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Non-Stars Like Channing Frye Are The Best Kind Of Trade Deadline Pickup

Unlike last year, the 2016 NBA trade deadline was a bit of a snoozer. Nineteen players were dealt on Thursday, deadline day itself — the 12th-most since 1987. In the traditionally busy two weeks leading up to the cutoff, however, only seven others were moved, which means the raw activity around this year’s deadline was basically average. Quality wasn’t exactly bursting out over quantity, either. As a group, the traded players averaged almost exactly zero wins above replacement per 82 games this season, the eighth-lowest rate among trade deadlines since ’87. (Of course, it could be worse — sometimes an entire crop of trade targets can average out well below the replacement level, as happened in 1992.)

Most of this year’s trades were made by teams jockeying for playoff position (Charlotte’s Courtney Lee pickup comes to mind), collecting future assets (Detroit snagged Tobias Harris and Donatas Motiejunas in separate deals this week) or dumping disgruntled players (Markieff Morris and Lance Stephenson were sent packing by the Suns and Clippers, respectively). These are the kinds of incremental moves that help a franchise in the long run. But nobody would characterize them as blockbusters, and hardly any involved the handful of teams that have a chance to win the 2015-16 NBA championship.

If any contender received consensus praise at the deadline, though, it was Cleveland, which snagged Channing Frye for Anderson Varejao, Jared Cunningham and a couple of draft picks. The advanced analytics have always crushed hard on Frye — he currently ranks eighth among power forwards in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, ahead of Anthony Davis (!) — with his classic stretch-big mix of long-distance shooting, decent-enough rebounding and surprisingly solid defensive metrics. (To that last point, RPM actually thinks Frye’s defense is a far bigger contributor to his bottom-line impact than his offense.) Let’s face it — nobody will be shocked if Frye ends up hitting a huge shot or two for the Cavs during what’s probably going to be another deep run in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

And when it comes to deadline pickups, players like Frye often make a more indelible postseason mark than the types of big-name superstars everyone was hoping to see moved Thursday, anyway.

Statistically, the best deadline acquisition of the past 30 years1 was Clyde Drexler — clearly not a role player, even in his twilight — who produced 5.5 WAR for the Rockets after getting shipped to Houston for Otis Thorpe in 1995. Drexler went on to help Houston capture its second straight NBA title, but that makes him an exception among hyper-productive deadline pickups:

TEAM EFF. CHANGE
PLAYER YEAR NEW TEAM POST-TRADE WAR OFF DEF PLAYOFF OUTCOME
C. Drexler 1995 HOU 5.5 +2.4 -5.9 Won NBA Finals
R. Allen 2003 SEA 5.5 +4.6 +1.2 Missed playoffs
J. Kidd 2008 DAL 3.9 +1.4 +1.4 Lost first round
P. Gasol 2008 LAL 3.5 +4.1 -2.3 Lost NBA Finals
T. Ratliff 2004 POR 3.5 -0.8 +3.6 Missed playoffs
L. Nance 1988 CLE 3.3 +3.8 -3.0 Lost first round
T. Gugliotta 1995 MIN 3.3 +5.1 -1.8 Missed playoffs
B. Davis 2005 GS 3.1 +11.0 -1.9 Missed playoffs
A. Robertson 1993 DET 2.8 +2.5 -0.9 Missed playoffs
J. Mashburn 1997 MIA 2.8 +2.2 -4.3 Lost conf. finals
T. Hardaway 1996 MIA 2.8 +7.5 -1.0 Lost first round
S. Marbury 1999 NJ 2.8 +11.6 -6.6 Missed playoffs
B. Miller 2002 IND 2.6 +2.3 +0.6 Lost first round
G. Wallace 2011 POR 2.6 +2.6 +0.8 Lost first round
M. Camby 2010 POR 2.6 +0.8 +1.8 Lost first round
D. Ainge 1989 SAC 2.6 +4.9 -0.7 Missed playoffs
J. Salmons 2010 MIL 2.4 +2.7 +3.2 Lost first round
M. Thornton 2011 SAC 2.4 +1.2 -1.1 Missed playoffs
B. Sura 2004 ATL 2.2 +8.5 -6.7 Missed playoffs
T. Kukoc 2001 ATL 2.2 +5.0 -8.9 Missed playoffs
R. Jackson 2015 DET 2.2 +2.1 -0.4 Missed playoffs
V. Radmanovic 2006 LAC 2.2 +1.1 -0.7 Lost conf. semis
W. Williams 1996 MIA 2.2 +7.5 -1.0 Lost first round
D. Mutombo 2001 PHI 2.2 -2.2 -2.6 Lost NBA Finals
T. Kukoc 2000 PHI 2.2 +2.7 -0.5 Lost conf. semis
J. Hornacek 1994 UTA 2.2 +3.3 -1.5 Lost conf. finals
The best trade deadline pickups rarely swing the playoffs

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Historically, productive deadline pickups don’t often go hand in hand with deep playoff runs. They can help their new teams’ bottom lines — since 1987, each additional WAR produced by a newcomer after the deadline has been associated with a 0.9-point improvement to his team’s efficiency differential, compared with the team’s differential before the trade. But oftentimes those players are shipped into situations where no amount of productivity can keep the ship from sinking or drag an average roster to playoff greatness.

And even the stars who go to good teams can arrive to mixed results. Drexler, like Jamal Mashburn in 1997 and Dikembe Mutombo in 2001, played well after landing in his new destination, but his team’s net efficiency sank dramatically down the stretch of the regular season before righting itself in the playoffs.

Furthermore, because trades involve, uh, trade-offs between teams, sometimes star deals simply re-allocate strengths from one side of the ball to the other. The biggest post-deadline boost in offensive efficiency since 1987 belongs to the 1999 New Jersey Nets, which added offensive dynamo Stephon Marbury and improved their efficiency at that end by 11.6 points per 100 possessions … but also got worse on defense by 6.6 points per 100 possessions. (Marbury didn’t exactly lock opponents down on D.)

Likewise, the biggest boost in defensive efficiency belongs to last year’s Jazz, which improved by 10.6 points per 100 possessions on D after jettisoning defensive sieve Enes Kanter and installing Stifle Tower Rudy Gobert as starting center … but also got worse by 2.3 points per 100 possessions on offense. That’s still a clear win for the Jazz, but it shows that blockbuster deadline trades rarely come off perfectly clean, without some downside to go with the benefits.

Which brings us back to Frye and the Cavaliers. Frye’s no superstar — his wins added are modest despite his impressive RPM because he logged only 17 minutes a night in Orlando, a number that isn’t likely to increase given Cleveland’s existing frontcourt situation. But he’s in what’s historically been a sweet spot for deadline pickups: He’s coming to an existing title contender at very little cost, where he’ll be asked to fill a specific (yet important) role. There are no guarantees on the NBA trade market, but low-risk/moderate-reward moves like the one the Cavs made to grab Frye are often the deadline deals most associated with solid playoff outcomes.

Footnotes

  1. Including players acquired within two weeks of each season’s deadline.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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