Friday, August 2, 2013

Who "Won" The Detroit-Milwaukee Trade?

Is Brandon Jennings enough to get Detroit into the Playoffs?
By Jeremy Conlin  @jeremy_conlin

How do you judge a transaction?

When the Pistons and Bucks agreed to their trade on Monday night, this question became a relevant one. Detroit would send Brandon Knight and un-noteworthy salary cap fodder (Khris Middleton and Slava Kravtsov) to Milwaukee in exchange for Brandon Jennings, who, as part of the deal, would be inked to a 3-year, $24 million contract.

But who “won” the trade?

Each question leads to a follow-up. What are Detroit’s short-term goals? How does Jennings help achieve them? What about Detroit’s long-term goals? And Milwaukee – what are their goals?

In most cases, asking which team “won” a trade is stupid (unless the trade involves Andrea Bargnani and the Knicks – then there’s a very obvious answer). In this instance, it’s entirely possible that both teams could end up “winning” the trade, and both teams could end up “losing” the trade. Here’s how:

1. How Detroit can “win” and Milwaukee can “lose”

This one is pretty simple – Brandon Knight very well may have been the worst starting point guard in the league last year (only Kirk Hinrich or Utah’s rotating cast can really make an argument). Jennings presents an obvious upgrade over Knight. Detroit really painted themselves into a corner over the last few years, trying to play Knight or Rodney Stuckey at point guard for extended stretches in the hopes that one of them would develop into a serviceable point guard, but neither did. Now Detroit has a more natural point guard in Jennings to soak up those minutes.

So, Jennings presents an upgrade over Knight. On top of that, Jennings is in a situation where he has elite big men to play pick-and-roll with and no longer has to battle with Monta Ellis over who has the ball most of the time. Given that, we could see Jennings blossom into a borderline All-Star caliber player. It’s a bit optimistic, yes, but not out of the realm of possibilities. If that happens, coupled with Detroit’s addition of Josh Smith and the ongoing development of Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, and rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit could enter the upper echelon of Eastern Conference also-rans, along with Indiana and Brooklyn and New York and Chicago.

Is it likely? No. But it’s certainly possible.

For Milwaukee, Knight plays about as well as he did in Detroit and never develops. The Bucks linger between the 8-10 seed in the East for the next two years, and they opt not to extend Knight’s contract, and 10 years from now we remember the trade as the time Milwaukee traded a future All-Star for two seasons of a crappy point guard.

2. How Detroit can “lose” and Milwaukee can “win”

Jennings does present an upgrade over Knight, but instead of blossoming with Detroit, he regresses. Perhaps his increased usage on his new team where he’ll often be the only reliable ball-handler will drive his already poor scoring efficiency even lower. Or perhaps on a team where he’s asked to shoot less, his turnover numbers will begin to spike as his sometimes-suspect passing skills are more on display. Perhaps a lack of offensive spacing brought about by Josh Smith playing small forward strangles Jennings off from getting open shots.

Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, new coach Larry Drew helps develop Brandon Knight to the point where it isn’t clear whether or not Jennings was actually an upgrade. Knight doesn’t develop into a star, but he improves to the point where a real argument can be made that having Knight for the next two seasons for a total of $6.2 million is better than having Jennings for $24 million over the next three.

Is it likely? The part about Jennings regressing very well may be. Knight’s improvement certainly not as much. But overall, more likely than the first one.

3. How both teams can “lose”

Combine the second half of No. 1 and the first half of No. 2. Jennings doesn’t push Detroit into the playoffs, Knight fails to move the needle for Milwaukee in either direction. Both teams flounder in the late lottery for the next few years, hoping to land a Paul George-type star to turn the franchise around.

4. How both teams can “win”

Ostensibly, this is the goal for every trade. Both teams want to end up further along the path to achieving their goals (either short-term or long-term) than they were before. In this instance, I think both teams “winning” is the most likely scenario, but it’s going to happen on two different timelines:

Detroit’s goals are short-term to mid-term: They just splurged on Josh Smith in free agency, so it certainly seems like they want to make the playoffs sooner rather than later. And the core of the team is still young and improving, so making the playoffs in the short term could mean being a top-4 team in the conference in the mid-term or long-term. So to help achieve their short-term goal, they decided to upgrade at point guard from Knight to Jennings (and, based on the evidence we have at hand, Jennings is a clear upgrade over Knight). Just the degree to which Jennings is better than Knight pushes Detroit into the 7th or 8th seed in 2014, showing progress for the future.

Milwaukee’s goals are mid-term to long-term: After several years of valuing short-term competitiveness over long-term building, even if that means selling prospects (Tobias Harris) for half-season rentals of veterans (J.J. Redick) just to secure the 8th seed and get swept by Miami, Milwaukee may be changing up. By trading Jennings for Knight, it appears that they’re becoming more open to the idea of bottoming out for a better draft pick. They certainly won’t be as bad as Philadelphia or Phoenix, but they appear to be decidedly out of the playoff hunt in the East.

When you examine the trade in the context of each team’s goals, it’s possible that Detroit could “win” in the short-term (by making the playoffs) but “lose” in the long-term (by plateauing as the 6th-best team in the East) while Milwaukee “loses” the trade in the short-term (by losing more games) but “wins” the trade in the long-term (by getting better picks now and becoming a playoff team in 2017 or 2018.

So if that happens, who “won?” Is it both teams, or neither?

How do you judge a transaction?

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