BY MATT CRAIG | Contributor for Up The Thunder | Ball State Sports Link
This piece was originally published on UpTheThunder.com
Yeah, I know.
“The Oklahoma City Thunder need a second star to pair with Russell Westbrook! He can’t do it by himself!”
Duh. It doesn’t take an expert basketball analyst to realize that an NBA team is better when it has two of the top ten players in the league on its roster, as opposed to just one. Last season the Thunder had two and almost won a title. This season it has one and is fighting for a playoff berth.
Another obvious point: stars are really hard to come by.
OKC fans have been spoiled with three legitimate superstars in less than a decade, all of whom came organically through the draft. As rare as that is, history tells us that it’s even more rare to acquire a star through trade.
It takes a special set of circumstances. But what exactly are those circumstances?
Let’s look at a handful of blockbuster trades in recent history, in an attempt to determine a set of criteria that needs to be met for a star to be traded.
Once the criteria is established, we’ll see if OKC has any chance at catching a big fish with the trade deadline just a few hours away.
Rumor has it that there are a pair of big fish available, in Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls and Paul George of the Indiana Pacers.
But are they really available? Let’s find out.
In the modern basketball era, which I’ll define as post-2010 or after the capital “D” Decision, there have been six instances in which a superstar has been traded. And they are as follows:
Chris Paul to the Clippers, Dwight Howard to the Lakers, Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks, James Harden to the Rockets, Kevin Love to the Cavaliers, and the recent (and confusing) Demarcus Cousins to the Pelicans.
The following is the criteria, the precedent if you will, created by some or all of these cases. Here’s what we’ve learned:
1.) Stars aren’t traded for other stars. While it could be argued in the case of Howard (Andrew Bynum, at the time) or Love (Andrew Wiggins, in the future,) a true established star-for-star trade doesn’t make a ton of sense. Teams with a star are either trying to acquire another to create a super-team and compete for a title, or dump their star and begin a rebuilding process.
Supporting cases: Paul, Howard, Anthony, Harden, Love, Cousins
2.) The team doesn’t want to commit to the star long-term. Why would a team move on from a franchise centerpiece? Well if you’re the GM of a mediocre franchise that’s treading water, then you might sacrifice immediate success in order to build a long-term blueprint.
In other cases, talent takes a backseat to culture, and organizations determine that the locker room cannot improve without removing the star that is a poor influence. Possibly it’s new salary cap restrictions that force a team to start evaluating if the player is worth the substantial investment.
Whatever the specifics are, the team actively shops the star around and is determined to move him.
Supporting cases: Harden, Cousins
3.) The star pushes his way out. The opposite is also true. A star becomes disgruntled with the team’s situation or future, and decides that he wants to be traded. Considering the incredible leverage that the star player has in the modern era, the team has little choice but to grant his wish.
More often than not, the star wants to play in a bigger market. Whether it be New York or Los Angeles, the bright lights come calling for marketable stars playing in cities like New Orleans, Orlando, or Denver.
Supporting cases: Paul, Howard, Anthony
4.) Stars aren’t traded at the trade deadline. Carmelo Anthony-to-NY is the only substantial trade to happen in the modern NBA at the trade deadline. Denver was hopeful that they could convince Anthony to stay, but with his free agency looming and lots of pressure being applied they were forced to accept any deal they could muster.
For the most part, stars are either traded in the summer as teams have time to evaluate the big picture of their franchises. Or — with surprising frequency — early in the season, when it becomes apparent the player doesn’t wish to return to the team in an impending free agency and teams can still make a deal with leverage.
Supporting cases: Paul, Howard, Harden, Love, Cousins
5. Stars aren’t traded for “godfather” offers. Every year as the talks inevitably begin on the latest crop of stars who may be traded, conversation centers on teams with a war-chest of assets that they can flip into a star. Surprisingly, it is rare for a team to trade a star they are happy with simply because they received “an offer they can’t refuse.” That’s not to say that team’s can’t still receive a good haul, but the motivation for the trade is rarely the offer, and it can never change a team’s mind from “no” to “yes.”
The only example I can’t include here is the Love deal, in which the team trading for the star (in this case the Cavs) was required to show undeniable urgency to spend whatever it took to land him. It was a godfather offer mixed with a little bit of rule #3 on Love’s part, but close enough.
Supporting cases: Paul, Howard, Anthony, Harden, Cousins
6.) Stars get traded in their contract year. If teams aren’t falling for godfather offers, then it stands to reason they wouldn’t feel motivated to trade a star until the pressure of an upcoming contract injects a little uncertainty into the situation.
When combined with rule #2 or #3, the team foresees a future where the star won’t be signed in free agency and must be traded in order to return some value. OKC fans know all too well what it’s like to lose a star for nothing in return. *tears*
Supporting cases: Howard, Anthony, Harden, Love
7.) Stars are traded at age 26 or 27. With the exception of James Harden (23), each of the other five stars were traded at the age of 26 or 27. The player is likely coming to the end of his second contract, looking to cash in on the biggest contract of his entire career.
In addition, it’s a time when he’s likely starting to settle down and wanting to decide where he wants to live (feeds into rule #3), meeting the time in his career where he has the most leverage to decide for himself where he’d like to go.
Supporting cases: Paul, Howard, Anthony, Love, Cousins
8.) The team that trades for a star has a lottery pick to offer. Conventional wisdom would tell you that this is obvious, because a bad team can offer a high draft pick to a franchise that wants to begin its rebuild. However, most teams that land a star already have a star (per rule #1) and with the addition of another star at least make the playoffs.
But this is where it gets interesting. The Knicks made the playoffs the year after the Melo deal, but the 2014 pick they gave up ended in the lottery. The Cavs went to the finals after acquiring Love, but had the previous year’s #1 pick (which hadn’t played a game so I still consider trading a pick). The Clippers gave the #10 pick in 2012 to New Orleans (ironically that pick became Austin Rivers). And the Thunder landed the future Steven Adams pick in the Harden deal.
Supporting cases: Paul, Anthony, Harden, Love
Alright, for those of you that have followed me this far and for the others who just skipped down here, we have our criteria.
The magic number appears to be five. All six of our traded stars fit at least five of the eight criteria. If you’re curious, Cousins and Love met five while Paul, Howard, Harden and Anthony met six. The consistency strengthens the credibility of the list (in my humble opinion. *cough*)
Let’s apply our rules to Jimmy Butler and Paul George.
For Butler, who obviously won’t be traded for another star (Russ). It’s unclear at this time whether rule #2 or #3 is happening, but the fact that Butler’s name has appeared in so many trade rumors makes me inclined to give him one of those two.
Since we’re at the trade deadline and the Thunder‘s opportunity for a godfather offer is historically non-existent, those two are out. Butler has a minimum of two additional years on his contract, so #6 won’t work, but he is at the magic age of 27. And as for the lottery pick, the Thunder are unable to trade their upcoming pick (can’t trade consecutive first rounders) and if they were to land a star one can assume they would stay out of the lottery anyway, so that won’t work.
A total of three points for Butler.
On to Paul George, who won’t be traded for Westbrook and is under a similar situation as Butler in regards to #2 or #3 (one of them “seems” to be true, so score one.) Rules #4 and #8 can’t apply as we’ve already established.
The “godfather offer” rule is interesting here, because that seems to be exactly what Larry Bird and the Pacers are searching for. With at least one more year on his contract (goodbye rule #6) the team doesn’t seem anxious to move him and may be waiting for such an offer, though Sam Presti is the last person in the entire world who you’d expect would overpay in any trade. Again these rules aren’t absolute (understatement of the year.)
And how old is Paul George? You guessed it — 26. But alas, four criteria met is still not good enough.
Sorry Thunder fans, but by my criteria, it’s not happening for us.
For other teams though? While Butler can’t reach the five threshold, interestingly Paul George can for a team with an available lottery pick. Could we see him get moved on deadline day? Sure. All I know is, it sadly won’t be to Oklahoma City.