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Value in the NBA: Looking Back At the Bucks Trades (part 2)

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In part five of our offseason exploration of the concept of "value", we return to finding the rest of the answers this question: What sorts of returns have the Bucks gotten on the trade market?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

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

Last time, we tried to parse out how much "value" the Bucks got out of trades made between June 2011 and July 2013. We covered some interesting ground, but few areas in recent Milwaukee Bucks history are more (or maybe less?) demanding of further analysis than where we're headed right now. Onward!

July 31, 2013

To Milwaukee Bucks To Detroit Pistons
Brandon Knight Brandon Jennings (sign and trade)
Khris Middleton
Viacheslav Kravtsov

Some of us were broken up about the end of the Swag Twins era. I was a vocal defender of Brandon Jennings and was sorry to see him go. Lucky for me, I was super-duper wrong, and the team was able to get incredible value out of this trade, even if you discount Jennings' injury (which happened well after the fact).

This trade is a great example of how well things can work out when you take a chance on young players. Individually, Jennings was a more productive player than either Knight or Middleton. However, Knight and Middleton were in their third- and second-years (respectively), which is right in the sweet-spot of when players are on the highest slope of the improvement curve. Here's a little bit of background for you:

NBA WS vs. Experience

Average WS of NBA players between 2011-2016, from seasons 1 to 5

As Eric Nehm usually calls out, NBA rookies are usually bad basketball players. However, during their 2nd and 3rd years, lots of bad players become far more useful, on average improving 60% from Year 1 to Year 2, and 35% from Year 2 to Year 3. Depending on where a player's baseline is, you can generally extrapolate how much of an impact a player will have later on in his career. This was the case with Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton; right around the ideal zones of this chart, they had the most promise to improve in a significant way.

Brandon Jennings was the opposite; in his fifth year, his development (from the perspective of WS production, which we have noted is an imperfect measurement) had already begun to plateau, and it was not a reasonable gamble to bet that he would buck the trends of most NBA players. Of course, his playing style and unfortunate Achilles injury further hampered his effectiveness, and he's currently trying to resurrect his PG career in New York, whereas Brandon Knight already cashed in on a big payday in Phoenix (more on that later), and Khris Middleton has become a cornerstone of the Milwaukee Bucks' future.

August 29, 2013

To Milwaukee Bucks To Phoenix Suns
Caron Butler Viacheslav Kravtsov
Ish Smith

This trade had very little positive for the Bucks, besides the fact that they gave up very little at the time -- recall that Ish Smith was a still a couple contracts away from finding an NBA niche. Milwaukee thought that they were getting a veteran leader who could still produce, and had the cap space to absorb his $8m salary. Instead, Butler only played in 34 games before getting waived the following February, and those 34 games were so far below league-average in terms of actual production that Caron's WS Value was -$2.7m, one of the lowest marks of any player I came across during this exercise. On the flip side, Butler's higher-volume struggles may have helped the Bucks' tanking efforts, which ultimately led to Jabari Parker. Every once in a while a throw-away move pays off in odd ways, eh?

February 20, 2014

To Milwaukee Bucks To Charlotte Bobcats
Ramon Sessions Gary Neal
Jeff Adrien Luke Ridnour

Another trade, another example of John Hammond using the trade market to undo a free agency mistake. Sessions and Adrien both had very productive campaigns in 2013-14, but the Bucks' cause was already lost, as were their contributions. Neal and Ridnour both did very little for Charlotte, and all four players continued to demonstrate why they've carried the "journeyman" label. That's particularly true of Neal, who feuded with Larry Sanders in Milwaukee and didn't win many friends on his way out of Washington either.

June 27, 2014

To Milwaukee Bucks To Atlanta Hawks
2015 second-round pick (BRK via ATL) Draft rights to 48th pick Lamar Patterson

Any exchange of second-round picks is generally low-impact, even when picks are spaced out between the present and the future. In order for the Bucks to get back superior value from giving up the 48th overall pick, they would need the player that they end up taking to contribute more than 1.7 WS at their peak, which isn't a very high benchmark. Unfortunately, we'll never find out...

July 1, 2014

To Milwaukee Bucks To Brooklyn Nets
Rights to hire Jason Kidd as head coach 2015 second-round pick (from ATL to MIL, back to BRK)
2019 second-round pick

...because that 2015 second rounder was used in one of the weirder "trades" in recent Bucks' lore. The whole saga surrounding Kidd's failed power play in Brooklyn leading to Milwaukee's hasty replacement of Larry Drew is an interesting story, but not one that really relates to our current conversation about "value." Coaches' salary does not count against the salary cap, and the Nets just got back their own pick (opening the question about whether or not the Bucks ever thought they were keeping it...) and another selection that won't transfer for another 3 drafts. Whatever your opinion on Kidd as a coach (and they sure are varied), there isn't much here that we can linger on, with the way our conversation is currently set up. Moving on...

August 26, 2014

To Milwaukee Bucks To Los Angeles Clippers
Jared Dudley Carlos Delfino
2017 first-round pick (has not transferred, sent to TOR) Miroslav Raduljica
2015 second-round pick (cannot verify transfer)

In this deal, the Clippers essentially gave away Jared Dudley and a first round pick (with protections that delayed the transfer) for nothing: Delfino never played in the NBA again, and Raduljica only had a 20+ game stint with the Timberwolves two years ago. Stretching both players provided Doc Rivers some modest incremental flexibility, but nothing that proved game-changing for the 14-15 season. Meanwhile, Dudley was revitalized in Milwaukee and crucial to the Bucks' surprising 41-win team, though the Bucks would give him away for nothing a year later.

The interesting thing is, when researching this deal, I couldn't find any evidence of the Clippers doing anything with the Bucks' 2015 second rounder, or if any protections prevented it from transferring. Knowing the outcome of this pick (which currently shows that the Bucks used it on the infamous Norman Powell selection and subsequent trade to Toronto) could certainly affect the valuation of the deal's WS Value differential, but even without the 2017 first, the Bucks run away with this one.

February 19, 2015

3-team trade To Phoenix Suns
To Milwaukee Bucks Brandon Knight (from Milwaukee)
Tyler Ennis (from Phoenix) Kendall Marshall (from Milwaukee)
Miles Plumlee (from Phoenix) To Philadelphia 76ers
Michael Carter-Williams (from Philadelphia) 2015 first-round pick (LAL, from Phoenix)
(pick not yet transferred, top-3 protected in 2017)

Everybody else was exchanging point guards in the league at the 2015-16 trade deadline, and the Bucks got in under the wire with one of the more controversial deals. Things were going well, and Knight was one of the Bucks' best players...so they gave him up? For Michael Carter-Williams? Optics aside, let's unpack the value exchanged here.

The Bucks sent out a talented rookie-contract player in Knight and a low salary for cap compliance (the then-injured Kendall Marshall); Knight had the highest WS Value by far of anybody involved in the trade (+$1.04m), and Marshall's contract was so cheap that he still graded out as a positive value (+$916k). In return, the Bucks received the then-young-and-abysmal Tyler Ennis (-$7.13m WS Value) and the steady Miles Plumlee (+$1.38m WS Value) from Phoenix, and the much-maligned Michael-Carter Williams (-$1.04 WS Value) instead of the protected LAL pick (which went to Philly).

Looking at the different parts, it's easy to conclude that the Bucks lost the deal in 2014-15 from a value perspective, but that doesn't hold up quite as well when going deeper. Combining the three players' salaries ($5.06m combined), the Bucks actually graded as a net-positive in WS Value (i.e. the salaries paid out were less than the league average for the same WS production). They were still lower than Phoenix (+$838k vs. +$199k), but not by nearly as much as one might think. Additionally, the Bucks actually won the value comparison last season (+$305k vs. -$5.1m) because of how poorly the injury-riddled Knight produced relative to his new $12m salary. All that said, Knight still has four years remaining on his deal and is likely to return to some modicum of his previous form, which would make him a good value play for Phoenix (or wherever he gets traded next) moving forward.

Furthermore, we revisit the same concept we explored in the trade that originally brought Knight to Milwaukee: the less-tenured the player, the higher the average rate of improvement. Knight was completing his fourth season, which is right where players' overall WS production begins to plateau. Meanwhile, all of Plumlee (3rd season), Ennis (1st season), and MCW (2nd season) theoretically had more time in "the sweet spot" of the average development curve, though it's also worth mentioning that Plumlee and MCW were both older than Knight. Was trading Knight for three "prospects" the right call? Maybe, but at least the value argument has some validity -- for now. Hindsight and particularly Knight's inability to stay on the court makes the trade look better for Milwaukee at the moment, though that can certainly change if and when Knight returns to form.

But was taking MCW instead of the LAL pick the right call? Well...this is where all the controversy comes from, because the argument so often strays into the realm of the subjective. In terms of value, we can try to extrapolate what we know into the future.

2014-15 2015-16 2016-17* 2017-18* 2018-19*
MCW
$2.40m $3.18m - -
1.2 WS 1.3 WS - -
WS Value +/- -$70k +$248k - -
LAL pick*
- - $3.68m $3.85m
- - 3.4 WS 5.4 WS
WS Value +/- - - +$1.08m +$713k

For reference, MCW's 2016-17 projected WS is based on the league average WS progression for a 4th year player. The top-3 protected LAL pick salary information is based on the average of current rookie-scale salaries between picks 4-8 (which is the range where the Lakers will likely end up), and the pick's WS progression is based on the upper limit (read: best case scenario) for players picked in that same range.

So what does this tell us? Obviously, a productive rookie is one of the most valuable things that a team can have, but you also have to consider the average "hit rate" on high draft picks. What are the chances that the player picked in 2017 is as good as, or somehow better than, the average level of impact from a early/mid-lottery pick? Even if it was an even 50/50 proposition, there's risk to take when compared to the alternative. Alternatively, one of the major appeals of lottery picks is that you don't know how good they can be. Particularly for small market teams looking to build through the draft, the mere chance of finding a young player with huge potential can transcend any notion of "expected" value. That's a big reason why the pick was so appealing to the Sixers, and why it probably should have been more appealing to the Bucks.

Still, the timeframe involved also needs to be considered. While the long-term value and upside of a pick in that range is certainly better than the on-court value MCW has provided thus far (even relative to his still-super low salary), the Bucks wouldn't be able to reap that benefit until the 2017-18 season at the earliest, which is right near the beginning of the window that many of us believe will be open for the team to openly challenge the top contenders in the Eastern Conference. Is the added long-term value of a high draft pick worth the possible delay of the team's ceiling? The Bucks' interest in replacing Knight immediately almost certainly played a major role in their disinterest in the uncertain timing of the Laker pick; given where the franchise was at the time, it's difficult to imagine them wanting to start Tyler Ennis in the midst of a playoff race. On the flip side, there also wouldn't have been anything stopping the Bucks (and now Sixers) from moving the pick for another player then or now, and it's hard to argue the Bucks' plans for staying playoff-worthy in the spring of 2015 did them much good in the long run.

Of course, similar issues can be said of the original deal; swapping Knight for the less-proven Carter-Williams may very well have set the Bucks back in the short term, and their struggles since the move have often been noted. But where value is concerned, it all boils down to this: the Bucks decided that Brandon Knight was not a compelling enough investment, so they decided to at least get a return on him while they still could. There's no way to know whether or not they got the best possible value...but I think it's safe to say that they simultaneously regret it and did better than we give them credit for.

June 11 & July 9, 2015

To Milwaukee Bucks To Detroit Pistons
Caron Butler Ersan İlyasova
Shawne Williams
To Milwaukee Bucks To Washington Wizards
Future second-round pick (likely will not transfer) Jared Dudley
To Milwaukee Bucks To Dallas Mavericks
Future second-round pick (likely will not transfer) Zaza Pachulia

These three deals are grouped together for two obvious reasons: 1) all three trades were made for salary cap reasons, and 2) the Bucks have literally nothing that is a direct result of these trades.

Any actual "value" from these trades is strictly off-the-court, considering all of Ersan, Duds, and Zaza were given away for pennies and pocket lint. While none of them were world-beaters or long-term core players, it's difficult to argue their departures didn't ultimately hurt the Bucks last season, and the Bucks' inability to get anything of value clearly eroded the overall value of the Bucks' roster. It's also interesting to note that at the time, none of the moves were needed to have enough cap space to sign Greg Monroe, and overall the effective swapping of Dudley, Pachulia and Ilyasova for Monroe and Greivis Vasquez represented a major step back.

June 25, 2015

To Milwaukee Bucks To Toronto Raptors
Greivis Vásquez Draft rights to 46th pick Norman Powell
2015 first-round pick (LAL, via Phoenix)
(pick not yet transferred, top-14 protected from 2017-2019)

This draft-day trade boiled down to two things: the Bucks were more than willing to move a mid-2nd round pick (they likely did not want to add even more youth to a team that already included Giannis, Jabari, Rashad Vaughn, and the now-departed Damien Inglis and Johnny O'Bryant), and the Bucks needed to use another asset to pay for insurance at the PG position.

In terms of raw value, the trade didn't look that bad at the time! Vasquez had been a reliable guard, producing an average of 3.4 WS over the three years prior, and if that had continued he would have been right around league-average for WS Value differential. Sadly for us all, Vasquez dealt with a debilitating foot injury that saw his on-court effectiveness fall off of a particularly high cliff, and Norman Powell's encouraging rookie campaign serves as a large spoonful of salt on the wound. Losing a late first round pick from the Clippers only adds insult to injury, and on net it only took the Bucks one year to effectively squander both of the useful assets (Jared Dudley's cheap deal and the lotto-protected first) that they stole from L.A. in the summer of 2014.

June 23 & July 7, 2016

To Milwaukee Bucks To Cleveland Cavaliers
Matthew Dellavedova (sign and trade) Draft rights to Albert Miralles (39th overall, 2004 NBA draft)
Cash considerations ($250k) (has never played in NBA)
To Milwaukee Bucks To Golden State Warriors
Cash considerations ($2.4m) Draft rights to 38th pick Patrick McCaw

Note that the Cavs' "trade" was mostly just for cap purposes -- rather than just sign Dellavedova outright, the Bucks landed $250k in exchange for executing a move that earned the Cavs a trade exception. Albert Miralles will never play in the NBA, and his rights were only included because something had to be sent to Cleveland.

While the Bucks were able to recoup over $2.6 million in total from both moves, those dollars are completely outside of the salary cap and don't figure in to our value calculations. Many of us like Patrick McCaw, but much like the Norman Powell trade, it's likely that the Bucks didn't want to overload their roster with youth at this point. Will they regret passing on a young player and instead taking the cash and spending it on veterans like Steve Novak and Jason Terry? Only time will tell.

At long last, that concludes our look at the Bucks' recent history of trades. Overall, I think there are a number of deals that the Bucks did well enough on, and while there was definitely value left on the table in some trades, the past few seasons appear to at least follow a pattern that fits the core of the team that is currently being built. But enough about what I think: what do you think? How well have the Bucks done in getting return value on trades?