Friday, February 22, 2013

Trade Deadline Musings: What If Thomas Robinson Just Isn't That Good?

I've been surprised by the vehemence of the negative reaction to Sacramento's trade of Thomas Robinson to Houston for Patrick Patterson (the core players of this deal). I feel like there is a lot of noise obscuring a fair reading of this question: Did Sacramento make its team better with this trade?

The Maloofs are inarguably complete disasters as owners, close to destroying one of the league's best fan bases. Geoff Petrie has suffered an inglorious slide from the turn of the century, when he was arguably the best GM in the league, to now, when the Sacramento front office has fallen far behind the times as other teams have modernized rapidly. But I believe the (fair) perceptions of the Maloofs and Petrie are affecting a fair evaluation of this trade.

Let's concede two points:
1. The Kings likely could have gotten a better deal for Robinson. No one in the media knows for sure, and it's always easy to suggest that Mythical Trade X was out there, but sure, I'll concede that Sacramento likely could have received a better swap of assets than what Petrie achieved.

2. Robinson has a better contract than Patterson, in that T-Rob has three years left on his rookie deal, while P-Pat has just one. No doubt.

But a lot has been made of the Maloofs saving $3 million this year on this deal (which actually amounts to $1M when pro-rated). This streamlines right into the narrative because the Maloofs have demonstrated that they are cheap, awful owners, but really, this savings doesn't seriously impact the future of the Kings if they made their team better with this trade.


So, Thomas Robinson. For all of the criticism of this trade, what if it turns out that Robinson just isn't that good?

I'm not claiming to be the world's best talent evaluator - there are plenty of hits and misses in The Painted Area archives - but I was not that high on Robinson coming out of Kansas, and he's been about the same guy I expected in Sacramento. Robinson struck me as a player who was an elite college athlete, physically dominant in NCAA ball (especially as an older, third-year player), but there was a marked contrast when matched up against an elite pro athlete such as Anthony Davis.

T-Rob struggled to convert against Kentucky, against whom he went 11-29 on FG in two games, and this has carried over the pros, where he's had 10.8% of his shots blocked, and converted a poor 54.4% of shots at the rim. Robinson *looks* like an elite NBA athlete, with his chiseled physique, but I don't believe that he actually is one.

Overall, Robinson rates a fairly dismal 23rd among rookies in PER (10.9) and 26th in EWA (basically PER taking total minutes into account), despite being one of the older, more-experienced rookies taken in the lottery. What's more, when I open up my trusted copy of Pro Basketball Prospectus by ESPN's Kevin Pelton, I find that the translated stats from Robinson's junior season projected his production as an NBA rookie pretty much dead on - with very good rebounder and very inefficient scorer being the two headlines. (Though it is worth noting that Robinson's stats from his sophomore season, when he played far fewer minutes, give him a more favorable projection.)

Both my eyes and the numbers suggest that Robinson is a little bit more than 'just a guy', a solid rotation big overall.

Patterson, meanwhile, has a career PER of 14.2, including 15.6 this season. Robinson is a far better rebounder, but Patterson is a far better shooter, and has been more productive overall. He'll likely fit better next to DeMarcus Cousins on offense (though Patterson doesn't help SAC's dismal rebounding), and also certainly fit far better next to Omer Asik in Houston than Robinson will.

I'm not suggesting Patrick Patterson's an All-Star, but I think he's a better player than Robinson. I've seen some sentiment that Patterson may be better today, but Robinson surely has greater upside. I mean, first of all, Patterson's only 23, just two years older than Robinson; he's not necessarily a finished product in his own right. And again, I just don't see the evidence of great Robinson upside. Just because he was the no. 5 pick in last year's Draft doesn't make it so.

And T-Rob's being the no. 5 pick in last year's Draft is yet another fact which I believe is obscuring a fair evaluation of this trade. "How can a team give up on its lottery pick during his rookie season?!", the masses are wailing.

Well, I mean, isn't this what we *want* GM's to do? Don't we ding decision-makers for sticking with the guys they chose strictly for the reason that these are the guys they chose? Isn't it better to get rid of lottery picks who can't play sooner rather than later? Is, for example, the Sixers' continued multi-year charade of treating Evan Turner like he can play strictly because he was the no. 2 pick the preferred route?

The Draft was where Sacramento made the big error with Robinson, in drafting him ahead of players like Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond. But, honestly, the fact that he was the no. 5 pick in last year's Draft is irrelevant to the substance of this trade, at this point.

I think we can get caught up in evaluating trades against the Platonic ideal of what could have happened sometimes, rather than just evaluating them on their faces. Could the Kings have gotten more for Robinson? Probably. Is Patterson better enough to justify the difference in salary in a couple years? Possibly not, but possibly so.

I believe that Sacramento is a better team, both short-term and long-term, following this deal, though just incrementally. I think it's a pretty good deal for the Kings, which could well turn out to be not-so-great. But I just don't see this being anywhere near the colossal disaster as it's being portrayed by many.

I think that the fact that the Maloofs are terrible owners, and that Petrie has a subpar track record recently (such as the 2011 Jimmer draft trade which was a true disaster), and that Robinson was the no. 5 pick last year, are unfairly contributing to the portrayal of this trade as an unmitigated disaster. The next owners of the Kings franchise, be they in Sacramento or Seattle, will still have plenty of heavy lifting ahead, but this trade will not set them back materially.