Trade Retrospective: Elton Brand To Clippers

In the wake of the blockbuster deal that sent Kevin Love to the Cavaliers this summer, I’ve been taking a look back at some of the bigger trades that have occurred in the NBA over the last decade or so. It’s always a risk to trade away a star player, and getting equal value is a near impossibility in most cases.

It’s fascinating to see the league-wide ripples that big trades can cause, and sometimes the full effects and ramifications aren’t fully felt until years later when the draft picks are used, players either reach their potential or fall short, the won-loss records are final, and title banners have been hung, or franchises end up in the draft lottery.

So far I’ve looked back at Carmelo Anthony being dealt to the Knicks; Kevin Garnett to the Celtics; Dwight Howard to the Lakers; Stephon Marbury to the Knicks; Shaquille O’Neal to the Heat; Chris Paul to the Clippers; Deron Williams to the Nets; LaMarcus Aldridge to the Blazers; James Harden to the Rockets; and Vince Carter to the Nets. The next trade I’ll look at will take us back to the June 28th, 2001 deal that sent Elton Brand to the Clippers.

Let’s begin by running down the players involved:

The trade of Brand was an odd decision by the Bulls’ brass. Brand wasn’t unhappy in Chicago despite winning more games during his senior season at Duke (37) than he did during his two years in the Windy City (32). He wasn’t a locker room issue, and in fact he was quite the opposite, demonstrating remarkable poise and maturity for such a young player. Brand also gave the Bulls front office no indication that he would be difficult to re-sign when his rookie deal expired. Brand actually had quite a few ties to Chicago, and as long as the Bulls’ offer was fair it’s more than likely he would have put pen-to-paper and signed an extension.

Brand averaged 20.1 PPG and 10 RPG during his two seasons in Chicago, excellent numbers for a player at any stage of his career, much less one still learning the game and the league. So why deal him then? That’s a question I’m sure some Bulls fans are still asking to this day. As I mentioned previously, Chicago was not even close to being a playoff team during Brand’s time and the Bulls’ front office decided to retool and to try to get more athletic. Brand was more than a solid player, but even before his injuries and the minutes-mileage on his odometer began to accumulate, no one would have mistaken Brand for Blake Griffin athletically.

So the Bulls front office became more enamored with the potential of Eddy Curry, whom they drafted No. 4 overall, and Chandler, who was selected with the No. 2 overall pick that Chicago obtained in this trade, than with the proven commodity that was Brand. So they pulled the trigger and shipped away their best player for two high-schoolers with high upsides, but no proven track record of performance at the collegiate level or beyond.

The deal didn’t revitalize the Bulls franchise as was hoped, and the franchise spent the next three seasons in the basement of the Eastern Conference and neither Chandler or Curry came close to equaling Brand’s production during their time in Chicago.

Here are Chicago’s records in the years after the deal:

  1. 2001/02: 21-61
  2. 2002/03: 30-52
  3. 2003/04: 23-59
  4. 2004/05: 47-35 (lost in the first round to the Wizards)

Some backsliding was to be expected from the Bulls in the wake of dealing away their most productive player for two big men who would require some time to develop their games as well as develop their bodies to handle the nightly poundings found in the NBA paint area. But looking back it’s easy to criticize this trade for Chicago, seeing as how Curry never reached his potential due to a multitude of factors, and it would be years before Chandler developed into the defender and leader who helped Dallas bring home an NBA title.

Though this trade was more about clearing a spot for Curry, Chandler was the main piece that Chicago acquired in the deal. It would be an understatement to say that Chandler didn’t come close to matching Brand’s production during his time with the Bulls as evidenced by his stats below:

  1. 2001/02: 6.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 0.8 APG, and 1.3 BPG. His slash line was .497/.000/.604.
  2. 2002/03: 9.2 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.0 APG, and 1.4 BPG. His slash line was .531/.000/.608.
  3. 2003/04: 6.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 0.7 APG, and 1.2 BPG. His slash line was .424/.000/.669.
  4. 2004/05: 8.0 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 0.8 APG, and 1.8 BPG. His slash line was .494/.000/.673.
  5. 2005/06: 5.3 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, and 1.3 BPG. His slash line was .565/.000/.503.

Speaking of Curry, for the sake of comparison here are his numbers with the Bulls:

  1. 2001/02: 6.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 0.3 APG, and 0.7 BPG. His slash line was .501/.000/.656.
  2. 2002/03: 10.5 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 0.5 APG, and 0.8 BPG. His slash line was .585/.000/.624.
  3. 2003/04: 14.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 0.9 APG, and 1.1 BPG. His slash line was .496/1.000/.671.
  4. 2004/05: 16.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 0.6 APG, and 0.9 BPG. His slash line was .538/.000/.720.

Comparing the stats of both of these players to Brand’s it’s striking to note that Brand equaled or exceeded the production of Curry/Chandler for every year that they were with the Bulls and he was in Los Angeles. Not a great trade-off, and the disparity is incredibly glaring when removing Curry from the equation since he wasn’t technically part of this deal and Chicago could have simply kept Brand and selected Curry anyway.

Chandler’s time in Chicago ended on July 5th, 2006 when he was dealt to the Pelicans for J.R. Smith and P.J. Brown. The Bulls made this deal in an effort to clear Chandler and the five years, and $54MM left on his contract so the team could sign free agent Ben Wallace away from the Pistons, which they accomplished.

Smith was flipped to the Nuggets just six days later for Howard Eisley and two 2007 second-rounders (Aaron Gray and JamesOn Curry). Curry never played one minute for the Bulls, while Gray spent two years with the team, averaging 3.7 PPG in 117 appearances. As for Wallace, he was still productive in his two seasons in Chicago, but wasn’t the same dominating defender that he was during his first stint in Motown.

As for Brian Skinner, he was traded less than a month after being acquired to the Raptors for Charles Oakley and a 2002 second-rounder (Jason Jennings). Oakley was no longer the player that he was with the Knicks or during his first stint in Chicago, and he lasted one season with the Bulls, averaging 3.8 PPG and 6.0 RPG that year.

So from the Bulls’ perspective, they dealt away a 20 PPG and 10 RPG player who was just beginning his career, for Chandler’s 6.9 PPG and 7.6 RPG averages during his Chicago years. Not a great return any way you look at it. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also note who else was available when Chandler was selected–Pau Gasol. With their own first-rounder, Chicago took Curry, but who else was on the board? Names such as Joe Johnson, Zach Randolph, Jason Richardson, Richard Jefferson, and Tony Parker. This deal looks a bit different if you plug in Gasol and/or Parker, but that’s speaking from the benefit of hindsight. I’d also argue that the team would have been much better served to have held onto Brand and used their own first round pick on one of those alternate names that I listed.

At the time of the trade the Clippers were mired in futility, having made just three playoff appearances, all first round exits, in the 16 years since the franchise relocated from San Diego to Los Angeles. It was a shrewd move on their part trading away a lottery pick for a proven young talent like Brand. With the NBA Draft being such a game of chance, it’s sometimes better to go with established talent instead of rolling the dice on a player developing into an NBA-level talent. It was even tougher on GMs prior to the minimum-age requirement, when franchises were risking millions of dollars on unproven high school players.

Brand certainly didn’t disappoint statistically after arriving in Los Angeles. In his first season with the team, Brand earned a selection to the All-Star team, becoming the first Clipper since Danny Manning (1994) to receive that honor. Here are his numbers with Los Angeles:

  1. 2001/02: 18.2 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 2.4 APG, and 2.0 BPG. His slash line was .527/.000/.742.
  2. 2002/03: 18.5 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, and 2.5 BPG. His slash line was .502/.000/.685.
  3. 2003/04: 20.0 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 3.3 APG, and 2.2 BPG. His slash line was .493/.000/.773.
  4. 2004/05: 20.0 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.6 APG, and 2.1 BPG. His slash line was .503/.000/.752.
  5. 2005/06: 24.7 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 2.6 APG, and 2.5 BPG. His slash line was .527/.333/.775.
  6. 2006/07: 20.5 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.9 APG, and 2.2 BPG. His slash line was .533/1.000/.761.
  7. 2007/08: 17.6 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, and 1.9 BPG. His slash line was .456/.000/.787.

Brand became a restricted free agent after the 2002/03 campaign and the Heat made a big push to land him, signing Brand to a six-year, $82MM offer sheet. Former owner Donald Sterling, notorious for being frugal with player salaries during this era, matched the offer and retained Brand’s services, which was quite out of character.

Unfortunately Brand’s production didn’t translate into the won-loss column. It wasn’t Brand’s fault thanks to the decided lack of talent around him. But the other factor was that Brand wasn’t a superstar type player that you could build a team around. His numbers were solid, as was his overall game, but even at his peak he was more the sort of player who should have been a second or third option, which didn’t help Los Angeles break out of its malaise as evidenced by the franchise’s records during Brand’s tenure:

  1. 2001/02: 39-43
  2. 2002/03: 27-55
  3. 2003/04: 28-54
  4. 2004/05: 37-45
  5. 2005/06: 47-35 (lost in the second round to the Suns)
  6. 2007/08: 40-42

All things must come to an end, and Brand’s ending in Los Angeles wasn’t as smooth as the player, organization, or Baron Davis would have hoped. Brand and Davis were close friends and both of their deals had player options for their final seasons, which both players decided to use to get out of their deals. Brand had stated publicly that he chose to opt out so he could re-sign for a lower salary that would aid the team in signing another impact player. That player was to be Davis, who inked a five-year, $65MM deal with the Clippers with the understanding that he’d be playing alongside Brand, not participating in a full rebuild. But instead, Brand spurned the Clippers to sign a five-year, $82MM contract with the Sixers, which was $7MM more than Los Angeles was able to offer him.

This was another deal that emphasizes the game of roulette teams play with the draft and flipping established players for the allure of potential. Sometimes the grass isn’t greener on the other side and it’s a smarter play to stick with the sure thing over the unknown. Granted, I don’t believe Brand was a No. 1 option even during his prime, but he was absolutely a player who, when paired with a talented roster, could be a tremendous asset on the court and in the locker room.

The deal didn’t do much for the Clippers outside of putting a band-aid on the festering wounds of the Clippers faithful. In the NBA it takes much more than one dominant player to contend for a title; just ask Michael Jordan. Chicago’s incredible run during his playing days didn’t begin until he was paired with upper-echelon talent. Los Angeles didn’t harm itself with the trade as the team didn’t give up all that much to acquire Brand. Fiscally, the Clippers took a hit when they matched his offer sheet, rather than enjoying the rookie scale contract of Chandler or whomever they would have selected with their first-rounder in 2001.

As for the Bulls, they would have been better served to have held onto Brand and used their first-round pick on a player who would have complemented their star. The only “benefit” they received from this deal was landing the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft thanks to the free fall this deal put the franchise into. The Bulls didn’t quite nail that pick though, using it to select Jay Williams, who only played one season before having his career derailed by a horrific motorcycle accident.

The lesson to take away here is that it’s often better to stick with the sure thing than gamble on striking gold in the draft. The Brand deal ended up being best described by a line from “Macbeth” — “It was full of sound and fury, but signified nothing.” Exeunt omnes.

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