By: Jonah Sprinkel
It’s not often that a team in the National Basketball Association trades away their franchise player. It’s even rarer for a team to execute such a deal in the middle of the regular season. Logically, it makes sense to assume there would be an offensive regression for the team that deals away a franchise player. The four most recent and prominent examples of this kind of trade are the Minnesota Timberwolves and Jimmy Butler in 2018, the Sacramento Kings and DeMarcus Cousins in 2017, Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets in 2011, and Pau Gasol and the Memphis Grizzlies in 2008. But first, how are NBA offenses measured and tracked?
Three of the more commonly referenced statistics when measuring a team’s offensive production are points per 100 possessions, pace, and PER. Points per 100 possessions tracks how many points a team would score if given 100 offensive possessions of the ball, a measurement of a team’s efficiency. Pace measures the offensive possessions a team averages in a game, useful for understanding how quickly a team plays relative to other teams. PER, or player efficiency rating, is a standardized, per-minute grade of a player’s production, with said standard being 15.0.
A decade ago, Pau Gasol was traded by the Memphis Grizzlies to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Grizzlies were struggling at the time and felt it was in their best interest to start fresh by trading Gasol. Before the trade, the Grizzlies were scoring 104.5 points for every 100 possessions of the basketball. At the time, the team ranked 16th league-wide. They also averaged 95.82 possessions per game, good for seventh in the NBA. After the trade, the Grizzlies offense dropped to 103.2 points per 100 possessions (27th in the league), and 97.02 possessions per game (fifth in the league). The team got faster, but their offensive efficiency suffered.
Before Carmelo Anthony was traded by the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks in 2011, the Nuggets held the NBA’s best offense with 112 points per 100 possessions. They also ranked third league-wide for possessions with 96.16 a game. After Anthony’s departure, Denver dropped to sixth in the league in both categories on 110.9 points per 100 possessions and 95.96 possessions per game. While the team maintained a nearly identical pace, their production fell off very slightly.
The DeMarcus Cousins trade is one of the more dramatic stories as the news of his trade broke moments after he stepped off the floor from the NBA All-Star game in 2017, traded by the Sacramento Kings to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Kings felt it was time to move on from Cousins, a central figure in many of the teams issues. At the time of the trade, the Kings ranked 18th in the league offensively with 107.0 points per 100 possessions. They were ranked 27th in pace with 95.05 possessions per game. Once Cousins was gone the Kings dropped to the 24th best offense with 105.6 points per 100 possessions. However, they became a faster team with the 16th ranked 96.38 possessions per game. The Kings demonstrated the largest increase in pace, however their offensive production dropped.
Jimmy Butler was traded by the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 12. Butler’s trade was controversial due to ongoing issues with teammates and team management. Before trading Butler, the Wolves owned the league’s 17th ranked offense with 107.7 points per 100 possessions and had a pace of 103.14, ninth best in the NBA. In Butler’s absence, the Wolves have climbed to 12th ranked offense with 110.6 points per 100 possessions while becoming the 16th ranked team with a 100.11 pace. They are the only team to score more points on fewer possessions since trading their franchise player.
What sets the Timberwolves apart from the other three teams in terms of overall offensive improvement? Seven or eight players make up a standard rotation for an NBA team, though Tom Thibodeau would argue the ideal number is five. Memphis’ eight had an average PER of 13.91. Denver’s average was 15.68, Sacramento’s was 12.78 and Minnesota’s was 16.11. All averages are sans their franchise player and include players traded to these teams. Though this metric does have its flaws, Minnesota has the best eight players of these four teams. The increase in pace can be attributed to Thibodeau and Saunders, though mostly Thibodeau simply because he's coached more games this season, utilizing the strengths of the players available.
It's been an odd year for the Wolves. The Butler drama kicked off the season and left an ominous taste in the mouths of those observing. Then their head coach and president of basketball operations was fired mid-season immediately following a blowout victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. That's not to say it's been all bad. Derrick Rose is a fan-favorite comeback story. Ryan Saunders has provided the "Minnesota boy" angle that every local adores. Karl-Anthony Towns is an All-Star for the second year in a row. The addition of Robert Covington looks to be a needle moving acquisition, provided he can stay healthy. Finally, the Timberwolves are better off, at least statistically, without Jimmy Butler.