Posted by Neil Paine on December 23, 2008
One of my favorite places on the web for baseball analysis is The Hardball Times, whose writers always seem to have fresh perspectives and interesting takes while maintaining the spirit of sabermetrics -- which is to say they go where the numbers lead them, but they manage to keep things fun, too, which isn't always easy (I should know, right?). Anyway, THT has a long-running series called "The Virtual (Insert Team Here)" where they basically take a promising team that made some stupid trades in real life, and wipe those ill-fated transactions away. It's against the rules to add any deals that didn't actually happen in real life, so you can't go wild speculating over whether teams would have accepted certain offers, but you can make real-life blunders go away and reconstruct the team had they not made those deals. Now, we're going to borrow the idea and apply it to NBA teams from days gone by, to see if we can reverse some poor franchise's fortunes by fixing its poor personnel decisions.
One more note about the process we'll use here: because of trades, our reconstructed team may use more/less possessions than it did in real life; to preserve the actual # of possessions used, we're going to adjust the players' offensive ratings up/down using something Dean Oliver calls "skill curves" (you can read more about how I deal with this here). The least you need to know is that this process is necessary for basketball because, unlike in baseball, there is a trade-off between possession usage and efficiency. Oh, and we will also have to adjust some minutes here and there, although this shouldn't be a huge issue.
Now, to the first team we're going to reconstruct: the 1980s Cleveland Cavaliers, who made a pretty egregious string of bad trades in the early years of the decade that set them back for multiple seasons. I'll quote HoopsAnalyst's Harlan Schreiber on the organization's prevailing philosophy at the time:
In the early 1980s, Cavs owner Ted Stepien indiscriminately traded away so many draft picks that NBA instituted a rule to prohibit teams from trading away draft picks more than once every other year.
Looking at the Cavs' transactions during their miserable 227-429 run from 1980-1987, we can easily pick out their dumbest personnel moves, nearly all of which involved short-sightedly trading away high draft picks for mediocre (or worse) veterans:
- 2/15/1980: Traded Butch Lee, 1982 first round pick (#1-James Worthy) to Lakers for Don Ford, 1980 first round pick (#22-Chad Kinch).
- 9/16/1980: Traded 1984 first round pick (#4-Sam Perkins) to Dallas for Mike Bratz.
- 10/30/1980: Traded Bill Robinzine, 1983 first round pick (#11-Derek Harper), 1986 first round pick (#7-Roy Tarpley) to Dallas for Richard Washington, Jerome Whitehead.
- 2/7/1981: Traded Chad Kinch, 1985 first round pick (#8-Detlef Schrempf) to Dallas for Geoff Huston, 1983 third round pick (#56-Larry Anderson).
- 2/16/1982: Traded Bill Laimbeer, Kenny Carr to Pistons for Phil Hubbard, Paul Mokeski, 1982 first round pick (#12-John Bagley), 1982 second round pick (#28-David Magley).
- 10/7/1982: Traded 1986 second round pick (#27-Dennis Rodman) to Pistons for Steve Hayes.
- 6/18/1985: Traded rights to Charles Oakley, rights to Calvin Duncan to Bulls for Ennis Whatley, rights to Keith Lee.
In the next post, we're going to make all of those trades magically disappear, and see how much we can improve Cleveland's record in the process. Stay tuned!