.5M that occurred between 2001 and 2002. However, more money to spend on players isn’t always the determining factor; the league saw little variation over the 10 years from the 1982-83 season to 1992-93 season despite an over 400 percent increase in salary cap over that span.
Another external factor that has driven greater trade activity is the advent of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NBA and NBPLA. The seasons with the 2nd and 3rd most total players traded (2010-11 and 2004-5) occurred prior to a new CBA being signed. It’s not unbelievable for NBA front-offices to make any roster changes they can before the value of their assets changes in ways they can’t necessarily predict. What’s most interesting about this pattern that the new record for total trades set this year is the first to occur when there isn’t a looming CBA change in the off-season.
Since the recent 2011 CBA, contracts have become smaller and more flexible, teams can amnesty bad contracts, and the lottery has been revised slightly to increase the odds of bad teams getting better picks. However, these changes work both ways, not necessarily encouraging more or less trades overall. Amnestying contracts is an alternative to trading a player for little value just to get his contract off a team’s payroll. Smaller contracts could mean that teams have more piecemeal value that they must cobble together in order to trade for a big name, leading to more trades. Advanced analytics could be allowing GMs to see more slight differences between marginal players, so trading players like Alexy Shved, Pablo Prigioni, and second round draft picks becomes appealing as an incremental growth strategy.
While top-down structural and circumstantial changes have curtailed crippling contracts and made the NBA more profitable, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest such an increase could come from institutional change alone. Giving the NBA league office all the credit for these changes ignores a rising group of individuals in the NBA who are leaving their own imprint on the league.
This shows perhaps the starkest increase among all the trade data, in a category that has little to do with the limitations (financial and contractual) of the league’s rules and everything to do with the men making them.
Trading on deadline day rather than any other time of the year isn’t incentivized by financial or legislative factors. Yet, the percentage of the league traded on deadline day has been increasing at a steadier rate than any other segment of annual trade data. It’s plausible that the new wave of data-driven GMs and owners are a large part of this trend. GMs increasingly are trying to get better value out of a trade, making it a much more adversarial relationship between the two trading teams. The GMs are participating in their own version of Cold War Brinkmanship, the practice of allowing a situation to become as desperate as possible in order to get the best possible outcome (in most cases, a panic trade).
Analytics’ acceptance isn’t ubiquitous yet, as Charles BarkIey’s comments show, and the teams touting analytics as a philosophy range from contenders (Houston Rockets) to cellar-dwellers (Philadelphia 76ers). In the end it doesn’t matter if people like it, or if it’s truly effective. The language of finance and analytics has already been introduced to NBA consumers by their GM god-king of choice. Everyone is speaking it, and the league is becoming much more profitable. So profitable, the league is set to have the largest increase in history in the 2016-17 season, conservatively estimated to be a 33% jump in salary. On top the that, the new influx of money has all but precluded a lockout after that salary jump. If the patterns from trade data hold, we will be seeing trade activity over the next two years that dwarfs even this years unprecedented totals.
As for the players being traded? They are aa side effect of the league’s increased profitability – profits the NBA players share. I am much more concerned about how we might think about basketball in the coming seasons, as our insatiable appetite for trades continues to be fed. There’s a theory that doing what you love for money can ruin the joy of the activity, because you become separated from the passion. We can only hope that the same won’t come from thinking about the NBA and the game of basketball in a financial terms.