Nov. 21, 2008—Folks down with the number crunchers at sites like 82games, Basketball Prospectus, Baseball Prospectus and Football Outsiders, mutter these three little words—small sample size—as if it were a mantra and for good reason. Even those fans with no appetite for algebraic gymnastics with their sport can easily recall some otherwise ordinary player who had a month or even two weeks that made him look like a lock for the Hall of Fame.
But the peril of the early part of the season is that a small sample is all you have to work with. Analysts get itchy trigger fingers, and thus we've been treated to a whole bunch of overheated thoughts on NBA subjects that deserved more data before conclusions could be reached.
This was especially true of the Nov. 3 trade between the Denver Nuggets and Detroit Pistons. The trade sent Allen Iverson to Motown in exchange for point guard Chauncey Billups, center Antonio McDyess and end-of-the-bench guy Cheikh Samb. (Okay, okay, end of the bench is not an official position, and Samb is a center, but his real role—as well as that of other 11th and 12th men across the league—is as a cheerleader wearing team sweats instead of spandex). The trade set off shockwaves. Blockbuster trades are no longer a rarity in the league; Iverson is in the last year of his contract, and Detroit GM Joe Dumars has said publicly that he wanted to shake up his team after a third straight loss in the Eastern conference finals. Still, no one expected a deal of this magnitude during the first week of the season.
Analysts rushed to praise Denver and for good reason. The trade better configures their talent. Billups is a better long-range shooter than Iverson (Chauncey is a career 38.6 percent shooter from behind the arc to the Answer's 31.4 percent). Thus he's more likely to punish opponents that double team Nuggets all-star forward Carmelo Anthony. Also Billups, 32, is a superb defender, and as a tall guard who rebounds and shoots well, his skill set is likely to decline at a much slower rate than the ultra athletic all-heart and desire play of the 33-year-old Iverson.
Most pundits were quick to figure that Detroit was pulling the plug on this season and setting their sites on 2010 when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, (each legend suddenly transformed back into their 22-year-old bodies) will all be available on the free-agent market.
This underestimated Dumars, who wasn't going to wait two years to field another contender, and it undersold Iverson. The analysis crowd reasoned that Iverson was too much of a me-first player to fit into Detroit's well-oiled system. The first few games after the trade certainly made the analysts look good. Detroit won their first four games of the season with a high-octane offense that scored 104.5 points per game. When they added Iverson, they sputtered for the first two games, losing both and scoring only 86 points per contest. Then the Pistons went out west and edged Sacramento and Golden State in sloppy games.
But, the wins did little to stop the doubters. Then, last Friday, the Pistons dismantled the previously undefeated Lakers. The final score was 106-95, and the Lakers had to full-court press for the final five minutes of the game to get the margin that close. The Pistons looked like the Pistons again, except instead of a sleek, bald guy running the offense there was a feisty, scrappy guy with cornrows and tattoos. Then to underscore that point, on Wednesday night they beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that had won eight straight.
Meanwhile with Billups at the helm, Denver has won seven of their last eight and look as if they are contenders in the Western Conference again. With Dallas and San Antonio faltering badly and New Orleans off to a slow start, Denver has a chance to secure a top four seed, and home court advantage in the first round. Like the Pistons, the Nuggets are restless despite a successful run. However, in each of the Denver's four seasons under coach George Karl, they haven't been the higher seed in the first round. This year, that may change.
It turns out that the trade will be one of those deals that help both teams, a win-win. The new looking Nuggets get their stiffest test on Friday night when they visit the Lakers. If they accomplish what the Pistons did last Friday, then there may be a new wave of blockbuster trades.
Meanwhile, the analyst crowd is already backtracking on the deal, and I bet that the chairmen of big three automakers in Detroit are wishing they could have Dumars do their bidding on Capitol Hill. The deals he makes from Auburn Hills are almost flawless; he seems to know more about making pistons run smoothly than they do.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.