Chandler, Asik are centers of attention

Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas and New Orleans – two teams firmly in battle for playoff contention in West – add starting centers one day before NBA Draft

By: Joe Mags

The NBA off-season kicked into high gear on Wednesday with only so many hours before Thursday night’s NBA Draft. Two Western Conference opponents vying for a seed in next season’s grueling playoff picture made proactive moves to add starting big men – moves that included sacrificing long-term assets and/or taking on undesirable contracts.

Woj reported early in the day that Dallas and New York were working on a deal to send Tyson Chandler back to the Mavericks, and the deal was finalized hours later. Dallas reacquires the starting center on their championship team in 2011, and a player who has made All-Defensive teams in three of the last four seasons. Chandler, the Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, when healthy, is a complete upgrade at center over Samuel Dalembert, who was moved to New York in the deal.

Dalembert exceeded expectations in Dallas this season in terms of health; he only missed two regular season games, and played in all seven games in their first round series against San Antonio. He averaged 6.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a night during the season with career-high 57 percent shooting from the field. But the team scored better when he was off the floor, and Chandler is a clear upgrade on the defensive end.

Chandler, ironically, might be the larger injury concern these days. He missed 16 and 27 games the last two seasons respectively, and has struggled to make the same impact at the rim he did in 2011 and 2012. But if Rick Carlisle manages his minutes correctly, Chandler adds much needed size to the front court of the Association’s ninth-worst defense per 100 possessions last season.

They gave up a heck of a lot to acquire Chandler, however, a player who they could still have under contract had they paid him in the summer of 2011 instead of whiffing on Dwight Howard and Deron Williams. New York has saddled Dallas with Raymond Felton, who will cost $4.5 million per year until the summer of 2016. Felton and Chandler combined next season will make about $18 million, and Dallas is committing this money to them before re-signing Dirk Nowitzki or any of its other free agents.

Additionally, Dallas sent three assets of significant value to New York: point guard Jose Calderon, 21-year-old point guard Shane Larkin and the No. 34 pick in the draft.

Knicks fans must think they are dreaming. They turned two bad contracts into (A) one of the best shooters in basketball, (B) Larkin, who is over night the best young player on the team, (C) and actual draft picks (No. 34/51) in an actual draft – and a strong draft at that.

Some despise Calderon’s contract – a deal that will give the Spaniard $7.1, $7.4 and $7.8 million, respectively, the next three seasons. But Phil Jackson needs shooters and play-making ability at the guard positions. No matter how much of a sieve Calderon can be on the defensive end, a $7 million point guard who can shoot and pass is a luxury in the NBA; it frees the team to use large chunks of cap space on other positions. The point guard position in New York went from arguably the worst in the sport to promising with Calderon and Larkin, one of the brightest young guards in basketball. They even added shooter Wayne Ellington, an undersized two-guard, but a talented shooter who might stick in Jackson’s Triangle.

And the Knicks have actual draft picks now. This is a huge turnaround from an organization that threw draft picks away like Jordan Belfort throwing away $100 bills in Wolf of Wall Street. The No. 34 pick in Thursday’s draft is of high value; prospects like P.J. Hairston, Markel Brown and Mitch McGary would not be on the board at No. 34 last season. (Okay, maybe McGary would still be there.) Anybody they take at N0. 34, as well as the No. 51 pick, will help their rebuilding effort; the Knicks currently have one of the oldest and desiccated rosters in basketball.

New York bought themselves these resources by unloading two bad contracts. Dallas is an organization so confident in its ability to maximize the presence of veterans – and reinserting Chandler into his previous role – that they were willing to part ways with these resources for a chance to stay in the playoff picture. This move is doubly interesting to the Maverick’s playoff chances after the second big trade on Wednesday.

Houston is sending center Omer Asik to New Orleans for a future first-round pick. The Rockets are also sending $1.5 million in cash to the Pellies for good measure. The transparency of this move is that Houston badly wants to open cap space for one (or two) major off-season acquisitions.

New Orleans has been interested in Asik ever since Howard made him expendable in Houston. The darling trade rumor of the fall was Asik for Ryan Anderson, a move that would have reunited Anderson with Howard, and given future face-of-the-sport Anthony Davis more protection in the front court. Half of that move was always on the table – New Orleans and Asik are a match made in heaven – but Anderson was too high of a price tag. Now with the added urgency of the NBA Draft and the upcoming free agency bonanza, Houston was willing to settle for an asset that will not count against the cap for a year (or longer).

The first round pick appears to be protected so that if New Orleans nets a pick in between No. 4-19 it will go to Houston next season, and if it is No. 20 or higher or in the Top 3 (both highly unlikely scenarios) then it would stay with New Orleans for another year.

Everybody wins. Houston does not want to add a first round pick’s salary to their cap sheet until 2015 at the earliest, and New Orleans does not want to overprotect the pick – a scenario where year-after-year the pick returns to New Orleans, dragging out their obligation to Houston. Something important to note about New Orleans: since drafting Anthony Davis in 2012, they have forfeited three years worth of first round picks – two first rounders for Jrue Holiday and this future pick for Asik. The Pelicans are building around Davis with trade acquisitions and free agency, taking on “young” talent on second contracts, a much more expensive approach to team building than through the draft.

Without a first round pick to move, dealing Eric Gordon and his abominable contract will be near to impossible, which means they are stuck with him until the summer of 2016. New Orleans has little to no cap room the next two seasons, and their first opportunity to sign Davis long-term is fast approaching next summer. As long as Davis is on board, New Orleans is as intriguing a team in basketball. It’s only a matter of time before he truly breaks out, and it’s possible that the Pelican’s approach of surrounding him with talented, experienced players in their 20s will pay dividends; New Orleans might have a shot of going from out of the playoffs one season to the top of the West in another.

Houston is going to continue making these types of moves. Jeremy Lin will be traded, even if it means sending out the first round pick they just received from New Orleans. They are capable of just about anything this summer: signing Carmelo Anthony, trading for Kevin Love, signing LeBron James and then trading for Carmelo Anthony. Anything is possible. Houston does not want to stay a middle seed in the loaded West. They might be a move or two away from leapfrogging Oklahoma City and Los Angeles.

Joe Mags (@JoeMags_hoops) is a staff writer for and interning for the Watertown Daily Times. Peace, love, recycle and ball.

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