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Value in the NBA: Looking Back At the Bucks Trades (part 1)

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In part four of our offseason exploration of the concept of "value", we focus on the Milwaukee Bucks in our quest to answer this question: What sorts of returns have the Bucks gotten on the trade market?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

(If you're not up to speed, check out the series introduction here.)

It's good to be back, gang. As we always do in August and September, we appreciate everybody here helping drive the conversations forward while we have very little news to talk about (sorry, Steve Novak).

In our previous sections, we looked at how we're defining the concept of 'value' in the NBA, which teams and players equate to the most/least valuable, and a special individual look at one of the Bucks' most valuable players in recent memory, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

This time, we want to focus less on the individual players we have and more on the organization over the past five seasons, which essentially becomes a partial review of GM John Hammond. After helping build a championship winner in Detroit, Hammond took the reins in 2008 for the Herb Kohl-owned Bucks and tried to build another small-market Midwestern contender...with varied results. Which we can get into right now!

For those just now finding out about this series, if you need the tl;dr for what we mean when we say "value", here it is:

...At its core, value is comparing what you get to what you spent; if you spend less to get something, you got better value than someone else who spent more for the same thing. For this exercise, win shares (WS) are what we're buying, actual wins are what win shares convert to, and salary ($) is what we're spending.

And yes, we recognize that WS isn't a complete stat, and yes, we realize that this study isn't as scientific as we would like. However, the data is readily available and it gets the conversation moving in the direction we want it to move, which is determining exactly how well the Bucks have leveraged the "NBA marketplace" to create surplus value for the team. As we know, the only three ways a team can do that is through the draft, free agency, and trades, with internal player development as the venerated "wild card" variable. So let's talk about trades first.

Since the 2011-12 NBA season (and current CBA that took effect in late 2011), the Bucks have been involved in 22 trades, with all sorts of deals ranging from salary dumps to draft pick sales, from sign-and-trades to big name player swaps. "Trader John" has a reputation as someone who has been active on the trade market, with five members of the current roster acquired via trade. But has activity translated into progress?

To figure it out, we'll use the same methodology that we used to compare teams and individual players: comparing the total WS Value received in a trade to both the WS Value sent out, and the League Average WS Value mark (which changes year-to-year). Small adjustments will be made based on a player's participation between teams, but largely the WS data available on basketball-reference.com is sufficient.

One important caveat regarding draft picks: because deals involving picks are made with incomplete information (i.e. whether or not the player picked is actually any good), we're going to use standard values for each draft slot (1-60) as a sort of placeholder, in order to assign value for a draft pick based on the time the transaction occurred. It wouldn't be entirely fair to penalize a team for trading away a second-round pick later used to draft a star, if we're judging what value looked like in the environment as it existed at the time.

With all that said, let's turn the clocks back to June 2011 and look at one of the more interesting draft-day trades in Bucks history:

June 23, 2011

3-team trade To Sacramento Kings
To Milwaukee Bucks John Salmons (from Milwaukee)
Stephen Jackson (from Charlotte) 2011 10th pick (Jimmer Fredette) (from Milwaukee)
Shaun Livingston (from Charlotte) To Charlotte Bobcats
Beno Udrih (from Sacramento) Corey Maggette (from Milwaukee)
2011 19th pick (Tobias Harris) (from Charlotte) 2011 7th pick (Bismack Biyombo) (from Sacramento)

This trade had a little bit of everything that John Hammond is well-known for: the Bucks got out from under two bad contracts (Salmons had been re-signed and Maggette acquired via trade a year earlier), brought back a troubled-but-talented wing who might take on a leadership role, and moved down in the draft while still taking a shot on a talented young prospect.

In terms of short-term value, it can be said that the Bucks lost the trade for the 2011-12 season, thanks to the high salaries of Stephen Jackson and Beno Udrih and low WS value of all four players received (over $21m paid for less than 5.0 WS). However, none of the other two teams really "won" the trade either: based on the salaries of all the players involved, there were 10.3 WS worth of dollars exchanged, but none of the three teams involved saw the players they acquired reach half of their expected value. Basically, all three teams swapped bad contracts for moving up/down the draft order.

Additionally, the Bucks were able to recoup value on this trade in the years that followed, mostly due to the massive falling off of both John Salmons and Corey Maggette, the improvement of Tobias Harris (and negligible impact of both Jimmer Fredette and Bismack Biyombo in their early years), and the quick moving-on from Stephen Jackson (more on that in a bit.) But most of the mid- and long-term value was by virtue of other players doing worse instead of Bucks doing better, which is less than ideal.

March 13, 2012

To Milwaukee Bucks To Golden State Warriors
Monta Ellis Andrew Bogut
Ekpe Udoh Stephen Jackson
Kwame Brown

In retrospect, this deadline trade was a particularly interesting deal when considering the historical narrative for everyone involved. Andrew Bogut, having never recovered from his terrifying arm injury, and the Bucks were simply ready to part ways. Ditto for Captain Jack, who simply didn't mesh with then-head coach Scott Skiles. The same could be said for Monta Ellis and the Golden State Warriors, and his departure cleared the way for Stephen Curry -- then considered an injury risk due to bad ankles -- to eventually get healthy and dominate the ball. Ekpe Udoh was still an interesting prospect, and Kwame Brown never played a possession with the Bucks due to injury. The "Fear the Deer" Bucks were all but dead, and the Dubs had just started reinventing their team.

At the time, though, the Bucks almost definitely got better value out of the deal than the Warriors did. This isn't to say that it was the best deal the Bucks could have made, but they at least came out on top in a very short-sighted sense. Much like the previous deal, though, this was more due to the fact that both Captain Jack and Bogues didn't produce very much in Golden State right away, though that was probably part of the plan.

Shutting down Bogut and Curry helped Golden State tank the final weeks of the 2012 season and thus retain the protected lottery pick that ultimately became Harrison Barnes, underscoring why winning a trade in terms of WS isn't always winning in the big picture. On the flip side, Monta Ellis gave Milwaukee exactly what could have been expected from him, and while the Swag Twins experiment (with Brandon Jennings) was a lot of fun for some of us, their ill-fated partnership would only serve to delay a proper rebuild by 18 months.

June 27, 2012

To Milwaukee Bucks To Houston Rockets
Samuel Dalembert Jon Brockman
2012 14th pick (John Henson) Jon Leuer
Future second-round pick (Nemanja Dangubic, to PHI) Shaun Livingston
Cash considerations 2012 12th pick (Jeremy Lamb)

In this pre-draft trade, the Bucks quickly found two candidates to shore up the center position vacated by Andrew Bogut during the season; the then-productive Samuel Dalembert and current Buck John Henson. The price for these two players was moving down in the draft and giving up on two useful rotation players (Livingston, Leuer) and Jon Brockman.

Surprisingly, even with Dalembert in the last year of a relatively expensive contract, the Bucks still got better short-term value in the trade overall than the Rockets did. It might seem surprising now, but neither Shaun Livingston or Jon Leuer made it to the Rockets' regular season roster, while Brockman was out of the NBA a year later. Meanwhile, Jeremy Lamb was not productive enough to make the deal worth Houston's while, making this deal an outright win for Milwaukee by WS standards. Admittedly that standard also misses the longer term picture: Dalembert continued his decline in Milwaukee while Livingston and Leuer were both a couple contracts away from becoming valued NBA rotation players elsewhere.

February 21, 2013

To Milwaukee Bucks To Orlando Magic
J. J. Redick Doron Lamb
Gustavo Ayón Beno Udrih
Ish Smith Tobias Harris

J.J. Redick is one of the best shooters in recent NBA history, and the Bucks (or maybe just Herb Kohl) thought he would provide the team with the firepower they needed to make a deep playoff run. This did not happen, and Redick did not extend his stay in Milwaukee beyond the end of the 2012-13 season. What made this deal worse was that the Bucks gave up on a valuable young prospect in Tobias Harris with his best years ahead of him, along with a steady veteran (Beno Udrih). Doron Lamb also turned himself from an awful NBA player to a somewhat bad NBA player, and the Bucks were left with nothing to show for it a few months later. In terms of overall value, the Bucks were over $2.5 million below the Magic in terms of WS Value earned, which is abysmal in pre-2016 dollars.

But this team gave us "Bucks in six," so it's not a total loss (right?).

June 27, 2013

To Milwaukee Bucks To Philadelphia 76ers
Draft rights to 38th pick Nate Wolters Draft rights to 43rd pick Ricky Ledo
Future second-round pick (2014 54th overall, to PHI)

With this deal, Hammond showed off his ability to extract value on the margins by using a future asset from a previous deal (Houston's 2014 2nd round pick) to convince another team to let the Bucks cut ahead of them in line in the second round. In terms of Win Shares only, the 40th pick appears to be the major drop-off in the second round; for example, picks 36-40 are generally 300% more productive than those taken 41st or later. Of course, we're talking about comparing 1.7 WS to 0.5 WS, which is a small difference, but a difference nonetheless. This trade fit that paradigm as well; Wolters was a useful player as a rookie, whereas Ricky Ledo has been an NBA non-entity (less than 30 games played, poor stats in those games). Even with Wolters gone before finishing a second season in Milwaukee, the Bucks still definitely won this trade, both from an expected value perspective and a real basketball one.

July 12, 2013

To Milwaukee Bucks To Sacramento Kings
2016 2nd round pick (36th overall, Malcom Brogdon) Luc Mbah a Moute
2018 2nd round pick (right to swap)

On its face, this trade looks like a classic salary dump (Milwaukee got out from under LRMaM's $4.5m deal and used the amnesty clause on Drew Gooden shortly thereafter), particularly if you consider that one team didn't get anything in return for nearly three years. However, while the Bucks spent decent money that offseason on O.J. Mayo, Carlos Delfino, and Zaza Pachulia, the real story under the surface are the two draft assets the Bucks acquired...and when they acquired them.

About two months before this trade, the Sacramento Kings were purchased by Vivek Ranadivé and began restructuring their franchise after years of sub-par performance. One high-profile move that we've already discussed was trading down for Jimmer Fredette. Another move was drafting the perennially-disappointing Ben McLemore. One of the more recent mistakes that the team made was firing Mike Malone. There are more examples of the Kings' dysfunction, but I keep going back to the timing.

This trade is a perfect example of how much more goes into NBA transactions than meets the eye. At the time, many of us thought that the trade was a salary dump, but I ascribe to a different theory: I think that the Bucks' business intelligence about the Sacramento Kings and how unlikely they were to find success drove them to bet on the Kings floundering in the future, and take advantage by obtaining cheap draft assets.

Three years ago, nobody could have predicted that the Bucks would have drafted Malcolm Brogdon, and there's no guarantee that he (or anyone else picked there) would be any good. But three years ago, it was definitely possible to predict that the Kings would continue to struggle in the Western Conference, and that a 2nd round draft pick from them might be worthwhile.

Nobody cares if you get the 52nd pick in the draft, because they're not likely to stick around in the league. But every once in a while you can hit on a high-2nd rounder, and Hammond was able to get another one for a defensive specialist who was already on the decline. That, my friends, is getting good value.

In the next part of this series, we pick back up our review of the Bucks' history of trades with the infamous Brandon Knight - MCW trade. So keep those hot takes on the stove for just a bit longer!