I am writing this the day after Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Knicks in a deal that involved half the roster of both teams and the Nuggets – and some of the Timberwolves as well – so the evaluation of the immediate impact of a NBA trade is obviously very much on my mind. The first games a team plays right after a trade can be a great opportunity for smart bettors to find some value if they react rationally because so many people won’t be rational when considering the situation and the lines. If you can think instead of react you’ll have an edge. Here are seven things to keep in mind when you are thinking about these situations:
Public perception – This is the single biggest factor in evaluating a major NBA trade. The public thinks in very black and white ways. In almost all major trades there will be a perceived winner and a perceived loser. The public generally expects any benefits gained in a trade to be significant and immediate, and any negative impacts to be severe and sudden. In most cases neither is true. That means that the betting public is likely to overreact in both cases – putting too much faith on the team that won the trade, totally writing off the team that lost the trade, and betting accordingly. If you can be aware of the way the public is feeling – easy to do just by looking at what the media is writing or saying – you can often find very pleasant value in certain point spreads and matchups.
Style of player versus style of team – Even though professional basketball players can have selfish images, basketball is very much a team sport. A player can only truly excel when he is in a system in which he is comfortable, and which gives him the freedom to maximize his unique skills. Needless to say, some players do better in some systems than other players. In order to assess how a player will perform after a trade, then, you need to look at the system he is leaving compared to the one he is joining. If a guy has piled up points playing in a free flowing, fast moving offense, then he could struggle initially joining a ball possession, clock-milking offense. His new team could struggle as well – wanting to help get him involved but unsure how to do that without disrupting what they do. Quite often a team will bring in a new player in an attempt to change their approach and play a system that suits the new acquisition better. While that may or may not work in the long term, in the short term growing pains are inevitable, and those growing pains can lead to value betting against the new team because the team won’t look like people expect it to right away.
Teammates – Just like the system, the players around a new acquisition are crucial to consider. A very strong ball moving point guard could find ways to get a newly acquired scorer the ball regardless of the system they are playing in. The ultimate example of the challenges of joining a new team was the 2010 Miami Heat. In LeBron, Wade, and Bosh they added three of the elite players in the league in the offseason. By February they were clearly a powerhouse who was going to challenge for a title. When the season opened, though, they looked terrible. They were all guys who were used to being the star and getting the ball whenever they wanted it, so it took them quite a while to learn to play together and find ways to focus on winning. They had an entire preseason to work together and it still took a long time, so some adjustment in a lot of cases is almost inevitable.
Long term plan for player – NBA basketball players generally have massive egos. They play best in situations where those egos are stroked and they feel appreciated. If a player was the focus of a deal, his new team clearly wanted him badly, and perhaps he even got a contract extension out of it, then he’s going to feel very good about himself, and it’s reasonable to assure he’ll operate at a high level right away. There are a lot of ways, though, in which a player can feel far less wanted. Maybe he’s clearly just a rental player for the rest of the season, or he was obviously just thrown in to balance out salaries in the deal. Perhaps he knows he is likely to be moved on in another deal soon. The less stable a player feels, the less likely he will shine and affect the point spread in a positive way.
Shock factor of trade – If a player was expecting to be traded, or was asking for a trade, then he’s going to be less unsettled after he is dealt than one who was caught off guard, or who had only been the focus of vague and uncertain rumors. The more of a surprise a trade is, the more time it can take to get settled in to new surroundings.
Type of player – Different types of NBA players can become productive and comfortable in different amounts of time. For example, it’s typically far easier for a pure scorer who makes his own opportunities around the hoop and is creative and opportunistic to settle in and put up some numbers than it is for a defensive stalwart who seems to know where his teammates are without looking and fills the holes on the hardwood inevitably left in a defensive system. Over the long term the defensive player may have more of an impact on his new team, but in the short term it would be far easier to over-react over his arrival than it would be for the scorer.
Amount of upheaval – If a deal features one or two players going one way, and NBA draft picks and some role players going the other way then the upheaval felt by either team isn’t likely to be significant – there isn’t that much change to get comfortable with. In the Carmelo Anthony deal, though, both of the central teams involved saw huge parts of their starting rosters moved out of town. That requires significant adjustment, and it involves the comfort and feelings of virtually every player on both rosters. It also requires serious adjustment for the coaches. It only makes sense, then, that the first situation involves far less uncertainty than the latter, and should be dealt with accordingly by sports bettors when handicapping a team.