In trading Erick Dampier for Tyson Chandler, the Mavericks made the right move because they could’ve made the wrong one, but they made the wrong move because they couldn’t make the right one. If you couldn’t tell, evaluating Dallas’ big off-season trade is a tad tricky. After all, this wasn’t just any swap. The Mavs had one of the most valuable trade chips in the league and had touted it as such while embracing the accompanying expectations. When a hungry fan base (and the team itself, for that matter) has guys like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James dangled overhead, they’re not likely to be satiated by the second best center on the Charlotte Bobcats.
That’s exactly what Tyson Chandler was last season. While he may be a starting-caliber player in name, the Bobcats’ top center in ’09-’10 was Nazr Mohammed. Nazr averaged 16.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes last season, and the only real flaw in his campaign was that he didn’t see the floor more. That’s a better scoring season than Chandler has ever put together (Tyson’s single season high for PP36? 13.6, in ’02-’03). Mohammed may be a bit flawed as a defender and rebounder, but his competence in those areas in addition to his scoring made him the strongest 5 for Charlotte last season, even if Chandler’s injury prevented him from putting up a fair fight.
So the Mavs traded an incredibly attractive asset for the second best center on the 7th best team in the Eastern Conference…and for the license to dump the contracts of Matt Carroll and Eduardo Najera. That’s a noticeably slimmer return than LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, or even Al Jefferson, for that matter. In somewhat fitting fashion, Erick Dampier’s parting gift to the Mavs is solid, but weighed down by the power of expectation. Just as a competent starting center seemed ridiculous when he had a $13 million price tag hanging around his neck, acquiring Tyson Chandler is a sad consolation prize when evaluated in the shadow of what could have been.
However, if we zoom out to get a slightly broader view, the Mavs did what they could. They tried to lure LeBron James. They reportedly met with Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson. They talked with the Minnesota Timberwolves about Al Jefferson, but decided that he wasn’t worth surrendering Dampier and multiple first rounders. None of those deals went through, so Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban moved further down their list of targets. The Mavs were prepared for this, it’s just unfortunate that they had to be.
So instead of picking up another star, Dallas will add a backup center. It fills a definite need. Ian Mahinmi isn’t ready to be that high on the depth chart just yet, so acquiring another 5 equipped to finish and defend was a must for the Mavs. Chandler can do a bit of both, but he is in no way the player that terrorized the Mavs in the 2008 playoffs. That Tyson Chandler is long gone, and in his place is a defending big clearly in decline.
Tyson is still a quality post defender, but he’s somehow even worse offensively now than he was with the Hornets. Fans frustrated by Erick Dampier’s inability to convert buckets around the rim are about to enter a whole new world of facepalming with Chandler. Damp may not have much touch around the rim, but Tyson struggles to complete anything that isn’t an easy dunk. I wish this were hyperbole. Chandler does have better hands than Dampier, which makes him a more viable option for easy finishes, but anyone hoping for an offensive upgrade is in for a hilarious surprise.
Defensively, Chandler can still hold his own. He’s frequently overrated as a shot-blocker, but Tyson is still a solid defensive option for guarding back-to-the-basket bigs. Chandler does struggle against some face-up threats, as the impact of his height and length is hedged by his injuries and an uncanny tendency to bite on pump fakes. However, if you put Chandler in off-ball situations (like, say, defending the pick and roll) that require a different kind of defensive read, he seems to perform fairly well. Tyson’s a smart defender, even if he is an impatient one.
Sounds good, right? Having two centers capable of making an impact on the defensive end is an incredible luxury, but I’d be remiss not to mention one minor detail: the Mavs had the same luxury last season. Erick Dampier was also a fairly successful defender, particularly when evaluated next to his second-string center contemporaries. Damp wasn’t producing worthy of his contract value on either end, but provided we analyze his strengths in terms of what the Mavs had rather than what the Mavs had to pay, Dampier was a quality rotation player.
In fact, Damp’s ’09-’10 season easily trumps Chandler’s in most statistical dimensions, and even compares relatively well to Chandler’s ’07-’08 year:
|Mecha Chandler ('07-'08)||17.5||26.1||13.2||4.1||122||104||0.7||7.3|
Those who didn’t have the opportunity to watch much of the Bobcats last season may be a bit shocked by Chandler’s inferior statistical résumé, but it’s no fluke; he really was a lesser player in many regards last season. It may not be fair to evaluate Dampier and Chandler’s offensive ratings directly (after all, one of them played alongside Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, etc., while the other relied on Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace to produce the bulk of the offensive production), but the per-possession measures give a slight edge to Dampier in shot blocking and defensive rebounding, while the more complicated metrics (Player Efficiency Rating [PER], adjusted +/- [APM], Wins Above Replacement Player [WARP]) also indicate that Damp had a greater positive influence. Chandler’s adjusted +/- last season was surprisingly awful, particularly considering that APM is thought to be more defender-friendly than most metrics.
There is something to be said about variety. Though Dampier was an productive player for the Mavs last season, he’s similar to Brendan Haywood in a lot of ways. Chandler provides a different kind of defender (even if it is a similarly effective one) that Rick Carlisle can use to tech against specific opponents. It’s nice to be prepared to compensate for injuries, etc. by having players of similar skill sets in the starting lineup and on the bench, but overloading on yin isn’t always the sound move.
The obvious wild card is Chandler’s health. Tyson has averaged 48 regular season games over the last two seasons, primarily due to a smorgasbord of lower body injuries. Chandler is supposedly healthier now than he’s been in a long while, but it’s tough to pin down exactly how much his game was hindered by injury last season. His ailments have the potential to impact his production next year in either direction, and though you’re welcome to take Chandler’s word on his status if you’d like, I’ll table my decision until we see Tyson in action at the Team USA tryouts later this month. Until then, I think it’s only fair to expect the same Chandler we’ve seen over the last two seasons: A quality defender (with definite weaknesses) and a bit of an offensive liability.
Alexis Ajinca is a reasonably promising young center prospect, but he seems destined for bench-warming duty. Ajinca played well for the D-League’s Maine Red Claws last season, but he isn’t prepared to tread water defensively against NBA opponents. Don’t let his 3.1 blocks per game last year in the D fool you — Ajinca would be out-muscled and out-maneuvered by his competition in the big leagues. He still has a ways to go before both his body and technique are ready for consistent NBA burn.
However, Ajinca’s offensive game is a bit more advanced, even if he isn’t ready to step into a sizable role on that end, either. Alexis has real offensive potential. Most of his current moves in the post are still rather basic, but you take what you can get from a 22 year-old giant like Ajinca.
It would be naive to assume that a basketball trade is all about basketball. While the Mavs do like what Chandler can bring to the team as a sub for Haywood, this move has some fairly clear-cut financial motivations. Dallas was able to dump the salary of Matt Carroll and Eduardo Najera, which cleared about $17.5 million over the next three seasons (Najera has two more years under contract and Carroll has three). Those were two of the contracts Mark Cuban was reportedly trying to pawn off in a potential trade for Al Jefferson, so it’s not exactly shocking to see him dispose of their salaries in this deal.
Here is the year-by-year breakdown of the Mavs’ outgoing salary:
*Dampier’s 2009-2010 salary is entirely unguaranteed.
Also, because the Mavs did not waive Najera prior to June 30th, his salary for the next two seasons is completely guaranteed.
And their incoming salary:
|Ajinca||1,467,840||2,263,409 (TO)||3,243,465 (QO)|
Salary figures from Storytellers Contracts.
Plus, acquiring Chandler extends the Mavs’ ability to trade for talented players later in the year. While the off-season is the most convenient time to overhaul a roster, it also imbues far too many franchises with delusions of hope. Every team that struggled last year now has a blank slate, and with a few draft picks, a free agent signing or two, and internal development, all but the basement-dwellers seem poised to improve. It’s only during the regular season that the league’s harsh realities begin to surface: Regardless of which talent is where and what players are added or dropped from whatever rosters, only about half of the teams in the league are going to make the playoffs. The rest are doomed to another go-around as they continue to tinker in the hope of making the jump in the following season.
That should help the Mavs, who will no doubt attempt to use Chandler’s $12.6 million expiring contract (as well as Caron Butler’s $10.6 million expiring) as bait at the trade deadline. Right now, teams may be reluctant to settle for pure savings. However, when their roster’s shortcomings have been made painfully apparent over the course of 50 games or so, they may be more willing to deal. Financial flexibility is golden in the NBA, and while Dallas’ first token of financial flex didn’t bring in the star that they hoped it would, to have another shot using the same basic materials is nice.
The worst case scenario is that Chandler plays terribly, Dallas whiffs while attempting to trade him at the deadline, and Tyson becomes an unrestricted and unwanted free agent next summer. Both of those developments are rather unlikely, as the more probable outcome would have Chandler playing rather decently in a reserve role, followed by a move in February for a decent — but sub-superstar — talent. Still, anything can happen, and because the Mavs’ flexibility was maintained through February, this deal gets stamped with the dreaded “INCOMPLETE.” Embrace the uncertainty.