Today is New Year's Day on the NBA calendar, team officials staying up until midnight with new season's resolutions in mind and cognitive dissonance in their wallets. For free agents, today might as well be Christmas Day, with gift contracts in abundance under the money tree growing out of the new TV deal. Over the next few weeks, we will have a much clearer picture of the NBA landscape heading into next season, with the decision of Kevin Durant certainly the biggest piece on the board. However, the move that might make the most waves throughout the league for this year and those to come happened last week, when the Thunder swapped Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and Domantas Sabonis.
Plenty has been written
about this trade in terms of its effects
on both Oklahoma City and Orlando and how it might impact Kevin Durant's free agency decision
. What I find most intriguing about this trade is the inclusion of a former number two overall pick on his rookie deal. Did the Magic give up on Victor Oladipo after three seasons? Based on the perception of this deal, it difficult to judge if this trade is a vote of no-confidence against the young man or not.
As I investigated this phenomena, the prevalence was shocking. In the lottery – excluding draft day trades – a total of 56 top-five picks had been traded within their first five years in league – making Victor Oladipo number 57, which means a staggering 36% of top-five picks in the last 30 years have been traded early in their careers. Four of the first five picks were ousted prematurely from each of the 1993 and 1995 draft classes.
Oladipo is a special case, a combo guard moving from an irrelevant franchise to a championship contender. In his first three seasons, the Magic had a combined record of 83-163 (.337). Over the same period, the Thunder made two Western Conference Finals. Instead of using readily available
to predict how Victor may fare in his new environment, let's take a look at a few case examples of former top-five picks traded early in their careers into similar talent upgraded situations.
Before leading the Kings to four consecutive 50-win seasons and a Western Conference Finals appearance, the Point Guard University product spent three years toiling north of the border with the then Vancouver Grizzlies. Similar to Oladipo, after being selected number two overall, his teams amassed a .248 winning percentage under two head coaches. In a point guard swap between the two teams, Bibby was traded for Jason Williams to a championship caliber Kings team coming off a 55-win season.
The circumstances of the trade are a bit mysterious from the Grizzlies perspective. Despite showing improvement in each of his three seasons while shouldering 38 minutes per game, perhaps the Grizzlies were disappointed on the return from such a high draft pick. Another theory suggests Bibby was too boring and the Grizzlies needed more sizzle to sell tickets
in their new home in Memphis. For the Kings, they seized an opportunity to replace the erratic Williams with stability and potential in Bibby
When comparing Bibby to Oladipo
, it is important to consider the smaller Bibby came in as a ready-made point guard, whereas Oladipo has struggled to find a positional home. Bibby also came into the league at a younger age than Oladipo. Through their first three years, Bibby and Oladipo produced win shares of 12.7 and 9.3, respectively. Bibby's win shares from offense alone were 9.6. On the flip side, nearly 7.5 of Oladipo's win shares came from defense – the starkest contrast between the two.
In his first season in Sacramento, Bibby saw most of his numbers decline slightly – assists, steals, points, usage, minutes, PER. But his win shares, both overall and on defense, rose to new heights. The fit was excellent, gelling with Chris Webber and bringing stability to the backcourt – 11.1% turnover rate compared to 18.1% from Williams the previous season. The Kings went to the Western Conference Finals that year – the most conspiratorial series in league history
– and Bibby stayed aboard for six plus seasons, where he compiled the three best years of his career between his sixth and eighth NBA seasons. While never an All-Star, he played 14 seasons and his career numbers compare slightly above the norm
for guards taken in the top five.
A more comparable player in size to Oladipo, the Chicago native began his career with the Charlotte Hornets after being selected number five in the 1990 draft. While not quite as bad as Oladipo's Magic or Bibby's Grizzlies, the Hornets played to the tune of a .410 winning percentage in Gill's three years with the team. Although the Hornets made the playoffs in his third season, Gill was unhappy with his diminishing role
behind Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning so the Hornets traded him to the now-defunct Seattle SuperSonics – fresh off a game seven loss in the Western Conference Finals.
If you withheld the names and dates from their numbers comparison through the first three years
of their careers, it would be impossible to distinguish one from the other. They have an identical PER and Oladipo has only a slim edge in win shares – 9.7 versus 9.3. Unlike Bibby, Gill receives the majority of his win shares from his defense, aligning him even closer to Oladipo. The largest difference between these two is shooting. Gill makes Oladipo look like Ray Allen from three-point range, in terms of percentage and volume. What also separates the two, is Gill took a step back in year three while Oladipo steadily improved across the board.
Gill would see his numbers bounce back featuring an improved three-point stroke playing fourth banana on the 61-win Sonics, who were unceremoniously dumped in the first round of the playoffs. Unfortunately for Gill, he missed out on the Finals run two years later after being traded back to Charlotte for Hersey Hawkins prior to the season, setting in motion his journeyman career – eight teams in 15 seasons. Also never making an All-Star team, he would post his best season for the New Jersey Nets seven years into his career. Probably five years too long, his career was disappointing for a number five overall pick.
The last case from a retired player is a worst-case scenario. With the number three pick in the 1987 draft, the New Jersey Nets selected Ohio State's all-time leading scorer Dennis Hopson. Playing on three terrible Nets teams with a combined 62-184 (.252) record certainly didn't lift his spirits, but he did manage to improve every season, cracking 50% true shooting and posting a career high win share in his third season. Presumably a poor fit under legendary coach Bill Fitch, the Nets dealt Hopson to the Bulls on the eve of their first of six championships.
Brought in with the idea of being the instant-offense guy behind Michael Jordan, Hopson saw greatly reduced minutes in the regular season and rode the bench hard during the championship run. With the Nets he was discouraged by the losing. With the Bulls he was disgraced by his lack of playing time
, despite a championship ring. Unable to claim a role, Hopson was traded the next season to the Kings in his final NBA season. At the advice of his agent, he turned down a Kings offer and held out for more years
that never came, forcing the remainder of his career overseas. With only five seasons and 7.1 career win shares, Hopson is certainly one of the biggest busts at the number three slot in the draft.
His numbers were certainly worse
than Oladipo's through three years, but showed the same trend of improvement, yet he couldn't find a consistent role in the league. More of a true wing player and from a different era, Hopson is by no means a perfect comparison to Oladipo. However, he is a cautionary tale that the green is not always greener.
The last top-five pick to be traded within five years is the man Oladipo is presumably being brought in to replace, Dion Waiters. The media certainly rates Oladipo as an upgrade over Waiters
– a few castaways continue hoarding real estate on Waiters Island – but if Oladipo does take Waiters role in OKC, should Thunder fans expect better performance? A close look at publicly available Synergy and SportVU data can paint a picture of what kind of role Oladipo is likely to hold and whether he is more capable than Waiters.
Researching the Synergy data
on NBA.com, Oladipo appears to be an upgrade over Waiters in nearly every category. Both used the majority of their possessions in PNR (pick and roll) – Oladipo scored 0.80 point per possession while Waiters scored 0.69. Oladipo also performed much better in transition – 1.09 vs 0.85 PPP.
On the defensive side of the ball, the upgrade is less discernable, mostly due to the difficulty in interpreting Synergy's defense measures. However, there are a couple red flags for Oladipo on defense, his supposed specialty. First, as the on-ball defender in PNR, Oladipo allowed 0.86 PPP (31st percentile) which is actually slightly worse than Waiters. Second, of particular importance in a potential rematch against Golden State, Oladipo has limited experience defending in the post and has not fared well relative to Waiters. Being able to defend in the post while switching was a huge asset for OKC in the Conference Finals this past year.
Finally, there is an idea that playing in Orlando has starved Oladipo of space to thrive on offense and a move to OKC will make easier shots available. While there is no doubt he will be asked to carry a smaller load – Waiters usage rate dropped substantially from Cleveland to OKC – Oladipo actually managed to get more open shots this past season than Waiters, according to SportVU data
on NBA.com. A whopping 88% of Oladipo's three point shots this year were classified as “open” to “wide open” – closest defender at least four feet away. Yet he shot just 33.4% on those shots. By comparison, only 82% of Waiters' threes this season were open and he shot 37.7%. While SportVU data is not perfect, this is quite the black eye against the case for Oladipo as an upgrade over Waiters. Thunder fans better hope Victor's hot streak to end last season can bleed into this year.
While it certainly not the end of the road for Victor Oladipo because he was traded just three years into his career, these case examples show the uphill battle to stardom Oladipo faces, especially fighting for playing time on a stacked OKC squad. If Victor never reaches the potential his top five selection foretold, like Mike Bibby and Kendall Gill, he can prove the Magic right to cash in while his potential is still valuable and prove the Thunder right to maximize Oladipo's true potential as a role player on a star-studded championship team.