The NBA Trade Deadline and the Myth of Being One Player Away

It's easy for NBA title contenders to convince themselves that they're one player away at the trade deadline, but history shows in-season deals seldom make a major difference.

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17 February 2016, 9:48pm

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports USA.

Thanks to the complex ways in which the various needs, strategies, and goals of thirty teams interact, NBA trade deadline deals are always difficult to predict. Raise your hand if you saw Tobias Harris for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova coming.

That said, there's one aspect of the deadline's wheeling and dealing that's fairly easy to foresee, at least if you look at the historical numbers: would-be contenders that go all in with a win-now, one-player-away acquisition are usually, in fact, more than one player away from a title.

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Granted, it's easy for good teams to convince themselves they'll be great if they can just get their hands on a final piece. Positive thinking is a hell of a drug. In reality, however, a major midseason acquisition hasn't been parlayed into a successful championship run since the Detroit Pistons got Rasheed Wallace in 2004. After that, no title-winning team has added so much as a starting-level player via midseason deal: according to basketball-reference.com, in-season trade acquisitions have played a total of 1.3 percent of the available playoff minutes for the 11 teams that have won championships following the Pistons.

The upshot? If you're a serious title threat at the trade deadline, you likely were a serious title threat in training camp.

Now, only one team can win the championship, but it's fair to say that the four teams that reach the conference finals all have a legitimate shot. As such, let's take a look at how those teams have done with in-season trades.

Since 2004, 48 teams have made it to the conference finals. Only nine of them have allocated starter minutes—30 minutes or more per playoff game—to players acquired during the season. A few of those teams did pretty well:

● The 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers overhauled their roster with January acquisitions of Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert—and partially thanks to playoff injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, those three players accounted for 36.6 percent of Cleveland's total playoff minutes.

● The aforementioned 2004 Pistons saw Wallace and Mike James combine for 17.8 percent of their playoff minutes.

● The 2008 Los Angeles Lakers stole Pau Gasol from Memphis and reached the Finals with Gasol and Trevor Ariza (who was added in a November trade and played very limited minutes) accounting for 18 percent of the team's playoff minutes.

● The 2009 Denver Nuggets added Chauncey Billups in a trade that took place well before the deadline but still gave the team a starting-caliber player.

● The 2013 Memphis Grizzlies gave nearly 14 percent of their playoff minutes to January acquisitions, primarily Tayshaun Prince, though that move can be seen as addition by subtraction: moving Rudy Gay allowed the Grizzlies to even more fully embrace their Grit 'n' Grind ethos, lack of spacing be damned.

Wait, Rasheed Wallace was the exception to a rule? Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Besides the 2015 Cavs and the 2004 Pistons, the only squad to make the Finals after adding "just one more" were the 2009 Orlando Magic, who were forced into a deadline acquisition of the eminently serviceable Rafer Alston by a season-ending injury to point guard Jameer Nelson. It would be hard to argue that the move put the Magic over the top rather than just patch a leak brought on by Nelson's untimely absence.

All told, the 48 teams making the conference finals each year from 2004-15 have given 4.3 percent of their available playoff minutes, or about 10.3 minutes per game, to players arriving via in-season trade. Meanwhile, these teams have given a combined three percent of their playoff minutes, or roughly seven minutes per game, to players signed as free agents or off of waivers in-season. These proverbial "guys off the street"—most often bought-out veterans—have contributed nearly as much to conference finals teams as the more ballyhooed trade additions. If recent history is any indication, a true title contender is exceptionally difficult to assemble in-season.

(One note of caution: it's almost impossible to do what if? evaluations of title-contending teams that perhaps should have made moves such as swapping an upcoming draft pick to fill a position of need but chose instead to stand pat. Consider the recent Oklahoma City Thunder, who arguably could have won a title or at least reached the Finals again had they been bolder in adding a quality rotation player instead of signing aging veterans such as Derek Fisher and Caron Butler.)

TFW you might actually be one player away. Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

So what does all this mean for this year's NBA wannabes? Teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, who may feel themselves a move away from truly competing with the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs? Or teams such as Toronto, who may feel that the right acquisition will give them more than a puncher's chance against Cleveland?

Simple: it means proceed with caution. Don't trick yourself. Wallace and the 2004 Pistons were outliers, not an object lesson. And this, perhaps, is where Golden State comes to the rescue. Given the Warriors' overwhelming, historical level of dominance, even the most overly optimistic general manager may be hard-pressed to think that one more guy will put them over the top in a hypothetical matchup with Steph Curry and company.

Rather than pursue the big, risky score, expect self-styled contenders to make careful, marginal moves. A Finals-or-bust deal—Blake Griffin for Carmelo Anthony, anyone?—isn't wholly inconceivable, but history tells us that, like hitting on 17, the gamble is unlikely to pay off.