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NBA Trade Rumors: Value and Validity

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Fifteen trades were made between January 1 and February 23. Which were preceded by whispers?

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In the months leading up to the NBA trade deadline I tracked and wrote about all the trade rumors circulating around the league. As I was doing this, I often wondered how much would come of these rumors. Do the rumors that get leaked by sources indicate that teams are really looking to move a player or do some of them just provide fans with a hypothetical wish list for their teams and an excuse to fire up the trade machine?

In January, Detroit Piston’s coach and president Stan Van Gundy wondered the same thing (albeit more cynically) after his starting point guard Reggie Jackson was the subject of a trade rumor involving Ricky Rubio.

— video via Detroit Free Press

I would love to do something. Take all the rumors that come up over the course of the year, and really chart them and see what percentage of those ever happen. I would love to have that. It’s got to be less than one percent.

Van Gundy’s question about the percentage of trade rumors that come to fruition is a little skewed. Of course tracking the players mentioned in trade rumors against actual trades will end up revealing a fairly low percentage. That doesn’t mean, however, that the trade rumors are invalid. There are too many variables to go off raw percentages. Trade rumors can be real but not pan out for a number of reasons.

1. Situations change as a team’s performance improves or gets worse. The Atlanta Hawks potentially trading All-Star Paul Millsap was a hot rumor for a couple weeks. The Hawks were hovering around .500, and it looked like they might blow things up after they traded Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, they went on a seven-game winning streak that propelled them to the fourth seed in the East (they currently sit in the fifth seed), and they decided to stand pat and play out the season.

The Miami Heat are another example of this. Starting point guard Goran Dragic was often in trade rumors, but they appeared to be open to trading anyone on their roster. After a 12-30 start to the season that put them near the bottom of the NBA standings, the Heat got, well, hot. A 13-game winning streak put them at 25-32 heading into the trade deadline and they are in the hunt for the eight seed.

2. Injuries can change the landscape for a team. Rudy Gay of the Sacramento Kings popped up as the subject of trade rumors in December and early January. But he tore his Achilles in a game on Jan. 18 and had to have season ending surgery. Obviously, the Kings would have a difficult time finding a team to trade for him after that.

3. Other trades also affect the direction teams want to go mid-season. Two different Philadelphia 76ers centers were frequently featured in trade rumors. However, it was unlikely that the 76ers would trade both Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. They dealt Noel to the Dallas Mavericks and held onto Okafor. Similarly, two of the teams said to be interested in those players—the Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans—traded for different big men (Jusuf Nurkic and DeMarcus Cousins, respectively). The acquisitions of Nurkic and Cousins removed the pressure to add another center.

4. Teams may make a player available but be asking too much for him. Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez appeared frequently trade rumors this season. However, the Nets wanted two first round picks for him and it appears that was too much for any interested parties.

5. Teams may have an interest in a player but aren’t willing to give up enough to get him. The Boston Celtics appear to have had several conversations with the Chicago Bulls about Jimmy Butler and the Indiana Pacers about Paul George. However, in order to get either of the players the Celtics would have to give up at least one of their Brooklyn Nets picks and several other young players. Boston decided to stand pat and maintain their options.

There are plenty of reasons why legitimate trade rumors may not happen. Another way to explore the validity of trade rumors in general would be to look at the trades that did happen and see if they had been rumored previously.

There were 15 trades in the NBA from the beginning of January to the trade deadline. Nine of the 15 trades involved one or more players who had been the subject of trade rumors. Of the six trades that involved players who weren’t subject of any trade rumors, only two included a player who is averaging 16 or more minutes per game this season: Kyle Korver to the Cavs and Ersan Ilyasova (who was traded twice this season) to the Hawks.

That means, outside of minor deals (no one saw Tyler Ennis for Marcelo Huertas coming!), most mid-season trades in the NBA this year involved at least one player who showed up in sourced rumors. The following players were all dealt after appearing in trade rumors:

  • Jusuf Nurkic
  • Serge Ibaka
  • DeMarcus Cousins (although most were skeptical a trade would happen)
  • Lou Williams
  • Corey Brewer
  • Bojan Bogdanovic
  • Nerlens Noel
  • Andrew Bogut
  • K.J. McDaniels
  • Doug McDermott
  • Taj Gibson
  • P.J. Tucker

Many of these trades also involved a player that may not have been heavily involved in trade rumors (Terrence Ross, Mason Plumlee, Buddy Hield, and Cameron Payne to name a few), but the bulk of the significant trade deadline deals involved players who had been specifically mentioned in rumors during the season. If you were following the trade rumors you wouldn’t have been completely caught by surprise that these players were moved, although some of the specific trades might have been unexpected.

I don’t doubt that some trade rumors are just noise. Maybe a GM wants to gauge the public reaction to seeing a player potentially being moved or just test the market to see what is available even if he has no serious plans to make a deal. But after closely tracking trade rumors this season it seems that the majority of them hold legitimate potential. They may not all result in actual trades, but they should not be discounted either.