This past NBA offseason was defined by high-profile trades — including both those that did happen, and those that didn’t. Following a fire sale by the Utah Jazz,1 Rudy Gobert is now a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, while Donovan Mitchell is a Cleveland Cavalier. Meanwhile, if Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were available in trade talks for much of the summer, that bit of Brooklyn Nets drama has been replaced several times over.
Building an NBA team is, at its core, about collecting as much talent as possible. So in a rudimentary sense, trading for stars — the players with the most impact — ought to be a no-brainer. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
To study this, we relied on FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR player ratings to tell us which players qualify as stars. Specifically, we set the bar at a plus/minus mark of plus-5.0 points per 100 possessions or higher for an individual regular season, which narrows the list of star players to a small and consistent group each season. From 2013-14 — the start of the NBA’s player-tracking era — to 2021-22, an average of 14 players per season reached that threshold while playing at least 1,000 minutes.
While NBA players have recorded 126 total “star seasons” since 2013-14, only 11 coming off of a star season have been traded before the following season’s trade deadline.2 Trades for stars are rare — possibly in part because they don’t always work as intended for either team.
|Player||Year||RAPTOR||Previous Team||Acquiring Team|
The majority of the departing stars spent long periods of time with their teams before being dealt. Only three players — Paul George in Oklahoma City, Jimmy Butler in Minnesota and Goran Dragić in Phoenix — were on a team for two or fewer seasons before being traded, while the remainder played at least six seasons before their deals. In other words, most of these stars tried (and failed) to win championships for many years with their teams; a trade was simply the last stop at the end of that well-worn road.
Most star trades failed to result in championships for the acquiring team, too. During our period of research (looking at the three years following a trade), only two stars — Kevin Love and Anthony Davis — helped their new teams win the NBA title.3 And after three years, every team but one was reaching the same round of the playoffs — at best — as they got to before the trade. A little friendly advice for all general managers eyeing the next star to hit the trade block: Your window of contention after trading for an established star may be narrow.
|Player||Pre-Trade Yr||Acq. Tm||Yr Before||Yr After||2 Yrs After||3 Yrs After|
|Rudy Gobert||2022||T-Wolves||Round 1||?||?||?|
|James Harden||2020||Nets||Round 1||Round 2||Round 1||?|
|Paul George||2019||Clippers||Round 1||Round 2||Round 3||—|
|Anthony Davis||2019||Lakers||—||Champs||Round 1||—|
|Mike Conley||2019||Jazz||Round 1||Round 1||Round 2||Round 1|
|Jimmy Butler||2018||76ers||Round 2||Round 2||Round 1||Round 2|
|Chris Paul||2017||Rockets||Round 2||Round 3||Round 2||Round 2|
|Jimmy Butler||2017||T-Wolves||—||Round 1||—||—|
|Blake Griffin||2017||Pistons||—||—||Round 1||—|
|Goran Dragic||2014||Heat||Finals||—||Round 2||—|
Historically, the one way to trade for a star and win a championship seems to be to also sign LeBron James. (Easy enough, right?) That happened for the Cleveland Cavaliers within two seasons of trading for Love in 2014 and again for the Los Angeles Lakers immediately after trading for Davis in 2019.
Otherwise, though, many teams that traded for stars saw their fortunes barely budge. For example, the Detroit Pistons were a 37-win team the season before trading for Blake Griffin and improved by just two wins the next season. They saw another two-win uptick in 2018-19 and reached the first round of the playoffs, but they were swept and haven’t reached the postseason since. Other squads (such as the Nets with James Harden, the Philadelphia 76ers with Butler, the Jazz with Mike Conley and the Miami Heat with Dragić) have seen their net ratings and/or playoff fortunes plateau after acquiring their new star.4 There is obvious upside to adding some of the league’s best talent, but there also seems to be risk.
(There have also been examples of championship-boosting trades for excellent players who weren’t quite stars by our accounting. For instance, the Toronto Raptors added Kawhi Leonard the offseason before winning it all in 2019, and the Milwaukee Bucks traded for Jrue Holiday the offseason before winning a championship in 2021. Neither qualified as a star the immediate season before the deal, but Leonard had played at a plus-8.3 RAPTOR level two seasons prior, and Holiday missed star status by a few decimal points.)
Outside of the championship-winning teams, the teams who went furthest in the playoffs after trading for stars were the Houston Rockets (after adding Chris Paul) and the Los Angeles Clippers (after adding George). But those teams also rostered Harden and Leonard, respectively. Having just one star doesn’t seem to be enough to ensure success; star trades work best with another star already on the roster.
Minnesota boasts a core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell, so the team that Gobert joined is hardly devoid of talent. But none of their returning players managed to break the plus-5.0 RAPTOR threshold last season, with Towns coming closest at plus-2.0. And even next to that established foundation, Gobert may well be the T-Wolves’ most impactful player. Although it hasn’t shown up in the on/off-court metrics yet, he theoretically fits the current construction of the roster, despite his co-star being another center. But the teams who improved most in the playoffs following a star acquisition had players already on the roster with higher RAPTOR ratings than the newcomer. Indeed, the Timberwolves are 5-7 against a relatively weak schedule early in the season, and though they have time to improve, they don’t currently have the profile of a championship contender.
The Cavaliers, on the other hand, have a better base to build from, with two near-stars in Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen. Last season, Garland and Allen recorded RAPTOR ratings of plus-4.5 and plus-4.3, respectively, and each earned first-time All-Star berths. If you believe in historical precedent, Cleveland seems more poised to benefit from the addition of Mitchell. And as if to emphasize that point, the Cavaliers have the league’s second-best net rating so far this season.
But until teams like the Cavs prove otherwise, the general rule is that star trades tend to produce mixed results for the team acquiring the big-name player. So does that mean, then, that the team trading away the star fares better?
Not really. In fact, no team that dealt away a star since at least 2013-14 has won a championship. And all but one — the Pelicans after trading away Davis — saw a drop in their net rating of at least 1 point and/or missed the playoffs the season after their deals. Admittedly, that outcome is more expected; teams often trade away their best players to get worse in the short term and improve their fortunes down the road. But as we can see from the clubs in our sample, that latter component doesn’t always happen, either.
|Player||Pre-Trade Yr||Prev. Tm||Yr Before||Yr After||2 Yrs After||3 Yrs After|
|Rudy Gobert||2022||Jazz||Round 1||?||?||?|
|James Harden||2020||Rockets||Round 2||—||—||?|
|Paul George||2019||Thunder||Round 1||Round 1||—||—|
|Anthony Davis||2019||Pelicans||—||—||—||Round 1|
|Mike Conley||2019||Grizzlies||—||—||Round 1||Round 2|
|Jimmy Butler||2018||T-Wolves||Round 1||—||—||—|
|Chris Paul||2017||Clippers||Round 1||—||Round 1||Round 2|
|Jimmy Butler||2017||Bulls||Round 1||—||—||—|
|Blake Griffin||2017||Clippers||Round 1||—||Round 1||Round 2|
Three seasons after trading away their stars, five of the nine teams for whom we have data missed the playoffs. Others on the list did improve within a few seasons — but even in those cases, it’s questionable as to whether that was caused by the trades themselves.
The Clippers used the exits of Paul and Griffin to retool rather than bottom out, missing the playoffs only the first year following the deals.5 They have since dealt their way to the top, trading Griffin for, among other things, a draft pick that they then traded for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on draft night. They later traded Gilgeous-Alexander for George. However, none of the players traded to the Clippers (or selected by them) in exchange for Paul remain on the roster.
The Memphis Grizzlies received a number of players and picks in exchange for Conley, but only Brandon Clarke remains in the rotation out of the bunch.6 More than anything, the losses after bidding adieu to Conley resulted in more ping-pong balls in the 2019 draft, which helped land superstar Ja Morant in Memphis.
And the Phoenix Suns endured so many years of regression after dealing Dragić that they didn’t match their 2013-14 win total again until 2020-21, six years after the deal. None of the players traded to the Suns or selected by them in exchange for Dragić remain on the roster.
Yes, at 10-3 after trading away Gobert and Mitchell, the Jazz are one of the surprises of the 2022-23 season, and the FiveThirtyEight forecast gives Utah an 87 percent chance of instantly reloading with another playoff trip. Perhaps they’ll buck the trend of middling post-trade results for teams that shipped off their top talent. But history is not on Utah’s side.
All told, trades for stars are risky from both perspectives. Selling teams generally haven’t improved past where they were with the star. Acquiring teams haven’t always leveraged their new marquee talent to further their playoff success. (And even when they did, it was often for a short period of time before a decline.) If any factor adequately predicted success for teams trading for stars, it’s the existing talent on those teams. But that requires getting a star to begin with … which is sort of the whole point of the endeavor. (And if you’re thinking about just holding onto your stars past the natural departure point, like the Nets did? That’s a whole other circle of Basketball Hell unto itself.)
Ultimately, to make the market work in its favor, a team needs things to fall into place perfectly from the standpoint of talent, timing, fit and luck. For every Utah and Cleveland — who appear to be making it work, for now — there are countless others whose failures serve as a warning about the dangers of trading for a star.
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