“Predictions are hard, especially about the future” goes a common aphorism. In NBA terms, nowhere is this more true than in projecting whether a given player will continue to develop as their pro careers progress.
While analyzing and evaluating this development trajectory is an important task undertaken by every NBA front office, the trade deadline is one of the places on the calendar where the importance of this evaluation gets thrown into sharp relief.
Thursday’s deadline represents one of the last chances for contenders to add that one piece they need — or for not-quite-contenders to reshuffle their rosters into something more playoff-competitive.
Similarly, teams going the other way have one more opportunity to set themselves up for future success either by tidying their salary books, getting forward-looking assets for contributing veterans who no longer fit timelines or taking flyers on prospects who are blocked from showing what they can do on contention-level rosters.
Another NBA truism is that for every trade that ends up being agreed upon, there are dozens more that never make it to the finish line. Many things can get in the way: salary-cap mechanics or Stepien Rule limitations on exchanges involving draft compensation, along with the more standard disagreement on the value of a given set of players.
One of the major friction points putting the breaks on many trade concepts is fear. Few things put a pit in a lead executive’s stomach like the thought of losing a trade. One of the surest ways to do so is to undervalue the talent and or potential you are sending out the door. This gets expressed seemingly every season through reports that this team or that team will only consider moving some decent-to-good contributor for some combination of multiple first-round picks and talented young players.
After all, if you’re trading a dollar for a buck-fifty, it’s not that big a deal if it turns out that the package you handed off had five quarters in it instead of just four.
This loss aversion can be a useful counterweight to deal fever — after all, making trades is fun! — but it can also cause teams to turn down beneficial exchanges. A team might hang on to a talented prospect past the point where it is reasonable to expect the hoped-for blossoming of talent. Or it might be reluctant to give value for a veteran in a similar position or role, thinking that the prized pick from a few seasons past has already turned the corner when, in actuality, it’s just been a nice run of good play which will soon subside.
Knowing how late is too late, or when a half-season’s worth of improvement might be real is an enormous challenge, but it is one that can at least be informed by past patterns. From a statistical standpoint, perhaps the easiest pattern to observe is shooting ability.
Especially for players not likely to become primary on-ball creators or interior defensive anchors, the ability to credibly space the floor is a common “swing skill” which separates those who will spend their careers bouncing around and struggling to crack rotations and valued pros.
While the trade deadline is certainly an impetus for this examination, it’s not the only reason. Certainly, a team like the Portland Trail Blazers could use some reassurance that Scoot Henderson’s first year struggles as a deep shooter — Henderson has made 31.5 percent of his threes thus far — doesn’t doom him to a career of defenders ducking underneath every ball screen or sagging off him when he is operating off the ball.
Recent history is pretty clear about a rookie season being too soon to give up on a shooter’s development.
But when is it no longer too soon?
On the other side of the ledger, how much faith should Orlando have in Jalen Suggs’ newfound shooting stroke, with the third-year guard hitting nearly 38.5 percent of attempts this season after managing a ghastly 27.3 percent his first two seasons?
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To examine this and related questions, I looked at every player-season from 2003-04 onward that fit the following criteria:
- The player in question had taken at least 250 3-point attempts combined prior to that season.
- They had averaged at least 150 3FGA in those previous seasons as well as went on to average at least 150 attempts across subsequent seasons
- They had played fewer than 90 percent of their career games entering the season in question.
For each player, I then found their inflection points as a shooter, the season which saw the largest gap between prior and subsequent seasons in terms of 3-point shooting accuracy. For some players, this meant two seasons were identified representing both high and low points for their careers. For other players, only one season was identified indicating a peak or nadir season.
In some cases, this didn’t identify anything interesting. Steph Curry’s “peak” as a shooter on a percentage basis was his rookie year, but so what?
But on the whole, I wanted to look at players with robust shooting samples, so I broke these inflection points down further into situations where a player had at least 500 3-point field goal attempts both before and after the inflection point. To make things a little more interpretable, I also broke shooters down into buckets:
- Non-shooters with total 3FG percentage of less than 33 during a given time period.
- Guys who qualified as “threats” — players who need to be guarded but not necessarily game-planned around as shooters who made between 33 and 38 percent of their 3s.
- “Weapons” who made 38 percent or more of their 3s over a given career stretch.
From 2003 on, this left 408 players, which I looked at in terms of “before” and “after” status.
A player who shot 34 percent prior to their shooting inflection season and 36 percent after would be classified as a “threat” in each group, while a player who went from 35 percent to 39 percent would have moved from a “threat” to a “weapon” while one dropping of from 35 percent to 32 percent would have become a non-shooter.
The chart below illustrates the before and after of each group of players.
Quick inspection suggests that players A) tend to stay at similar levels in terms of shooting across their careers, but that there is some slight, upward pressure 83 players moved up a category while on 56 moved down. However, I think that upward pressure is somewhat illusory as survivorship bias is at play here. A little more than 20 percent of players who attempted 250 or more threes at a sub-33 percent clip over the first three seasons of their career even attempted 250 more over their remaining (often short) careers. Improve, lose 3-point privileges or get benched/cut seems to be somewhat the rule.
The other thing to note is that Suggs’ improvement would be highly unusual. The two players in the upper left quadrant who went from well-below average in terms of accuracy to weapons are Malik Monk and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. If he manages to shoot 38 percent over the rest of his career, Suggs will be the third member of that club.
Meanwhile, the only player to start their career shooting above 38 percent but dip under 33 percent in future seasons over significant attempts in this span is Jaren Jackson Jr., fitting for a talented though enigmatic performer who has never quite maintained a level of play equivalent to the idea of the player he could be.
Of course, it’s not enough to know that plenty of players improve as shooters. When they are likely to do so a big part of figuring out what to do next as well. In Orlando’s case, were Suggs to prove a capable shooter over the rest of his career, the fact that the inflection point was reached between his second and third season would put him on the most common timeline:
On the other hand, the Blazers would be well-reminded to give Henderson more than just next year for his shooting to come around, especially if he maintains a free-throw percentage above 80 percent, which is generally a solid indicator for shooting touch and possibility of future improvement.
In the context of the trade deadline, this is a somewhat unhelpful discovery. Nearly 70 percent of the qualifying players in the sample who improved as shooters did so starting with their fourth year or later. This means that should a team or exec want to talk themselves into a potential acquisition’s possibilities as a shooter, they can probably find enough evidence to do so.
If the above seemed somewhat convoluted, remember that shooting is one of the easier skills in terms of observing and measuring improvement. This “you never quite know” aspect is frequently enough to squash a deal a team likely should make. A large proportion of the trade deadline mistakes will be of this type.
We will likely never hear about most of them, but even those we do, it’s the hope that kills you.
(Photo of Jalen Suggs: Rich Storry / Getty Images)