Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Good problems to have: Would you rather have Kevin Love or Andrew Wiggins?

The big NBA story of the past couple days involves the Cavaliers making Andrew Wiggins available to the Minnesota Timberwolves to entice them to trade Kevin Love.

Nate Silver has had some good analysis of what draft picks are worth based on the production of past players. That pretty much covers the Cavs’ side of the trade given that the rumored deal includes Wiggins (this year’s first overall pick), Anthony Bennett (last year’s first overall pick) and another one or two first round picks in the next few years.

Kevin Love, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be projected by his draft position as he already has six seasons of evidence of his performance. The invaluable basketball-reference.com provides similarity scores[1] that give us a reference point for the potential trajectory of players who were similar through this point in their careers. For Love that gives us the following set of players:

Not a bad group here, if you are a Cavs fan pushing for the trade. For all the talk of superstars needing a Scottie Pippen-type player to play alongside them and help elevate them, having the actual Scottie Pippen as one of the most similar players through six seasons is a good sign.

If you look at how these players performed following their first six seasons, the story gets a bit murkier.

Comparable Player Performance by Experience

The 5th season was the peak for the average of these 10, with 11.5 win shares. Following that they tail off by about 0.8 WS/year through the 10th season before the decline accelerates.

11.5 win shares is a good number, enough for 8th or 9th in the league over the last 20 years, but Kevin Love is already past his 6th season and his comps are already in decline at that stage. 

Love's actual performance, however, bounced back from an injury-shortened 2012-13 season to put up a fantastic 14.3 win shares, good for 3rd in the league in 2013-14 and right in line with the median 3rd-highest for the seasons since 1993-94.

Comparable Player Performance by Age

The outlook for Love is improved by looking at things by age rather than experience. Since he was only 20 in his first NBA season[2] Love has an advantage over comps like Mullin, Pippen, Tomjonavich and Grant (all 22) or Jefferson and Stojakovic (21) while only Kevin Garnett (19) and Tracy McGrady (18) were younger.

Looking at win shares according to age rather than seasons in the league changes the timing a bit on the peak relative to Love. The group now peaks at age 25 – 2013-14 for Love – with 11.7 WS and then drops to right around 10 for the next 3 years.

I'd still do it

Kevin Love may have peaked as a basketball player. That sounds like a very negative thing, but his peak season had him (according to Win Shares) as the third highest performer in the league and his comp group suggests only small declines for the next few seasons. There’s even room for some upside if he turns out to be a freak of the Garnett or Pippen type, the chance of which is supported by his performance above the group average in all but his injury season.

If 14.3 is Kevin Love’s peak WS season, he is well above LeBron’s last stretch big man Chris Bosh (10.1 peak pre-LeBron, 10.3 peak with LeBron) and among a pretty elite group of players to exceed 14.2 WS in the last 20 years (see table at left). In this group injury was the main risk as most of the players had elite careers even if they didn’t achieve these heights again.

Andrew Wiggins may become a very good basketball player. His peak might even be higher than Kevin Love’s, we simply don’t know yet. It seems very likely, however, that his next 2-3 seasons will be less productive than Kevin Love’s next 2-3 seasons.

Thinking of the other pieces in the trade, Anthony Bennett and a potential mid- to late-first round pick, they appear to be relative long shots at becoming impact players. Very smart people have done research suggesting that you’d rather have a dollar than four quarters in the NBA – it’s better to have concentrated value in a couple players than a broader base of talent, all else equal.

The final stumbling block is value – what each player brings you for the money. Wiggins, and to a lesser degree Bennett, will deliver very good performance on very reasonable rookie contract salaries while Kevin Love will likely deliver excellent performance and get paid very highly for it. Dan Gilbert, however, has shown no inclination to turn off the taps in pursuit of winning. His past purchases of draft picks, willingness to take bad contracts in trades to acquire draft picks and signing of players to speculative, creative contracts suggest that he is far more concerned about winning than about what that costs.

While I would love for the Cavs to hold Wiggins and start thinking about late-career LeBron surrounded by in-his-prime Kyrie and on-the-rise Wiggins, that’s pretty greedy talk for a franchise still chasing the first title of a would-be dynasty. Knowing that Wiggins is likely to be the far better player five years from now, it’s still the right move to solidify the Cavs as a top contender from now until then.

[1] These similarity scores are calculated by comparing Win Shares accumulated by each player, in total and ordered from highest to lowest. In this case we are using the “Thru X Years” similarity score.

[2] Basketball-reference.com defines player age as of February 1st each season. Kevin Love’s birthday is September 7th.

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