Did the Hornets Get a Better Deal?

I wasn’t originally planning on talking about the Chris Paul deal that actually went through.  Plenty of people cover that, and my previous post was aimed more at my confusion over why David Stern would have vetoed the Lakers trade.  But then I saw a couple of articles on ESPN that confused me, and so here we are.  The numbers I present are going to be as in the other post so that everyone can feel happy; I’ll use RAPM, Wins Produced, Win Shares, and PER.

So first the ESPN articles.  Chris Palmer (insider) says that the Clippers gave up too much.  I don’t want to give away too much since it’s a pay article, but the highlight is that he thinks Paul is the best point guard in the league but the Clippers still gave away too many good pieces.  Using Kevin Pelton’s SCHOENE system he thinks that Eric Gordon could be more productive than Chris Paul in three years, and generally says that Chris Kaman is a serviceable big man.  Palmer doesn’t say much about the other players (Eric Bledsoe was still a potential part of the trade at the time; Aminu gets no mention), but as it stands he thinks the Clippers may have given up a bright future.

John Hollinger (insider) is a little more measured.  He calls the trade fair, but essentially because the Clippers gave up enough to keep the trade sort of close-ish while the swap was obviously about the present versus the future.  He says it’s a win-win.

I was surprised because, as covered in the Lakers trade post, Chris Paul is the biggest part of the deal.  And that was a deal that involved two other guys with championship rings.  The Clippers are giving up three young players and a draft pick.  It doesn’t seem fair to me, but let’s see what the numbers say.

Recall that Chris Paul is a 6/.309 (with the new Wins Produced)/.232/23.8 guy.  Those numbers aren’t necessarily intuitive, but suffice it to say that his worst showing is in RAPM, and that says that he was the 8th best player in the league last year.  Another way to look at it is in terms of how many wins he generated for the Hornets.  He played 2,880 minutes last year (good for 11th in the league), so according to Wins Produced he generated 18.5 wins; according to Win Shares he produced 13.9.  PER doesn’t translate to wins, but however Hollinger figures out Estimated Wins Added claims that Paul generated 18.3.  And RAPM works via possessions instead of minutes, but Paul must be worth over 10 wins in that system.  So Chris Paul is very good.

Eric Gordon’s numbers are .5/.11/.12/18.56.  So all the metrics agree that he was above average last year, which is good for a third-year player.  But his win values are closer to 5.  Kaman is a -1.8/-.014/.047/15.72 guy.  So only PER thinks he’s above average, and Wins Produced thinks there a chance he actually cost the Clippers a fraction of a win.  The last actual player is Aminu, who was a rookie.  He put up -2.8/.06/.022/9.65.  So he was definitely below average but is young, so he should get better.

That’s really what the evaluation of this trade comes down to.  It should be very obvious that Gordon, Kaman, and Aminu are not nearly so good as what the Hornets would have gotten previously in Odom, Scola, Martin, and Dragic.  But they are younger, and Minnesota’s draft pick is probably going to be better than the one they would have gotten from Houston.  So this trade was about potential, and that is exactly why it was a bad choice for the Hornets.  Young players do get better, but I think people overestimate how much better and who is likely to get better.  The SCHOENE projection says that in three years you would rather have Gordon than Paul anyway.  I don’t know how the projection works, but their little chart says that they project Paul to generate 11, 9, and 8 wins over the next three seasons.  Gordon is projected to generate 7, 8, and 9.  So there’s a combination of two factors: Paul getting worse as he ages while Gordon gets better.  The question, really, is where do you put them on those curves?

I think the best estimate of their productivity last year puts Paul at about a 15 and Gordon at about a 5.  This is fairly different from the SCHOENE numbers, which suggests that they might be overly optimistic about Gordon and overly pessimistic about Paul; it has them on incorrect curves.  But let’s play this out.  Future superstars tend to be good right away, and they make big jumps early on.  Gordon should improve; no question there.  But how much?  8 or 9 wins would require him to become about 50% more productive per minute than he currently is, which is a fairly big jump.  Consider that from his rookie year to last year, Wins Produced thinks he only jumped about 10%, with a down year in between, while Win Shares thinks he jumped maybe 50% with a down year in between.  Compare this to other known superstars: Chris Paul jumped about 70% from years 1 to 3 according to Win Shares, LeBron 300%, D-Wade 130%.  Even Russell Westbrook, drafted in the same year and a good comparison case, has improved by 365% since his rookie year.  And Westbrook produced last year at about the level that Gordon would need to in order to fit the SCHOENE projection.  But, none of these players made any additional big jumps; they stayed at about the same level as they were in year 3 (LeBron made a jump in year 6, but came back down).  And even Steve Nash, who is widely viewed as a late bloomer, had a better year in his first three than Gordon has had so far.  So perhaps Gordon won’t be as good as people think he will be.  I would say that the 8 or 9 wins that SCHOENE projects is his absolute ceiling.

How about Paul’s decline?  He’s currently 26, although one article I read called this “Paul’s age-27 year” he won’t be 27 until May, or near the end of the season.  And he does have that knee injury.  But let’s look at that injury.  In limited minutes in 2009 he put up a 3.9/.276/.204/23.7 season.  Even though he only played in 45 games, or barely over half the season, he was worth close to 10 wins.  He then came back and put up the aforementioned numbers last year.  So is Paul getting older?  Yes.  Is the knee an issue?  I guess.  If his knee is busted and he’s still a top 10 (and more likely top 5) player in the league I can’t see it as being too much of a worry.  So moving forward, how much would you expect him to slip?  All the way to 11 wins this upcoming season?  And then to 9 in 2013?  That’s roughly the same thing as assuming he’ll either play well but miss a lot of time or play at nearly half his capability for a whole season; if he played a full season at his 2009 productivity he still would have been worth 12 or 13 wins.  How many years do you think it will take for him to drop that far if his knee holds up?  I’m guessing at least three, and that Gordon still won’t be at Paul’s level then.  For the SCHOENE projection to be correct, Chris Paul will basically have to have his knee explode.  Even then he would be worth as much or more than Gordon so long as he gets through about half the season before it blows up.

So the crux of the discussion is, how quickly do you think Paul will decline and how good do you think Gordon will get?  Aminu may become a decent player, but his rookie performance didn’t show any signs of him exploding into an All-Star (remember, future superstars tend to be good even as rookies).  Kaman will likely be traded, but the same thing could be said of Scola or Odom in a year or two if the Laker trade had gone through (and they’re much better players now).  The main benefit to the Hornets may be two good picks in the draft, with their own (should be a good pick because they’ll be crummy) and Minnesota’s, but they likely won’t be top-3 picks.  Is all that worth Chris Paul?  Maybe only because he was leaving anyway.  But is all that better than what they were going to get from the Rockets and Lakers?  I would disagree.

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