Let the NBA Trading Season Begin

This is what the NBA wanted in rejiggering the rules during the lockout of 2011 — shorter contracts, more teams hoarding cap space, and more players flying around the league into those acres of open space.

League higher-ups called it “player-sharing.” That’s a fancy way of saying, “HOLY CRAP THE DRAFT HASN’T EVEN HAPPENED YET AND THE NBA IS IN FULL-ON CRAZY OFFSEASON MODE.” This is a success from a business standpoint. It remains unclear whether the NBA can reconcile the goal of greater player churn with its good-hearted impulse toward competitive balance. Can the league engineer increased player-sharing while still giving incumbent teams enough of a home-team advantage in keeping their own free agents?

That’s a question for another day–year–lockout from hell. Rim protection is a massively valuable NBA skill, and the final day before the lauded 2014 draft saw two teams happily trade away legit rim-protecting centers for uncertain return. Welcome to the silly season, everyone.

Click here for more on 2014 NBA free agency.

The Rockets finally found poor, sweaty Omer Asik a new home in New Orleans, where he will start next to the league’s next great superstar. Houston’s end game has been obvious for months. They are angling to clear enough cap space to realistically chase a third superstar in free agency — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, or perhaps even Kevin Love via some unexpected trade.

Dealing Asik for zero players in return is step one. Asik is a valuable backup, even with Dwight Howard in place at his position, and Houston could have held off dealing him into someone else’s cap space until it had a firm commitment from one of those superstars during July free agency.

But acting early here was the smart move. The Rockets know that a ton of teams with superstar dreams will be looking to dump salary in order to free up cap space, and they got ahead of that market by preying on a Pelicans team hell-bent on making the playoffs next season. The Rockets snared New Orleans’s 2015 first-round pick, and the two teams cooperated to put some intriguing protections on that sucker. The Pelicans will keep the pick next season only if it falls within the top three or after no. 20; the Rockets get it if it falls somewhere in between those spots, per sources close to the talks.

Houston pioneered the top-and-bottom protection in the Kyle Lowry trade, and getting New Orleans to limit the top protection to the first three picks is a freaking home run. People laughed at Houston for overplaying its hand in December, when it set an artificial deadline in the Asik sweepstakes and demanded massive returns — including asking Charlotte for two first-round picks and the right to swap first-rounders in the draft after those initial first-round picks. The Rockets, the league snickered, had outsmarted themselves into signing Asik (and Jeremy Lin) to back-loaded contracts that carried $15 million balloon payments in Year 3. Who wanted that?

The Pelicans, apparently. The balloon payment hurts, but the Rockets structured the Asik-Lin contracts so that they only count for $8.3 million against the cap next season. That’s much easier to trade without having to take on any salary in return. New Orleans will have to clear some space to absorb Asik’s cap hit, and there are rumblings that the Pellies have at least one other moved planned atop this one.

Houston took a combined cap hit of $16.6 million on Asik over two seasons and dumped him ahead of a third season in which he will make nearly that much. They got a valuable pick in return — a cheap young player down the line, or perhaps a trade asset. No one is laughing now. Getting a killer first-rounder for an expiring contract in this market is a great move, and Houston’s new pick might come in higher than the Wizards pick that Phoenix got in last season’s Marcin Gortat trade — a similar deal, though one that also netted Phoenix a second valuable trade chip in Emeka Okafor’s deal. (The Wiz are also something of an indirect winner here. Dallas nabbing Tyson Chandler from the Knicks likely erases the most aggressive potential suitor for Gortat.)

The Rockets still have work to do. Dumping Lin for nothing will leave Houston with about $17 million in cap space, not enough to lure LeBron or Melo without coaxing a pay cut out of them. But Houston could clear an extra couple million in space easily, and nabbing an extra first-rounder might make them comfortable trading away their no. 25 pick in this draft if need be. Daryl Morey is loath to surrender picks outside of mega-deals, and Houston can cut costs in other ways. The game is afoot.

The Pelicans have now dealt away first-round picks in three consecutive drafts. That is not, um, ideal. This is what happens when an aging owner bellows a playoffs-or-bust mandate at a GM, in this case Dell Demps, entering the final year of his contract with shaky job security.

It’s not that Asik is unhelpful. The Pelicans need to save Anthony Davis from some of the banging that comes with guarding beefy centers, and the Asik-Davis pairing should shore up a disorganized defense that ranked 26th last season in points allowed per possession. Monty Williams has been adamant that Davis is not a center, and the Pelicans last season rolled out the league’s most depressing set of revolving-door centers in an effort to protect Davis. There aren’t really any attainable centers the Pelicans could have signed in free agency without surrendering some asset in a sign-and-trade.

Asik is a massive upgrade, a legit rim protector with good footwork against the pick-and-roll. He’s about to turn 28, so he fits the Demps model of acquiring young or mid-career veterans. Williams had New Orleans blitzing the pick-and-roll far from the basket last season, but he really prefers to blitz with his power forward (Davis) and have his center (Asik) hang closer to the rim. He can create that reality this season, and Asik’s top-flight rebounding will be a boon for a team that struggled on the glass.

Williams has taken a lot of heat for the Pelicans’ performance since Chris Paul left, but New Orleans was average defensively in 2011-12 without Paul, and they were borderline elite in Paul’s last season there — when Williams had two skilled bigs in Okafor and David West. New Orleans should be much better defensively next season, especially if Jrue Holiday is healthy up top, and they were surprisingly good on offense last season considering the hail of injuries that befell them.

New Orleans will crow about getting Asik without surrendering Ryan Anderson, but getting a real center was always going to create a logjam up front. Neither Anderson nor Davis can play on the wing, though Williams tried it for tiny stretches early last season. There are 96 minutes among the big-man positions, and Davis needs to play at least 35 of them. That leaves about 30 apiece for Anderson and Asik, and we haven’t even introduced a fourth big man or allowed for the possibility of playing a bit of small ball.

This isn’t a disaster. Asik tires under heavy minutes, leaving plenty of time for Williams to roll out the unguardable Anderson-Davis front line. It might be ideal to spot that duo minutes against opposing backups, since enemy offenses have absolutely torched the Davis-Anderson combo over the last two seasons, per NBA.com. Anderson also needs to prove he’s healthy after some scary injuries last season.

The cost of all this has just been painful — Nerlens Noel, the no. 10 pick tonight, and a third first-rounder that may well fall in the lottery. The Pelicans will be better next season, but it’s not clear if this is a playoff team in the loaded West. New Orleans finished stronger than expected, at least before Davis faded out of the lineup due to injury, and Tyreke Evans went bananas as a starter down the stretch.

But last season was basically a throwaway, and it’s unclear what role Evans might play this year. Unloading Eric Gordon’s bloated contract would free a starting spot for him, but the Pelicans no longer have a tradable future pick to attach to Gordon in trade talks.

The team may also need to retain Asik after next season, when he’ll be a free agent, and re-signing him at market value would vaporize most of their projected cap room.

But this team isn’t about cap room. It’s about winning now, with players in their mid-twenties. And there may be other moves coming down the pike. But it’s unclear how much winning these guys can really do, and the risk of falling short and surrendering another lottery pick is borderline catastrophic.

♦♦♦

The West is even more loaded today, after the Mavericks flipped Jose Calderon, Samuel “Alarm Clock” Dalembert, and a bundle of assets for Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton’s gun collection.

Chandler is nearly 32, and he’s been banged up almost continuously for the last two seasons. He declined visibly last season in New York, playing without his usual urgency and pitch-perfect timing. Chandler has always been a wizard at helping just long enough to deter an opponent’s attack, returning to his man at just the right instant, and preventing that guy from either getting the ball or scoring. Lose a half-step and that trick becomes much tougher.

But Chandler was clearly demoralized playing for an awful New York team and in a defensive system that bizarrely tried to minimize his help responsibilities against pick-and-roll actions like this:

By the end, there was clear friction between players represented by Creative Artists Agency and players, like Chandler, who are not. Be careful buying the logic that losing Chandler makes it more likely Carmelo Anthony leaves New York, and that Dallas, by getting Chandler, has now positioned itself as a front-runner for Anthony. The reverse could be true for both teams.

Melo is one end goal for Dallas here. The trade adds about $5 million in 2014-15 salary for Dallas, but it still has only about $34.7 million committed to seven players. Adding about $10 million for Dirk Nowitzki, a lock to re-sign at a discount, would leave Dallas with about $17 million in cap space once you pile up charges for empty roster spots.

That’s about $5 million short of what LeBron and Melo can command, and those are the sorts of targets Dallas has in mind. “LeBron is out there,” Dirk Nowitzki told me at halftime of Steve Nash’s charity soccer game in New York on Wednesday. “And I’m hearing Carmelo is looking at us.” (Note: Dirk’s primary contribution to that soccer game was somehow kicking the ball over the 30-foot fence surrounding the field a half-dozen times.)

That $17 million in cap room might be overstating things, too. It includes nothing for three valuable rotation guys in Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, and Devin Harris, and the Mavs still need help across the roster. Gal Mekel is the only true point guard left, even though Monta Ellis often acted as lead ball handler in what became a deadly pick-and-roll relationship with Dirk. They still need ballhandling, and getting Harris back becomes a huge priority. “He was great for us,” Nowitzki told me. “You never know how someone will come back from a major surgery, but [he] was great.”

The wing is barren after Ellis and Jae Crowder, and the front line consists of just three players: Nowitzki, Chandler, and Brandan Wright. Two of those guys are old, and only one plays above-average defense. The Mavs could clear more space by dumping Wright’s $5 million expiring, but he was a valuable pick-and-roll dive man off the bench last season, especially in concert with the ageless Carter. They could always use the stretch provision on Felton, though the Mavs likely think they can rehabilitate him; it wasn’t long ago that Felton was at least a league-average 3-point shooter.

Dallas has big dreams, but the more likely scenario has it missing on the starry names and reloading with a pile of the “pretty good” guys it loves so much — its own free agents from last season, plus at least one guy in the $8 million to $10 million range, like Luol Deng or Pau Gasol.

And that’s a dangerous team. Dallas played San Antonio better than anyone in the postseason, and we have years of evidence that Dirk + Rick Carlisle + shooting + a rim protector = trouble.

The team’s overall shooting takes a hit without Calderon. He’s not a dynamic off-the-bounce creator, but he’s one of the greatest 3-point shooters in league history, and he worked well as a spot-up guy away from the ball while Ellis handled it. The Calderon-Nowitzki right-side pick-and-roll was a legit secondary weapon, and the Mavs ran all sorts of cool decoy actions to free Calderon for triples:

Harris isn’t a long-range threat, Felton was awful last season, and nobody guards Marion — even though he had a T. rex corner 3 revival last season. The Mavs will have to search out shooting somewhere beyond Carter. “Jose is one of the best shooters in the league,” Nowitzki told me. “Every time he shot a stand-still 3, I thought it was going in. Nowadays in the league, spreading the floor with shooting is vital. If this trade goes through, we’d love to get another couple of shooters.”

But the Calderon-Ellis duo was unplayable defensively. Dallas knew that and turned Calderon into a rim protection upgrade over Dalembert. Chandler isn’t the player he was two seasons ago, but he can play longer minutes than Dalembert, and he’s a much more dynamic pick-and-roll threat. Dallas made hay in its title year running Chandler down the gut with Nowitzki spotting up around him. That wasn’t really a dangerous thing with Dalembert, and neither Wright nor DeJuan Blair (also a free agent) bring Chandler’s combination of explosiveness and defense.

The Mavs offense also functioned a hair better when Calderon sat, in part because of the creative way in which Carlisle mixes and matches his starters and bench guys.

The cost for Dallas is only medium. Larkin projects as a backup point guard at best. The 51st pick is a shot in the dark. Losing the 34th pick hurts, since it’s basically a first-rounder on a much cheaper contract. Dallas needs assets to prep for the post-Dirk reality, and it keeps trading them away (or whiffing on picks).

But this is going to be a dangerous team next season, and the Mavs are focused on maximizing Dirk’s remaining years.

The Knicks might have been able to get more for Chandler — Houston got more for Asik — and they appear to have done only initial due diligence with teams who might have been interested in Chandler. The candidates are obvious: New Orleans, Denver, Sacramento, Charlotte, perhaps a couple of others.

But Dallas has been hard after Chandler for weeks, and the Knicks covet Calderon for his fit within the triangle offense. New York’s lust for a point guard probably limited the number of teams who worked as realistic trade matches for Chandler. The triangle needs caretaker point guards who can keep the offense moving, cut to the corner, and make 3s. Calderon checks every box, though he doesn’t bring the long-armed defense Jackson adores from his perimeter guys.

Calderon is an upgrade at point guard, and that’s part of the sales pitch to Anthony. This deal is not a concession that Anthony is leaving — not at all. The Knicks will sell this as a point guard improvement, the acquisition of a Chandler facsimile, and the gathering of assets that will help in the future. That future might be as early as tonight, with New York potentially packaging some of these goodies to get into the first round.

The downside is the impact of Calderon’s contract on New York’s 2015 free-agency dreams. The Knicks can still re-sign Melo and get max-level cap space next summer, but doing so may require some painful roster cuts. The Knicks, as things stand now, can’t get into the $20 million cap-room range if they keep Larkin and next season’s pick, as well as maintain Iman Shumpert’s cap hold when he enters free agency. Jackson likes Shumpert, and has so far rebuffed efforts from Oklahoma City, Miami, and other teams to get him.

But New York can get close enough, and there’s always a way to wriggle out another few million in space if you really need it. And depending on what LeBron does this summer, there may not be any $20 million free agents on the market a year from now. The Knicks might be better off retaining some cap flexibility and gathering up young assets and future picks — you know, the kind of rebuilding stuff that normal teams have been doing for 20 years.

But the Calderon-Dalembert combo isn’t exactly the kind of thrilling sales pitch that is going to wow Anthony. Dalembert annoys every team that gets him, and Calderon is a defenseless point guard in decline. The Knicks ranked 24th in points allowed per possession last season, and just traded their best defender. How are they getting stops next season?

The Knicks might have pushed harder for a Chandler deal that didn’t return a cap-clogging contract, but they like Calderon, and Dallas didn’t want to wait until July. The Mavs see Chandler as star free-agent bait, and they wanted him now.

Flipping an expiring contract for future assets is the right move for a team planning its future, especially if the expiring is tied to a 30-plus big man with health issues. But it leaves the Knicks in a bad way defensively and mucks up their future cap space. I’m not sure Calderon and his permanent three-day beard are worth that.

Filed Under: NBA, New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks, Tyson Chandler, Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki, Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin, Kyle Lowry, Omer Asik, Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, Houston Rockets, 2014 NBA Free Agency

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA