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The Thunder Rolls...It... (11/23)

November 22, 2008
Transaction Analysis
Big Friday

by Kevin Pelton


New York Knicks

Traded G Jamal Crawford to the Golden State Warriors for F/C Al Harrington.
Traded G Mardy Collins and F/C Zach Randolph to the Los Angeles Clippers for G Cuttino Mobley and F Tim Thomas. [11/21]

Friday may have been a first in NBA history: The dismantling of an above-.500 team by trading its top two scorers on the same day. If that alone isn't unique, then this surely is--that both trades made by the 6-5 New York Knicks have been unanimously praised.

New Knicks President of Basketball Operations Donnie Walsh completely transformed his team's future cap situation with a pair of trades sending out the contracts of Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph, both of which ran through the 2010-11 season, as well as throw-in Mardy Collins. In their places, New York adds three players--guard Cuttino Mobley, forward Tim Thomas and post Al Harrington--whose contracts end after 2009-10. That summer, as you may have already heard and will hear somewhere around 84 million times over the next two years, features a star-studded free-agent class highlighted by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Amaré Stoudemire. Today's deals have positioned the Knicks to be major players in the summer of 2010.

When it comes to clearing cap space, there are usually two schools of thought. One is the optimistic view, considering the best-case scenario--New York could sign both James and either Wade or Stoudemire!--and getting excited about the possibility. The pessimistic point of view--look what happened to the Bulls post-Jordan!--holds that star players rarely change teams in free agency, so that cap space doesn't justify the hype.

My position tends to be between those two extremes, and depends on the circumstances. In the case of the Detroit Pistons creating flexibility by dealing Chauncey Billups and potentially allowing Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace to walk as free agents at season's end, I'm on the record as being dubious. That's a lot of talent to sacrifice, even if the players in question are aging. Giving up Crawford and Randolph is a different story altogether. While Mike D'Antoni had the Knicks playing competitive basketball, the upside of this group of players was limited at best. It's difficult to imagine a team with Crawford and Randolph as its go-to guys emerging as any kind of legitimate contender.

In the case of the Knicks, we would be remiss to not acknowledge the value of location. The desire amongst many star players to play in the Big Apple makes cap space somewhat more valuable in New York than in other markets, which is part of why it was so baffling that the Knicks never embraced an effort to get under the cap prior to Walsh's arrival. It's no coincidence that the most successful high-end free-agent signing of the modern NBA era was Shaquille O'Neal going to the league's other major media market, Los Angeles. D'Antoni's player-friendly system is yet another reason free agents are likely to choose New York.

What makes 2010 such a special free-agent class is that, in addition to the big-name talent so frequently bandied about, there will also be depth to the market. Beyond the four biggest names, players in their thirties like Manu Ginobili, Yao Ming, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Redd will be available. So too will Joe Johnson, while players from the 2006 draft class who do not sign extensions (potentially LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay, Rajon Rondo and Brandon Roy) could be in play in sign-and-trade deals. In theory, the Knicks could strike out on James and the other marquee names and still end up upgrading as compared to Crawford and Randolph.

Walsh still has a pair of other deals that run through 2010-11 on the books in Eddy Curry and Jared Jeffries. Trading Curry's contract, which still has more than $30 million remaining over the last three years, will certainly be a challenge. However, there's no such thing is the NBA as a completely untradeable contract. Jeffries' deal figures to be more palatable for a team that is already out of the 2010 sweepstakes if paired with a draft pick or other goodies.

The other challenge for Walsh and company will be decisions this summer on whether to re-sign restricted free agents David Lee and Nate Robinson. Robinson has quickly proven to be a good fit for D'Antoni's system, while Lee's slow start can be explained at least in part by his playing through a bone spur on his ankle. For a Knicks team that has just two young players signed long-term (promising second-year forward Wilson Chandler and rookie Danilo Gallinari, who has yet to play while dealing with a back injury), Lee and Robinson are useful assets.

Ideally, both players would be re-signed while leaving New York enough room to sign two max free agents. That's not as much of an issue if Jeffries, or especially Curry, is dealt; otherwise, the Knicks will probably have somewhere in the ballpark of $4-5 million free and would surely have to let one of the two go to maintain maximum flexibility.

Walsh isn't done yet, which is OK. The summer of 2010 is still some time away. Friday, however, marked the official beginning of the countdown until then in New York, giving Knicks fans plenty of time to start dreaming about the possibilities.

Golden State Warriors

Traded F/C Al Harrington to the New York Knicks for G Jamal Crawford. [11/21]

In his outstanding chronicle of the 2005-06 Suns campaign, :07 Seconds or Less, legendary NBA scribe Jack McCallum does an excellent job of explaining that D'Antoni's philosophy is to respond to problems by looking for more offense. Don Nelson's analogous mentality is to get smaller. Regardless of the internal power struggle in the Warriors' front office, this is very much a Nellie move.

Golden State has already been playing without Harrington, who last saw action on Nov. 5. In his stead, the Warriors have given more time to youngsters Anthony Randolph and Brandan Wright and gone small even by Nelson's standards by moving Corey Maggette to power forward. Since Harrington last played, Golden State has gone 3-4 and been competitive even without Monta Ellis.

Now, the Warriors will add even more firepower on the wing, first with Crawford and at some point down the road with Ellis' return from ankle surgery. Crawford figures to step in at the point, sharing ballhandling duties with Stephen Jackson, who has averaged a team-high 6.5 assists per game thus far this season. When Ellis is added, Golden State will have three players on the wing capable of initiating the offense.

Crawford seems tailor-made for Nellieball and should continue to thrive after a solid start under D'Antoni in New York. The biggest concern I see about fitting Crawford into the lineup is that he's a poor rebounder taking minutes away from better ones. So far this season, Crawford is grabbing 2.4 percent of available rebounds as compared to 9.2 percent for Anthony Morrow, 6.9 percent for C.J. Watson and 6.8 percent for Kelenna Azubuike. Ellis is a non-rebounder too, so while the Warriors have been decent on the boards thus far (overall; they're terrible on the defensive glass but great at offensive boarding), rebounding could be a major issue at full strength.

Beyond that, the other quibble with this deal regards minutes. No matter how small Nelson plays, he's going to have a tough time finding room for Ellis, Crawford, Jackson, Maggette, Azubuike, Morrow and Watson. That comment partially assumes Morrow's stunning two-game outburst was more than a fluke; presumably the Warriors would at least like to give him a chance to prove otherwise.

Playing time aside, Golden State got a solid starter who fits the system for a disgruntled player who had already been left behind. In the small view, this is a great deal. The 5,000-foot view is cloudier. After re-signing Andris Biedrins and Ellis and signing Maggette over the summer, extending Jackson and dealing for Crawford, suddenly the Warriors have virtually their entire core locked in for the foreseeable future. And that group...is not championship-caliber. My projection that Golden State was a playoff team this year was even considered somewhat optimistic, though it looks better in the wake of the team flirting with .500 sans Ellis. The deals aren't awful, so the Warriors can still make changes with trades, but if this is the team we're going to see for the next few years, consider me underwhelmed.

Los Angeles Clippers

Traded G Cuttino Mobley and F Tim Thomas to the Los Angeles Clippers for G Mardy Collins and F/C Zach Randolph. [11/21]

The Knicks' rationale for today's deals was clear, the Warriors' evident if debatable. Then we have the Clippers, and a move that seems inexplicable in the context of where this team is going. The rumor over the summer was that Los Angeles was trying to get Randolph using the same cap space that eventually landed Marcus Camby, and while that seemed imprudent, it at least had a certain logic to it. Randolph could provide a proxy for the production lost with Elton Brand's departure, at least on the offensive end.

Dealing for Camby seemed to put an end to the notion of adding Randolph, but apparently Mike Dunleavy and company would not be denied the chance to get their man. Now the Clippers have a frontcourt of Camby, Randolph and Chris Kaman, all three of them highly-paid players who have started throughout their careers.

Because of Camby's perimeter-oriented game and Randolph's ability to play either the low or high post (this pervasive notion that Randolph is strictly a low-block scorer baffles me; his last year in Portland, facing up from about 15 feet seemed to be Randolph's go-to move), the fit should be decent on the floor, but the frontcourt seems a strange place to address for a team that already had two quality pieces there and no shortage of needs elsewhere.

Before dealing for Randolph, the Clippers had a chance to be players in the summer of 2010 themselves, with cornerstones Kaman and Baron Davis the only large salaries committed past 2009-10. If they decided they wanted no part of that gamble, having been burned before (see Bryant, Kobe), I can buy that. However, ClipperBlog's brilliantly perplexed Kevin Arnovitz nails the problem with that theory--why deal now? Deals like Mobley's and Thomas' that expire in 2010 will only become more valuable as that summer approaches, with the potential to bring a return much more attractive than Randolph.

Ultimately, despite those first few paragraphs, I guess my issue with this trade has less to do with philosophy or strategy or long-range planning than it does with player evaluation. I don't like Zach Randolph, which is hardly a minority opinion around the league. Dunleavy disagrees. "When someone who averages 20 and 10 is available, you've got to have interest," he told the Los Angeles Times.

There's this myth that only analysts use stats. The fact is, everybody uses numbers, as Dunleavy did in that quote. Our goal at Basketball Prospectus isn't getting people interested in statistics as much as it is getting people interested in the right statistics. 20 points and 10 rebounds, as great as they sound, don't qualify. In truth, Randolph's advanced numbers have been very strong this year; he's been terrific on the glass and is getting to the line much more than he did last year. Even now, when he's playing very well, Randolph still rates as a significant negative by net plus-minus (granting that it's very early and the numbers aren't stable). Over the course of his career, Randolph's adjusted plus-minus ratings have been below-average.

At his best, Randolph is a ballstopper on offense and an indifferent defender in a way that all the points and rebounds fail to make up. It's difficult if not impossible to win consistently building around that kind of player. That's why the Blazers decided to dump Randolph for pennies on the dollar after what was, by per-game statistics, a career year. It's why, no matter how well he played under D'Antoni, the Knicks never gave serious thought to keeping him around. Ultimately, it will be why the Clippers will find him wanting too.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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