If you were camping out on NBA Twitter on Feb. 19 (as I was), essentially watching the transaction scroll unfurl in real time, you would have felt as though this year’s trade deadline had shaken the foundation of the league. The flurry of moves being reported in the hours surrounding the afternoon cutoff was encapsulated nicely by Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, the dean of NBA journalists:
After the dust cleared, some of the reputed moves were revealed as mere rumors (Brook Lopez is still a Brooklyn Net, for instance), but nearly 10 percent of the league’s players changed uniforms. That’s the highest percentage of all NBA players being dealt on deadline day since at least 1987. In that sense, this year’s deadline was one of the craziest ever.
But in terms of actual significance (as measured by the quality of the players exchanged), 2015 probably deserves a lower ranking — particularly if you include the weeks leading up to deadline day for seasons gone by.
Using wins above replacement (WAR), the players dealt on — or in the month leading up to — the 2015 deadline totaled 21.5 WAR after prorating to an 82-game schedule. That’s a decent amount, ranking 10th since 1987, but it hardly represents the best collection of players to swap teams around the trade deadline.
In 2011, for instance, 52.5 WAR changed hands, a total headlined by Deron Williams (7.6 WAR) and Carmelo Anthony (7.5). Shane Battier, the fifth-best player traded that deadline, had more than twice as many WAR as this year’s fifth-ranked player, Thaddeus Young. It helped that during the month leading up to the 2011 deadline, 61 players moved — 18 more than this season’s total. However, the average traded player was also better in 2011 than 2015.
As another point of comparison, the 2003 deadline (headlined by a Ray Allen-Gary Payton swap) saw roughly the same amount of WAR move as in 2015 — but with fewer than half as many players in transit. And the average player moved at the 2002 deadline had more than twice as many WAR that season as the average player moved in 2015.
So although the volume of last week’s transactions was impressive, it’s tough to make the case that the 2015 trade deadline was historically significant in terms of the talent that switched uniforms.