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February 18, 2009
Transaction Analysis
Tuesday's Deals

by Kevin Pelton

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Boston Celtics

Traded guard Sam Cassell and cash considerations to the Sacramento Kings for a conditional second-round draft pick. [2/17]

For the Celtics, this move is largely about the roster spot. By trading Cassell to the Kings instead of waiving him, Boston was able to save a little bit in terms of luxury tax. Either way, Boston will be paying the tax. However, with a full roster the Celtics did not have room to add a veteran center should one become available after the trade deadline (though yesterday's other trade made that process a little harder, since Joe Smith is now unlikely to be waived). Big Baby Davis has been awful (the Celtics are 10.2 points worse per 100 possessions with Davis on the floor), so a P.J. Brown-style pickup would be highly beneficial. Stay tuned.

New Orleans Hornets

Traded center Tyson Chandler to the Oklahoma City Thunder for forward Chris Wilcox, center Joe Smith and the rights to center DeVon Hardin. [2/17]

We've heard plenty about the impact of the economy on NBA teams, but this is the first trade that absolutely, blatantly seems to be the result of the downturn. Not only has the economy made the Hornets' existence in New Orleans more tenuous amidst reports that the state will have a difficult time paying subsidies owed to the Hornets and the NFL's Saints, the emerging consensus in league circles is that the salary cap and luxury-tax level are both headed down the next two seasons.

That spelled doom for the Hornets, who had well over $70 million committed for the 2009-10 season and were suddenly staring at a huge luxury-tax bill that would have been problematic in the best of times for George Shinn--hardly one of the league's wealthiest owners.

As it often is in these cases, the hidden culprit was the deceitful mid-level exception. New Orleans has used its mid-level two straight summers, adding first Morris Peterson and then James Posey. In hindsight, the Hornets overestimated their chances of competing for a championship this season with Posey being the missing piece. Peterson has quietly been the bigger disaster, averaging just 12.9 minutes per game this season. Take either of those deals out of the equation and New Orleans might have been able to sneak under the tax by moving someone like Hilton Armstrong or Rasual Butler. Instead, their easiest course out of the financial quagmire was biting the bullet and moving Chandler for expiring contracts.

Obviously, the Hornets will miss Chandler, one of the league's best defensive centers, but the impact may not be quite as dramatic as expected this season. For one thing, it's not like New Orleans has had the Chandler who was so effective the last two seasons. He has struggled all season long, culminating in a 12-game absence with a sprained ankle leading up to the All-Star break. Chandler's absence hasn't entirely doomed the Hornets; over the course of the season they're 3.6 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor and have defended slightly better with him on the bench (Hilton Armstrong being no slouch as a shot-blocker himself).

What New Orleans is left with is bits and pieces of Chandler's game. Armstrong offers the shot-blocking, while Wilcox is a finisher at the rim in the same league as Chandler, one who will take his place on the receiving end of Chris Paul's alley-oop lobs. Smith offers a veteran presence and the ability to run the pick-and-pop with Paul or Antonio Daniels when David West is on the bench.

The upside to this deal for the Hornets is that they replace one quality big man with two competent ones, allowing them to devote fewer minutes to Armstrong, Sean Marks and Melvin Ely--all rated below replacement level this season. If you redistribute the 58 minutes New Orleans needs to fill up front (the other 38 going to West) with 28 for Wilcox, 20 for Smith and 10 for Armstrong instead of approximately the current distribution, by this year's WARP ratings the difference is less than half a game to the Hornets despite the fact that Chandler is easily the best player in the group. Depth up front was one of New Orleans' biggest weaknesses before this deal, and this goes some way toward addressing it.

Now, the optimistic hope for the Hornets was that Chandler would get healthy and turn things around and a team that has been hanging in the middle of the pack of Western Conference playoff teams would suddenly vault to the top of the group of contenders aiming to knock off the heavily-favored L.A. Lakers in the postseason. This deal obviously ends that hope, and even losing a game or two in the standings could make the difference in terms of home court. Still, New Orleans remains a competitor in the West, and this trade could even be a positive in the short term if Chandler is unable to return to full health this season.

Down the road, things become considerably less positive. While moving Chandler's deal gives the Hornets breathing room, they will still bump up against the cap just to fill out their roster with nine players under contract. Even re-signing one of Wilcox or Smith might be enough to push New Orleans into luxury-tax territory. That means, barring an instant contributor or two added via the draft, the Hornets will be right back in the same predicament in terms of frontcourt depth, only without the benefit of an anchor center in Chandler.

The real shame is that means potentially wasting a prime season of Chris Paul, which is disappointing both for fans in New Orleans and fans of the NBA.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Traded forward Chris Wilcox, center Joe Smith and the rights to center DeVon Hardin to the New Orleans Hornets for center Tyson Chandler. [2/17]

The Oklahoma City Thunder might just be the most frightening 13-41 team in NBA history. It seems like yesterday that the Thunder was mired in a 1-16 start and experiencing the lingering effects of the P.J. Carlesimo era. Since then, Oklahoma City is a respectable 12-25, a record that would be much better if the Thunder didn't keep losing close games like last night's two-point loss against (oddly) the Hornets. Kevin Durant continues to accelerate his timetable for superstardom by the day, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook look like solid complementary pieces and now Oklahoma City has added the franchise's first legitimate center in decades.

Permit me, first, a bit of pessimism. I think a healthy, productive Chandler is a very valuable player (I had him worth nearly 10 Wins Above Replacement Player last season, sixth amongst centers), but does it trouble anyone else that this is the second time in his career Chandler has experienced a random down season and subsequently been traded? In both cases there were extenuating circumstances--the Chicago Bulls signed Ben Wallace and the Hornets have finances to blame--but why didn't we ever hear that New Orleans was shopping Posey or trying to unload Peterson's contract? The front office seemed to settle on moving Chandler fairly quickly, no?

That said, Chandler is 26 and very much in his prime as potentially one of the best centers in the league. Guys like that don't come available every day, especially not giving up only expiring contracts in return. On top of that, Chandler happens to be a perfect fit for the Thunder's needs. Having moved Green to power forward, Oklahoma City needs a quality help defender and especially rebounder in the middle. Nick Collison meets the latter criterion, but not the former. Chandler is both, and works in an offense that already has several ballhandlers.

Saying the Thunder gave up expiring contracts slightly misses the point. What Sam Presti and company really sacrificed was the chance to get under the cap and make a play in free agency. Chandler, in that sense, is Oklahoma City's free agent. This definitely makes sense, in that luring a free agent to OKC will be somewhat challenging and a sinking cap will give the Thunder and other teams slightly less room to work with.

Chandler becomes Oklahoma City's fourth core piece, complementing Durant, Green and Westbrook. The fifth piece, presumably, will be this June's lottery pick. The Thunder's surge and the addition of Chandler make it unlikely that pick will be in the top three, but Oklahoma City should still be in position to add a quality player. Another shooter who could help Westbrook distribute would complete a well-balanced starting five. The bench is still a work in progress, with Presti having two other first-round picks this season (Denver's and San Antonio's) at his disposal this summer, then two first-round picks (the team's own and Phoenix's) in 2010 to help add to veterans Collison, Nenad Krstic and Earl Watson and rookies D.J. White and Kyle Weaver.

The biggest downside I see to this deal from the Thunder's perspective is that it maintains the frontcourt logjam the team had hoped to alleviate by dealing Smith and Wilcox. Scott Brooks needs to find time for both Collison and Krstic behind Green and Chandler, the team's starters up front. Krstic looks somewhat redundant now, just two months after Oklahoma City brought him back from Europe as a free agent--a move the team might not have made had it known Chandler would become available so quickly thereafter.

Sacramento Kings

Traded a conditional second-round draft pick to the Boston Celtics for guard Sam Cassell and cash considerations. [2/17]

For the Kings, this deal makes sense financially because, as the Sacramento Bee's Sam Amick pointed out, the NBA is paying more than half of Cassell's salary this season. (To encourage teams to use veteran players making the minimum instead of cheaper younger ones, the league pays the difference between the minimum for the player's experience level and the minimum for second-year players.) So the Celtics were able to send Sacramento far more money than the Kings will pay Cassell, making this a worthwhile endeavor for them.

For more discussion of the NBA trade deadline, go to Baseball Prospectus, where Kevin will be chatting about trades, injuries, All-Star and whatever else is on your mind today at 1 p.m. ET. Submit your questions ahead of time if you can't make it.

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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Transaction Analysis (02/19)

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