The NBA offseason has officially begun. With a day remaining until the NBA draft and a week until the start of free agency, the Mavericks and Knicks agreed to terms on a six-player, two-pick deal. Headed to Dallas are former Mavericks center Tyson Chandler and sand bag Raymond Felton; going to New York are the sharp-shooting Jose Calderon, the tardy Samuel Dalembert, the prospective Shane Larkin, the little-used Wayne Ellington and two second-round picks (Nos. 34 and 51) in Thursday's Draft.
Even though the transaction has been completed, the dust won't settle on this particular exchange for months. The work of improving and maintaining an NBA roster is never really finished, especially in June.
This deal, then, is a prelude.
It fills a clear need for Dallas and rounds out a prospective starting lineup. It nets New York a triangle-worthy point guard and a trio of young assets between Larkin and the two picks. Those are moves worth making, though hardly an end in themselves for two teams with bigger plays yet to come.
For the Mavs all roads seemingly lead to free agency, where Dirk Nowitzki's unambiguous return affords Dallas the chance to restructure its cap sheet on the fly. This trade is a consolidation of what remained. While Dallas added over $3 million in salary for the 2014-15 season in the process, two starters (and two bench warmers) were redeemed for Chandler in a way that facilitates a wide range of maneuvers going forward. The primary targets are those shared by every other team with significant cap space or the means to create it: LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, both of whom will enter the free agent pool after exercising their early termination options. If both pass on the opportunity to join the Mavs, then Dallas moves down the line to Luol Deng or Chandler Parsons or whomever might be intrigued by the possibility of playing alongside Nowitzki, Chandler and Monta Ellis.
Those dividends are critical in the evaluation of this deal. Offseason moves are often treated as independent acts: a single signing, a self-standing trade, a particular draft selection. In truth, all are related. The finances of the NBA are so delicate that every single transaction has repercussions on a cap level, not to mention the way that one basketball decision comes to influence the next. The move to acquire Chandler and Felton will in some ways be inextricable from that which follows. What matters most is that Dallas has improved its relative standing while preserving the ability to work the trade and free agent markets.
For the moment we see a course in progress, headlined by Chandler's return to the franchise he struck title gold with in 2011. Chandler and Nowitzki are a beautifully compatible pair, the former a defensive anchor and premier roll man, the latter an outstanding scorer from all ranges. Together they tested the integrity of even the best defensive systems, and they may well do so again with Ellis asserting his own pressure as an imminent dribble-drive threat.
Some caution is in order, though, in assuming that Chandler is a complete prescription for all that ails Dallas. Last season the Mavs ached for interior defense. A single mistake on the perimeter too often gave way to a layup or dunk, as the rotations of Dalembert and Brandan Wright were often less than punctual. In theory Chandler is a wonderful remedy. More practically, there should be concern regarding which version of former Defensive Player of the Year Dallas imported: The championship model or the oft-injured version who missed 43 games over the past two seasons.
That issue of injury and availability played a part in Dallas' decision to let Chandler walk in 2011, which at the time marked the dissolution of the reigning champions. It's an implicit part of the package with Chandler. When healthy, he's one of the very best centers in the league. That conditional becomes problematic, though, when a player has missed as much time as Chandler has:
Nevertheless, having Chandler's name on the depth chart is enticing and promising in a way that Dalembert's was decidedly not. Upgrading the center position was a point of emphasis for the Mavs and with this year's free agent pool light on superior options, this was the way to go about it.
The cost of executing that portion of the deal isn't only the departure of Calderon, Dalembert, Larkin, Ellington and two draft picks, but the forced acquisition of Felton. The 29-year-old point guard was not a good NBA player last season, full stop. There is no caveat. There is no silver lining.
Felton is the weight of this deal that Dallas must endure to get what it wants, cruel as that seems to Rick Carlisle. The man may be a miracle worker when it comes to getting the most out of players, but even he has his limits. Only so much can be done with Felton, and trust that the Mavs understand just what they've acquired. He is not at all an endpoint in their offseason plans, and it would be a genuine shock if he winds up a starter on opening night.
Dallas will have the flexibility necessary to chase down a variety of alternatives, which gets at a facet of this deal that has largely gone unremarked: Calderon's departure, while not fatal, does leave a void. He was the top-shelf floor spacer the Mavs very much needed, a sure playmaker who executed without hesitation and a safety net for those moments when Ellis flew off the rails. Felton and Devin Harris, should he be re-signed, are out of their depth in filling those same roles. This is as good an indicator as any that the Mavs are in a fluid state, fit to be built anew to the fullest extent that salary cap ingenuity will allow. For now, in a mode antithetical to the way that sports are analyzed and consumed, we wait. Plans are in motion all across the league, and this deal was but a window into the processes of two.
A few parting thoughts:
• Fundamental to the Mavs' circumstances was the pairing of Calderon and Ellis, which brought about all kinds of defensive problems. It wasn't meant to be. Becoming more competitive was contingent on their breakup, and with this move Dallas accomplishes that much while improving its long-term financial health. Calderon is still a smart, effective player, but with his contributions in the present come financial burdens in the future. No team will want to be left holding the bag when Calderon turns 36 during the last year of a deal that will pay him $8 million, and for Dallas to get out of that obligation early while positioning itself for free agency in 2014 and 2015 is a sharp maneuver.
• The interplay between Ellis and Chandler could turn out to be a gem. Ellis did a great job of force-feeding Dalembert on pick-and-rolls whenever possible last season, and in the coming year he'll have a finishing partner worthy of the effort.
• Dalembert has a 15-percent trade kicker built into his deal that will up his salary to $4.5 million, per Sham Sports, and Chandler will get a $500,000 bump according to Eric Pincus to bring his salary up to $15.1 million for Dallas' cap purposes.