Orlando Magic Acquire Rafer Alston: Statistical and Financial Analysis

As you've no doubt heard, the Orlando Magic--who as recently as 15 minutes before today's trading deadline did not have any deal on the table--have acquired 32-year-old point guard Rafer Alston from the Houston Rockets in exchange for power forward Brian Cook, pending league approval. Additionally, they sent center Adonal Foyle, point guard Mike Wilks, and a first-round draft pick in this year's draft to the Memphis Grizzlies, who in turn sent point guard Kyle Lowry to Houston. Here's a visual representation of the trade in ESPN.com's Trade Machine.

Once available, Alston will replace the 34-year-old Anthony Johnson in the Magic's starting lineup this season, and take over for him as the team's primary backup next season, when incumbent starter Jameer Nelson will return from the injury to the labrum in his right shoulder; he underwent season-ending surgery today, the team announced. Foyle, who has played only 29 minutes this season, and Wilks, who is out for the year due to a knee injury, are included in the deal for salary-matching purposes.

What follows the jump is a statistical and financial analysis of the deal.

Statistics

Rafter Alston and Anthony Johnson Statistics, 2008/2009 NBA Season
Rafer Alston profile page shot
Alston
vs. Anthony Johnson profile page shot
Johnson
Traditional
12.5 Points/36 9.2
3.3 Rebounds/36 3.5
5.8 Assists/36 4.9
2.0 Turnovers/36 1.7
37.0 FG% 39.5
34.8 3FG% 41.2
78.9 FT% 73.6
Advanced
12.8 PER 10.1
5.3 Rebound Rate 5.5
26.3 Assist Rate 20.6
13.4 Turnover Rate 16.0
19.0 Usage Rate 19.0
44.6 eFG% 47.0
48.4 TS% 50.3
104 Offensive Rating 106
107 Defensive Rating 105
See the complete comparison at Basketball-Reference.com by clicking here

From these data, we can glean that Alston is overall a better ballhandler than Johnson, with more assists and fewer turnovers. The red flag for Alston, though, is his usage rate. Playing alongside superstar center Yao Ming and "superstar" guard Tracy McGrady (a glorified role-player this season), Alston still managed to use nearly one-fifth of the Rockets' possessions when he was on the floor this year, which suggests that he's a guy who isn't necessarily aware of his limitations. Johnson, in contrast, seems to know better than to shoot 11 times per game, as Alston did in Houston; thus, his usage rate is only three-quarters of what Alston's is.

Another discrepancy comes in the form of three-point shooting, where Johnson has been surprisingly well above-average. In Nelson's absence, Orlando has given more playmaking duties to Hedo Turkoglu, who has been able to drive the lane and dish to Johnson for a spot-up jumper. Johnson is somewhat reliable in catch-and-shoot situations. The problem with playing Johnson off the ball is that it means Turkoglu is handling it more, and although he's shown he can make plays for his teammates, it's taking its toll on his shooting. In the six full games since Nelson went out, Turkoglu is shooting 35.6% from the field and scoring 14.3 points per game. His pure point rating is 1.96, which is better than his season average of 1.5, but that slight increase in passing efficiency doesn't offset the decrease in scoring. Simply put, Alston will take pressure off Turkoglu, which should in turn improve the offense.

The defense is harder to quantify. Basketball-Reference's Defensive Rating shows Johnson to be the better player. However, BasketballValue's two-year adjusted plus-minus show that Alston is better, as his rating is -4.89, as opposed to Johnson's -7.69. Anecdotally, Alston is much quicker than Johnson, which hopefully means he will do a better job of staying in front of his man than Johnson has.

It's worth noting that Alston played one year for Magic coach Stan Van Gundy when Van Gundy coached the Miami Heat in 2003/2004. Alston played all 82 games. In 28 starts, he averaged 12.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 3.2 turnovers on 39.7% shooting from the field in 40.7 (!) minutes per game. Of course, Alston is no longer 27 years old, and has lost a step or two. However, he's still several steps quicker than Johnson.

If you're curious to see how Alston's performance this year compares to the performances of the Magic's backup point guards last year, you're in luck. Alston's PER is identical to Carlos Arroyo's, largely due to his significantly lower turnover rate. He does not compare as favorably to Keyon Dooling, which is to be expected. And, of the three, Alston is the worst shooter.

Ultimately, Alston isn't a great player by any means--our colleagues at The Dream Shake, who have watched Alston play in 267 games for Houston over the last 4 seasons, are ecstatic that he's gone--he's still an improvement over Johnson, who is best served as a third-stringer anyway. Short-term, the Magic upgraded their starting point guard position; longer-term, they upgraded their backup point guard position, and it only cost them three marginal players who rarely entered games. Alston won't push the Magic over the top this year, but he will probably provide steady backup minutes next year, when the Magic will seriously contend for a title again, as they were earlier this year before Nelson's injury. The trade isn't a home run, but it's a low-risk, high-reward move.

Finances

In today's NBA, finances are arguably more important than talent when it comes to evaluating trades. Any trade that compromises long-term financial flexibility would be a bad one in Orlando's small market, especially considering the team just took out a $10 million loan from the NBA. Fortunately, the Magic don't lose much money in this deal. Alston is owed $4.9 million this year and $5.25 million next, after which he will become an unrestricted free agent. Cook has a $3.5 million player option for next season, which he'll certainly exercise. Additionally, first-round draft picks are owed guaranteed money depending on at which pick they were selected. We could realistically expect the Magic to be on the hook for up to $1 million, which is what George Hill, last year's 26th draft pick, is making. Essentially, the difference between what the Magic will pay Alston next year and what they would have paid Cook and their draft pick is $750,000, or the value of one veteran's-minimum contract. That amount should not significantly impact their ability to re-sign Hedo Turkoglu this summer in what will certainly be a buyer's market for free agents.

There's another financial benefit. Suppose the Magic find themselves in a great position at this time next year, perhaps with one of the league's best records. Then suppose they believe they're one player away from winning the championship. Then suppose there are trade-asset-laden teams looking to cut salary in anticipation of 2010's absurdly star-studded free-agent pool. The Magic will have Alston's $5.25 million contract to offer, as well as Tony Battie's $6.29 million contract. Hypothetically, they could package them in a blockbuster move, deal them separately to acquire similarly talented players at different positions, or simply keep them and free-up salary for 2010. To be clear, even with $11.54 million coming off the books, the Magic won't be able to land a top-flight star, especially when factoring in Turkoglu's new contract. However, there are worse things than having some cap space; flexibility doesn't hurt.

Conclusion

It's hard not to like this deal from the Magic's perspective. I'm not as enthusiastic as Michael White, but it is indeed good to know that the Magic have not quite given up on this season, as I believed they had. (Part of my apathy toward last night's 32-point loss to the New Orleans Hornets stemmed from acceptance that this season was effectively over). Although Kelly Dwyer is right when he says the Magic probably got the second-best point guard in the deal--Lowry is 10 years younger than Alston--I believe Alston is more likely to contribute immediately. The Magic should be in the market for a younger backup to Jameer Nelson, but that's a personnel move that can wait. For now, the Magic have made their splash, and it's clear they are back in "win-now" mode.

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