By John Schmeelk
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Phil Jackson’s first major personnel move as Knicks president was trading Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to the Mavericks for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and two second-round picks. When it happened, the trade seemed to have universal approval from fans and most members of the media.
The Knicks did need an upgrade at point guard in Calderon, but the loss of Chandler has proven costly.
There were sound reasons to trade Chandler. He wasn’t meshing with many members of the team, likely because of their lack of consistent effort on defense, which could only annoy a D-first player like him. He also openly questioned Mike Woodson’s defensive strategies to the media. Chandler also had a down year defensively last season. On offense, he thrived as a finisher on pick-and-roll plays, something that doesn’t fit the triangle.
But for the Knicks, whose biggest deficiency was defense, they traded away their most versatile and best defensive player — and they have not been able to recover from it. One of Derek Fisher’s top goals this year was to turn the Knicks into a defense-first team, but he doesn’t have the players to pull it off. Dalembert does a good job blocking shots at the rim (he’s better than Chandler in that regard), but his lack of mobility to step out and defend the pick-and-roll and his negligible offensive skills have hurt the team. The Knicks were also consistently one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the league when they had Chandler, while this season they have the lowest defensive rebounding percentage in the league. Chandler was one of the few effective two-way players the Knicks had in 2013-14.
Despite speaking out against Woodson’s strategies last year, Chandler is the type of player that would seem suited to help support the type of culture Derek Fisher is trying to create. He works hard, doesn’t need the ball in his hands and focuses on defense above all else. The reason Chandler didn’t mesh with guys like J.R. Smith is because he did things the right way, and Woodson enabled the guys (like Smith) that didn’t.
Those decisions are still affecting the team today.
Calderon also hasn’t had the positive effect the Knicks were looking for on offense. In the 13 games since he has been back, New York has performed far better with him off the floor than on. When Calderon plays, the team is outscored by more than 12 points per 100 possessions, but on the bench the team outscores opponents by more than five points per 100 possessions. He is scoring only 8.6 points per game, which would be the second-lowest number of his career. His 44 percent from the field would be his third-lowest. His 4.2 assists would be a career low.
The real reason the trade has been such a disaster has nothing to do with either Chandler or Calderon’s performances. The Knicks have played terribly this year, and Chandler’s presence might have meant a handful more wins, but nothing tremendously meaningful. The real problem is that Calderon’s contract extends through the 2016-17 season, taking up more than $7 million in cap space in each of the next two years. Chandler’s contract expires after this season.
There are two saving graces for the Knicks in this trade. The first one is obvious: they found someone to take Felton, who has a $3.9 million player option for next season. The second one is Shane Larkin, a young player with promise that has played well from time to time. The Knicks decided, however, not to pick up the option on his contract for next year. Ellington was shipped away in another trade, and the two second-round picks netted one player with a limited offensive game, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, who is playing with the Knicks’ D-League team, and Cleanthony Early, who is out with a knee injury.
If you look past the small pieces, Jackson traded the better player for an inferior one with a longer contract. Even in a down year for Chandler in 2013-14, he had a better player efficiency rating (PER) than Calderon.
The trade won’t cripple the franchise for years to come. But it is also hard to argue that it is a net positive based on how the team has played this year, and the important role of next year’s (and the following year’s) cap space.
The Knicks host Dallas on Tuesday night, and they will get to see what they are missing with Chandler in person.
December 15 has come and gone. The NBA trade season has begun. And Phil Jackson will have to start making some better moves as he builds this team toward the future.
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