Putting on a Fertility Clinic: CLE/CHI Trade Thoughts

"Fertility Clinic photograhs on MY Gothic Ginobili? It's more likely than you think."

"Fertility Clinic photographs on MY Gothic Ginobili? It's more likely than you think."

If I had to venture a guess, I'd assume that most of our readers aren't married with children. It's okay, friends. I'm not either. But if there's one piece of advice I would -- and have! -- given to virtually all of my friends who eventually want to be mothers and fathers, it's to eschew sweating the small stuff and make absolutely positive they cut into the context of any childbirth statistics ever given in an effort to push them into a certain course of action. This is important in all walks of life, obviously, but it's never more important than it is when you're dealing with something as important as a child. Whether the data is inspiring them to get a child or entreating refrain, it's a decision that's way too important to let apocryphal data and societal mores dictate the way you and your partner proceed. There's an exceedingly excellent case study to this effect centered around a truism presented as statistical fact by a vast majority of the doctors advising on childbirth in the 21st century.

"One out of three women over the age of 35 will not have conceived after a year of trying."

Simple, short, sweet. If you want kids, everyone had better start before 35, or you're in for years and years of sitcom-quality disappointment! Built in laugh tracks and sad trombones will follow you around as the process goes awry again and again. If you're looking for a fulfilling child-filled life, better jump in the sack early and conceive as soon as possible. Get on it! There's just one small nit to pick with this conclusion, and it has to do with the data the statistic is based on. It's not that it's without data. In fact, it's got some very strong data behind it, at least compared to a lot of the bunk medical statistics that inundate junk science and crazy recommendations. It's from a dataset of 3,508 families from church records spanning over 150 years. It included rural areas and areas of significantly higher socioeconomic status. It was performed in France, a decent reflection of the world at the time.

The problem: this 150 year study spanned 1630 to 1780. That's right -- the statistic doctors and armchair experts love to cite when convincing women to bear children early is based on a study that's well over 200 years old. Things were a little bit different back then. For one thing, lower life expectancy meant that at birth, the average person would be dead by 39. (Modern medicine has pushed the expected-age-at-death upon birth all the way up to 70 this past year.) Women who were between 20 and 24 years old at marriage bore 7 children on average, with only 3.7% of them remaining childless. (That's 2.6 children per women today, at least in the United States.) The most important part? There was absolutely no fertility treatment in that day and age, no contraceptives, and no widely available healthcare at all. There were midwives to help the birth along but little guidance on moving the process along, something we have in spades today.

Although women do clearly lose fertility at a certain age, there's scant little present-day evidence supporting the idea that modern infertility dawns before 40. In fact, there are a number of important studies to the contrary. A 2004 study found that 82% of 35-39 year old women conceived within a year (as compared to 86% of 27-34-year-olds, hardly a vast gap). A 2013 study found that 78% of 35-40-year-olds conceived within a year. Some smart takes have suggested the gap is rooted less in an inherent tendency of older women with children being slightly less fertile to begin with, noting that the most fertile ladies have a higher probability of "accidentally" filling out their family earlier and that women who are fastidious about birth control usage have roughly the same chance of a mid-20s woman of bearing children easily.

My point, in short: even strong data with a huge sample size and a large tail is eventually made obsolete.  The study that doctors are referring to with the scare statistic on women in their 30s is very real, and it's one of the best pieces of data we have from back in the 1700s. It's immensely valuable to historians and it's immensely interesting to analyze. But that's about as far as we can take it. The surrounding facts are simply too different to easily generalize the findings of generations past in a modern context, and citing it when discussing modern decisions is about as irresponsible as advice wrought from citing no data at all.

 • • •

On Monday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers swapped Andrew Bynum's non-guaranteed $12 million dollar salary for half a year of Luol Deng. As sweeteners, the Cavaliers threw in two second round draft picks, a protected-to-the-moon Sacramento draft pick, and the lottery-protected right to swap picks in the 2015 draft. For the Bulls, this was considered a decent haul for a player they weren't intending on paying going forward. Expiring contracts don't mean much in the modern NBA, and as Bill Simmons might say: any time you can pick up three draft picks and save money, "you have to do it."

A lot of the analysis of the trade was focused on Cleveland's future. Most of this analysis ended up rather negative. After all, the future plan here isn't exactly golden. What's Cleveland really doing? At 11-23, the Cavaliers entered the trade at 3 games out of the Eastern Conference playoffs with three teams separating them and the eight seed. Deng should improve them, but they can reasonably expect New York and Brooklyn to be improved in the season's second half as well. Not to mention the obvious fact that they looked like a solid lottery team in the much-ballyhooed "best draft in the history of the human race." (OK, nobody's said that. They've just heavily implied it and been hilariously overenthusiastic about it.) Why give that up -- and draft picks! -- on a lark?

All that said? I think both these conclusions are a bit hasty. The way I look at the trade is thus: Cleveland just acquired an immensely solid player that fits perfectly with their long-contract coach's style and playbook. The player in question is currently having the best season of his career on a cap-friendly expiring deal that neither imperils their summer cap space nor takes minutes from any in-position rookie. Acquiring a player like that is rare. Very rare, actually. Anthony Bennett might lose a few of his struggling out-of-position minutes, but that's probably for the best when it comes to his future development. It's very easy to mention the assets Cleveland liquidated in scare quotes and laugh lines. "The Cavs just gave up three draft picks on a rental! What's wrong with them? WHAT'S UP WITH THAT?" It's true -- their future is confounding, and their goals are a bit unclear. But what assets did they really give up? To wit:

  • 2015 Portland Trail Blazers second round pick: Unless the Blazers implode in a flaming rush of flighty glory, chances are pretty high that Portland's 2015 season looks a lot like Portland's 2014 season. At least in broad strokes. I'd say 50 wins or so is the most likely scenario, barring a crazy injury, and that should be enough to push this pick into the second round's bottom ten. Let's say 50.
  • 2016 Portland Trail Blazers second round pick: Handicapping a team two years in the future is difficult. But Aldridge and Lillard should still be in their primes, and the team as a whole is quite young. So I don't see any particular reason why we shouldn't expect another win total in the 50s in 2016, either.
  • The Most Protected First Round Pick Ever: Okay, that's really quite unfair. But it was essentially the point when Sacramento traded the pick in the first place, and it remains the point today. If the Kings finish with a top-12 pick in 2014, they will not convey the pick this year. As they currently stand at 11-22 (on pace for the fourth overall pick), that seems exceedingly unlikely. In 2015 and 2016, the pick is protected such that if they finish with a top-10 pick, it doesn't convey. I did some simple math to calculate the average win-range of the 11th worst record in the league. The range spanned 35-40 wins. It's not unattainable for Sacramento, but it's going to be rather difficult -- DeMarcus Cousins is having an all-star caliber offensive season this year and Isaiah Thomas is at the peak of his potential. They're still one of the worst defensive teams in the league, and in a conference like the modern West, it's hard to see them winning 35-40 games unless they manage to adapt defensively in such a way that lets them stop a team or two. Will the rookies of the next few years improve the Kings defensively enough so that 40 wins is realistic? Color me unsure. Best case scenario would be the 11th pick in either draft. Worst case? If the pick doesn't convey in 2015 or 2016, it becomes Sacramento's 2017 second round pick, which is problematic given that 2017 is far enough away that it's easier to imagine a better-constructed roster having taken hold at that point.
  • Lottery-protected swap rights in 2015: This is an asset for Chicago, as it represents a potential maximum pick gain of (if they have the best record and the Cavaliers are the worst playoff team) around 15 spots, and gives their own pick more upside in trade talks if they decide to flip some of their now-owned picks for veterans that can bolster Rose after his return next season. This is also quite possibly one of the easiest things Cleveland has ever given up. Look at it this way: if the Cavs fail to improve enough to make the playoffs this season or next, they'll keep their lottery pick and give up nothing. If they improve enough to make the playoffs this season, the general youth of their team would have them internally thinking they'll have the potential to make the leap to a 4/5 seed team next season and lose -- at worst -- 4-5 spots in the draft to Chicago. And this whole strategy is a very high-upside/low-downside one for Chicago -- if Chicago flames out and ends up a marginal playoff team next year, the swap could be as little as one or two picks or -- if they miss the playoffs (a situation more possible than most care to admit) -- completely impossible.

When you take the picks out of the amorphous and scary "three draft picks" verbiage, it becomes a lot less enticing. And Chicago's haul in the trade becomes a lot less fun for Bulls fans. At their very best, barring future moves, they'll have a pick at #11 overall (ideally in 2015, since they'll want their high pick to be contributing at a high level at some point before Noah's body gives out), two picks in the fifties, and... maybe they get to pick a few spots higher in the 2015 draft? The real benefit for them is the one that Cleveland didn't care much about at all -- Bynum's contract was only half-guaranteed, and to my knowledge, Cleveland's already paid almost all of that guaranteed money. Reinsdorf saved something in the neighborhood of $20 million dollars on the deal, which was the real reason the Bulls traded away the guy who was playing the best ball in Chicago for four shaky assets. Cleveland was going to waive Bynum regardless -- this trade allowed them to flip some of their shakiest, lowest-probability assets and a contract they didn't care about for a player that could -- quite possibly -- end up as a big part of their long term plan, a la David West in Indiana. As the Gilberts might say: "what's not to like?"

• • •

"No, Manu, get back to the end of the draft order. Future people need you for some specious arguments."

One last thing, and a tie-in to the earlier tangent regarding fertility rates. (No, that wasn't the start of an attempt to gradually turning Gothic Ginobili into a blog about historical fertility, tempting though that may be.) One of the oft-repeated truisms that's been shared ad nauseum in response to any ambivalence about these so-called "assets" is the idea that every draft pick is an asset. After all, you can find talent everywhere in the draft. Manu Ginobili was selected at 57. Isaiah Thomas was selected at 60. Tons of great undrafted players make the league every year. There's still talent down there, and we need to always state that and heavily price it in when assessing the value of late second round picks. Right?

You know what? No. Not right. It's a factor, and it's context that needs to be noted. But it's also incredibly misleading without the contrary context. When doctors and armchair fertility experts cite scare quotes about the women-over-35 statistic, they're being intellectually dishonest despite being factual and accurate. Lies by omission can be as insidious as simply making things up. When someone makes things up it's generally easy to track back their statement and discover they were lying to begin with. It's significantly harder to take a factually correct statement and discover what contextually made it inappropriate for your situation. And simply stating "Manu got picked there" as though it invalidates aspersions to the draft pick's value ignores a lot of the context around Manu getting picked there at all, not to mention the basic context about relative pick value in the first place.

In the 1990s, foreign scouting wasn't just a small-scale enterprise. It was virtually nonexistent. At the time Manu was drafted, he'd been leading professional basketball teams since the age of 17 and putting up high-quality numbers for four years. He was an athletic NBA-size player with a beautiful game and a ridiculous work ethic. In the modern world, a player like Manu Ginobili would be isolated much like Ricky Rubio -- he'd be on the radar of NBA teams from 14-15 years old, and competing internationally at a very young age. This is not to say that every single market inefficiency that keeps a player from being picked early is gone. There will always be new places to find value, and there will be ways to get decent value at that range of the draft. But it IS to say that as scouting has improved and international players have made their mark on the league, the exact market inefficiency that caused a Hall of Fame player like Manu Ginobili to go in the late 50s has closed. And it's difficult to imagine what future market inefficiency would cause something as unfathomably unlikely as that to ever happen again.

And none of this even gets into the biggest issue in treating all draft picks as amorphous "assets" -- draft picks are all assets, but the NBA's extremely late draft picks are akin to playing scratch cards for $50 winnings. To try and support the case of "value in the late draft", a good friend and quality analyst in Kevin Draper sent the following 17 player list of good players that were picked in the late 50s or undrafted: Manu Ginobili, Kyle Korver, Marcin Gortat, Amir Johnson, Ramon Sessions, Patty Mills, Isaiah Thomas, E'Twaun Moore, Chris Andersen, Udonis Haslem, Jeremy Lin, Jose Calderon, Wesley Matthews, Anthony Morrow, Reggie Evans, J.J. Barea, Chuck Hayes. It's a great list, and it does much to support the idea that smart teams can find some value in the late reaches of the draft.

But, again, consider context -- that list of 16 players arrived over fourteen years of draft picks.

Assuming that every season there are 11 picks from 50-60 and about 10 guys who went undrafted that'll make the league (a fairway assumption, I admit, but a lowball one), that's still something in the neighborhood of sixteen NBA-quality rotation players out of a group of THREE HUNDRED OR MORE POSSIBLE PLAYERS. Sixteen in three hundred! That's around a 5% chance of the pick panning out, if you're counting. That means a draft pick in the 50s is an asset where 95% of the time you're looking at a wasted roster spot or a waived player with no recognizable value to the team. Five percent of the time, if you're lucky, you might get a guy like Patty Mills or Reggie Evans, a 9th or 10th man that you could've gotten for a few million on the open market. And then, if your team is really really lucky, and your scouting department is years ahead of the game on a glaring market inefficiency that nobody else has keyed into yet, you might get the next Manu Ginobili. Oy gevalt.

Draft picks are valuable. Unbelievably so. But a draft pick cannot only be valued by its very highest upside potentiality -- it must be valued rationally as a function of the upside, the downside, and the overall likelihood of both. For low draft picks, they're genuinely low-upside value plays with extraordinarily low probabilities on the upside scenario. The Cavaliers are flush with draft picks in a general sense -- even after trading away three draft picks, they still have four first round draft picks in the next two years and four second round draft picks as well. (Yes, that's right -- pre-trade, the Cavs had eleven draft picks in the next two years. Gilbert had officially become the exact opposite of Ted Stepien.) They flipped the uncertainty inherent in their two least valuable second round picks, a contract they were going to waive anyway, and their amorphous protected first round pick for an expiring deal on a player they've coveted for a while.

What's more, that player fits. Very well. He plays their by-far worst position and doesn't crowd out the minutes of any of their younger players. He fits well with their long-contract coach. If Cleveland didn't hit a slam dunk on this trade (and indeed got as "embarrassed" as some very smart analysts have said), is it even possible for a non-title-contending team to "win" a trade in media discourse if they give up a single draft pick? Does giving up draft picks -- no matter how low-upside those draft picks may be -- foment an instant loss in every trade for a team that isn't playing for June? Perhaps, but I don't think so. Question Cleveland's future plan all you want -- it's about as questionable a future plan as they come. But they weren't being irrational, and they definitely weren't getting bilked.

Special thanks to the December 2013 issue of Significance magazine for alerting me to the fertility story. I enjoyed it.

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