Remembering one of the Great Trades in Sonics History

A decade ago today, the Sonics traded Gary Payton, and it seems like the anniversary has mostly been melancholy in tone. I get that — after all, I did once start a movement to keep the Sonics from trading GP. But it’s worth remembering that Payton and Desmond Mason for Ray Allen, Ronald “Flip” Murray, Kevin Ollie and a conditional first-round pick was one of the great trades in Sonics history, and responsible for any success the franchise had in its last five years in Seattle.

Let’s use my WARP metric to take a look at the players in the trade, including that pick, which was used on Luke Ridnour the following June:

         2003  2004  2005  2006  2007  2008   Total
Allen     6.5  10.6  12.3  13.6   9.5          52.5
Murray   -0.1   2.2  -1.1  -1.0                 0.0
Ollie     1.1                                   1.1
Ridnour         1.1   5.1   5.6   1.8  -0.2    13.4
Total     7.5  13.9  16.3  18.2  11.3  -0.2    67.0

         2003  2004  2005  2006  2007  2008   Total
Payton    3.5   7.1   4.9   1.2  -0.9          15.8
Mason     1.3   0.7  -0.2                       1.8
Total     4.8   7.8   4.7   1.2  -0.9          17.6

During four-plus seasons in Seattle, Allen was 52.5 wins better than a replacement-level player. If the Sonics had traded an aging Payton for Allen alone, it would have been a coup — most teams don’t get stars in their primes for ones who are pushing 35. Beyond that, Ridnour by himself was nearly as valuable as Payton over the next four years, making the deal a real win.

Part of the issue was that Mason, who was beloved in Seattle (especially by owner Howard Schultz, who never quite got over the fact that Payton cost him Mason), wasn’t actually all that good through the prism of advanced metrics. Mason specialized in long two-pointers, the worst shot in the game, and rarely got to the free throw line, making him an inefficient scorer. After a decent first couple of seasons in Milwaukee, he cratered and was one of the league’s least valuable players after a trade to New Orleans.

Though cynics will note that the Sonics weren’t especially good with the Allen/Ridnour backcourt, they would have been much worse with a re-signed Payton and Mason in those spots. The difference was 11 wins in 2004-05, or the gap between a surprise division championship (and playoff series win) and another .500 season. The following year, the 17-win difference would have caused the Sonics to bottom out a year before they actually did.

It’s hard to envision a way Payton’s Seattle career could have ended gracefully. He was able to step into a smaller role with the Lakers and Heat, but the superstars he deferred to never would have existed for the Sonics. Most likely, Payton would have gone down with the ship, yapping all the way. I’m glad that never happened.

In the end, everyone got something from the trade. The Sonics extended their window of competing in the West, Payton got a championship ring and he’ll still go into the Hall of Fame as a Sonic. There are plenty of things to lament from the last five years before the Sonics moved, but the Payton trade isn’t one of them.

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