Thoughts on the Shaq Trade

Posted on February 7, 2008 by

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The Phoenix Suns have traded Shawn Marion (and Marcus Banks) for Shaquille O’Neal.  Scanning the coverage of this story, a consensus has emerged.

The Trade Consensus and Wins Produced

1. The Phoenix Suns currently have the best record in the Western Conference.

2. Marion is younger, cheaper, and more productive than Shaq.

3. Given #2, Phoenix after the trade is no longer the best team in the West.

4. Given #3, Steve Kerr – the general manager of the Suns – is a moron (Kerr’s word, if I heard correctly).

When we turn to Wins Produced, we see the data is consistent with this consensus. 

Table One: All Western Conference Players

Table Two: All Eastern Conference Players

At the midpoint of the 2007-08 season, Marion had a 0.314 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes].  His 9.6 Wins Produced ranked 7th in the NBA.  In contrast, Shaq’s WP48 was only 0.102 at the midpoint, with a Wins Produced (0f 1.9) that ranked 132nd in the league. If Shaq maintained this production level for the Suns after the trade, Phoenix would not finish the season on top of the Western Conference.  In fact, give their slender lead over New Orleans, Dallas, San Antonio, LA Lakers, and Utah, it’s possible that this trade will drop the Suns from the #1 seed to the #6 spot out West. In sum, this is one case where the conventional wisdom and Wins Produced seem to agree.

So what was Kerr thinking?

Before we judge Kerr too harshly, though, here are a few more issues to consider.

1. The lead the Suns have over the five Western teams noted above is quite small.

2. If Andrew Bynum returns (and produces), the addition of Pau Gasol means that the Lakers are likely to surpass the Suns this season.

3. Even if the Bynum does not return (and no other team passes the Suns out West), the Boston Celtics are still better than the Suns this season.

4. Given #2 and #3, the Suns – as currently constructed – were not likely to win an NBA title in 2008.

5. Marion was also reportedly unhappy and planning on leaving the Suns after this season.  If Marion departed, there was no one in the free agent market the Suns could sign in 2008 to replace his productivity.  This means that the Suns are likely to fall behind the top teams next year.

Given all this, Steve Kerr knew the Suns – if they did nothing — were not likely to win a title in 2008 or 2009.  And that means Steve Nash – who turns 33 on the 7th of February — might never win a title in Phoenix. So something had to be done.

But is the “something” this trade? 

Explaining Shaq’s Decline

Clearly Shaq is not as good as he once was. 

There are two explanations, though, for Shaq’s decline.

1. (by the way, do you like all the lists?) Shaq is hurt. 

2. Shaq is old.

The second reason seems plausible to many.  Shaq was taken in the 1992 draft.  From this draft class, only Robert Horry and Alonzo Mourning logged any minutes in the NBA this season.  And Mourning looks like he’s done (and the same is probably true for Horry).  Consequently, it’s not beyond reason to think that the decline in Shaq’s productivity is due to age. Since there’s no cure for age, this trade makes the Suns a worse team right now.

Shaq, though, thinks his numbers are off because he was hurt.  Furthermore, and I think this is also what Phoenix is counting on, Shaq lacked motivation in Miami.  Certainly playing for a losing team in Miami probably didn’t inspire Shaq to try his hardest.  After all, even if Shaq could produce like he once did, Miami – as it’s presently constructed – would still have a losing record.  Given this reality, there was less of an incentive for Shaq to try in Miami.

In Phoenix, though, Shaq might believe that his best effort might yield another title.  And although he already has four (and you would think diminishing marginal utility would kick in at some point), O’Neal claims he really wants a fifth ring.  Consequently – assuming Shaq is not too old – Phoenix might be getting a center that will help this team win its first title.

Is Shaq and Phoenix Right?

Let’s imagine that Shaq and Steve Kerr are right.  The issue was a lack of motivation in Miami and in Phoenix Shaq will return to the player we saw in 2004-05. That year Shaq posted a 0.306 WP48.  If that’s the O’Neal that arrives in Phoenix, will the Suns contend for a title in 2008?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably no.  Marion was already offering a 0.314 WP48.  So even if the old Shaq can become the Shaq of old, it’s not clear this team is better than the Lakers (with a healthy Bynum). They are certainly not better than the Boston Celtics.

Summarizing the Story

Let me close by trying to summarize what this means for Phoenix.

1. The team had to do something.  As constructed it was not likely to contend for a title in 2008. And the prospects going forward were only going to get worse.

2. The trade for Shaq assumes that the problem in Miami was nagging injuries and a lack of motivation.  If that’s true – and it’s not age – the Suns have a player that can produce wins.

3. Unfortunately, the level of production is not likely to exceed what the team was getting from Marion.  So what Phoenix has done – again, assuming Shaq is healthy – is create a team that will contend for a title in 2008 and 2009.  But it’s not likely to win a title in either year.  And by the time the 2008-09 season is over, the Suns will have an old Shaq, an old Nash, and no more chance to win an NBA title.  At least, not with the old guys.

As for Marion… he helps the Heat.  But the Heat are so far out of it, this is too little too late.  Will Marion re-sign with the Heat? That’s possible.  But what is probably more possible is that Marion is now THE prize of the 2008 free agent class.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.