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Do Midseason NBA Trades Ever Work for Championship Contenders?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2015

Jan 7, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith (5) looks to pass against the Houston Rockets during the first quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Any doubt about the Cleveland Cavaliers' lofty short-term aims disappeared with the flurry of midseason trades that brought in Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports first reported both deals, which collectively cost the Cavs Dion Waiters, two first-round picks, a disabled player exception and a trade exception. Basically, Cleveland gave up all of its inexpensive youth and future assets to shore up what it hopes is now a championship-caliber roster.

ESPN's Marc Stein summed up the pivotal week for Cleveland's general manager, David Griffin:

Marc Stein @TheSteinLine

Big week for Cavs GM David Griffin. Loud support for his coach, then swings two big trades in 72 hours to address gaping roster holes

You don't sacrifice your future like that unless you're serious about competing, contending, in the present. Serious is, of course, what the Cavs should be.

LeBron James is 30 and finally showing signs of wear, and Kevin Love is a free agent this summer. Cleveland is wise to make bold moves now because nothing's guaranteed going forward.

So, the Cavaliers took big swings because they want to go deep—NBA Finals deep—this spring. The question is: Does this midseason shakeup make such a run more likely?

We collected data from the last 10 years, isolated the 20 Finals participants in those seasons, and looked to see which of them swung deals in the year they reached the championship round. Half of them did. Here's the list:

Midseason Trades by NBA Finals Participants Since 2004-05
TeamDatePrincipal Acquisition
2004-05 Detroit PistonsJan 22, 2005Carlos Arroyo
2004-05 San Antonio SpursFeb. 24, 2005Nazr Mohammed
2005-06 Miami HeatFeb. 24, 2006Derek Anderson
2006-07 San Antonio SpursFeb. 13, 2007Melvin Ely
2007-08 Los Angeles LakersFeb. 1, 2008Pau Gasol
2008-09 Orlando MagicFeb. 19, 2009Rafer Alston
2008-09 Los Angeles LakersFeb. 7, 2009Shannon Brown
2009-10 Boston CelticsFeb. 18, 2010Nate Robinson
2013-14 Miami HeatJan. 15, 2014Toney Douglas
2013-14 San Antonio SpursFeb. 20, 2014Austin Daye
Basketball-Reference.com

It's worth noting that only four of the listed squads saw their post-trade net ratings improve. Every team maintained a winning record following its exchange, but as you can see, midseason swaps have met recently with mixed results:

Pre- and Post-Trade Net Ratings
TeamAcquisitionNet Rating BeforeNet Rating AfterDifference
2004-05 Detroit PistonsCarlos Arroyo+2.4+6.9+4.5
2004-05 San Antonio SpursNazr Mohammed+12.4+2.8—9.6
2005-06 Miami HeatDerek Anderson+5.1+4—1.1
2006-07 San Antonio SpursMelvin Ely+7.8+12.2+4.4
2007-08 Los Angeles LakersPau Gasol+5.8+9.7+3.9
2008-09 Orlando MagicRafer Alston+9+6.9—2.1
2008-09 Los Angeles LakersShannon Brown+91.+6.9—3
2009-10 Boston CelticsNate Robinson+5.7+2—3.7
2013-14 Miami HeatToney Douglas+6.7+5—1.7
2013-14 San Antonio SpursAustin Daye+7+10.1+3.1
NBA.com

Perhaps the most striking thing about these trades is that just one of them featured a true impact player: Pau Gasol in 2008. He was key in getting the Los Angeles Lakers to the Finals that year and just as important in helping them win the whole thing the very next season.

That trade obviously worked out, but if you step back and look at the bigger picture, what you see is exactly one out of 20 Finals participants benefiting from a significant—keyword=significant—midseason move.

So if you're the Cavs, you're hoping to be an outlier here. And you're hoping the combination of Smith, Shumpert and Mozgov work out to be somewhere close to as valuable as Gasol was for the Lakers. For his part, at least, Griffin is convinced the incoming talent is going to make a difference, per B/R's Ethan Skolnick:

Ethan J. Skolnick @EthanJSkolnick

David Griffin on Mozgov: "He's skilled in a way that I don't think people understand."

It's important to remember that we're dealing with data here, and even if history is a helpful guide, it doesn't necessarily apply to the unique situation in Cleveland. The Cavs hired a new coach over the summer, smashed together three stars, added a whole bunch of new role players and have now flung three more new pieces to the mix.

They're a special case whose chemistry, understandably, isn't remotely close to stabilizing. If part of the danger of a big trade during the year is upsetting the delicate balance of minutes, personalities and roles, that danger doesn't really apply to the Cavs.

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 22: LeBron James #23 Kevin Love #0 and Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers walk off the court during a time out during the first half against the Toronto Raptors at Quicken Loans Arena on November 22, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohi
Jason Miller/Getty Images

For them, a shakeup like this doesn't feel disruptive at all. There hasn't been time to establish any sort of culture or continuity in the first place.

Theirs is an exceptional situation.

It's fair to say midseason trades don't correlate with reaching the Finals, which should concern the Cavs. It's also fair to say that among Finals teams that made deals in the last 10 seasons, most actually got worse after those swaps.

The Cavaliers had major weaknesses on their roster, which they addressed by adding wing scoring, perimeter defense and rim protection. Their two deals made them a better, more well-rounded, potentially more dangerous team than they were before.

But recent history says we shouldn't expect the Cavs, improved though they may be, to enjoy major success this season.

Unless, of course, they're exceptional in more ways than one.

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