A year ago, the Spurs traded a helpful combo guard about to enter the last year of his rookie deal for a relatively unknown, borderline 2011 lottery pick at a position of need who would have the full four years left on his rookie deal. People have since hailed the trade as an ingenious combination of talent acquisition and cost control, and some of those people don’t even know San Antonio also acquired the rights to two talented international players in the same trade.
On Wednesday night, the Pacers, San Antonio’s partner in that trade, dealt a helpful point guard entering the last season of his rookie deal for a relatively unknown player at a position of need who comes with the certainty of an affordable four-year contract. And people were outraged.
This is not to say last year’s George Hill/Kawhi Leonard trade and Wednesday’s Darren Collison/Ian Mahinmi swap between Indiana and Dallas were close to identical. Mahinmi is almost 26, so his upside is limited, and he’ll make an average of $4 million per year over the next four seasons — double Leonard’s yearly rate, but also a few million less than what Collison is likely to get on a new contract that will start in 2013-14. The Pacers didn’t receive any trendy international players in the deal, nor did they obtain even a second-round pick for the player who was their starting point guard for most of last season — and a crucial, gutty bench spark in the playoffs. And the Pacers, assuming they have renounced Leandro Barbosa, were way under the cap, meaning they could have simply signed Mahinmi as a straight-up free agent.
But the general ideas behind the trades aren’t that different, and the perception of Indiana’s return would surely be different if the Spurs were pulling this deal. Indiana, a money-losing franchise for years now, has agreed to pay Hill $40 million over the next five seasons to play Collison’s position — just as the Spurs had Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal (and then others) on hand to soak up Hill’s minutes. The Pacers have already agreed to a mammoth new deal with center Roy Hibbert, and swingman Paul George’s rookie deal will be up in two years. Indiana looked ahead, decided it made no sense to extend all of these players and flipped Collison for a low-priced player who fills a need, a solid backup big man.
And if you don’t think the Pacers need a solid backup big man, you haven’t looked at their lineup data or power forward Tyler Hansbrough’s eye-searing numbers. The Pacers were an elite team — on the level of Miami, Chicago, San Antonio or Oklahoma City — with both Hibbert and David West on the floor. Swap Hansbrough or Lou Amundson for one of them, and the Pacers typically became average or a bit below average, depending on the personnel around the two big men. And when Hansbrough and Amundson paired up, the Pacers were outscored by 2.5 points per 100 possessions. It was even worse in the postseason.
Hansbrough shot 40.5 percent from the floor last season, rebounded on the defensive end like a small forward and dished 30 assists the entire year. All of those things are hard to do. His rookie deal expires after next season, and you could understand why Indiana might be unenthusiastic about continuing the relationship. West was perhaps Indiana’s best player in the second half of last season, but he’s nearly 32, and will demand big money when his deal expires next summer. The Pacers did draft big man Miles Plumlee last month, but you never bank on getting much from the No. 26 pick. Hibbert can play only 30 minutes a night.
The Pacers probably aren’t banking on getting more than 15 or 20 effective minutes per game from Mahinmi, and the salary they are paying him is typical for players in that role. It’s interesting that two of this summer’s deals that have drawn perhaps the most outrage and confusion among fans are for off-the-bench bigs — Mahinmi and Omer Asik, soon to be mulling a $25 million offer sheet from Houston. Here’s reality: There are few commodities more valuable than a true big man who is competent on both sides of the floor.
One such commodity is a top-five superstar, and if you have one of those on the wing, you can get by with below-average size. The Pacers do not have LeBron James or Kevin Durant, and if you don’t have one of those players, history suggests that you better have some darn good size; it’s no coincidence that Dirk Nowitzki finally broke through when the Mavs supplied him with the best center ever to flank him in Dallas, Tyson Chandler.
Sure, $4 million for Mahinmi sounds pricey; he has played 1,000 minutes in just one of his four seasons (2011-12) and, save for a third-quarter buzzer-beater in Dallas’ Game 6 Finals clincher, he was mostly a screaming mascot during the Mavs’ title run. But $4 million is what you pay for a backup big man who can actually understand what’s happening on both sides of the floor — or might be able to do so someday. Go look at the salaries for Marreese Speights, Darrell Arthur, Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen, Josh McRoberts, Zaza Pachulia, J.J. Hickson, Jason Thompson, Joel Anthony, Hakim Warrick, Boris Diaw and many others. Watch what Greg Stiemsma, Jordan Hill and Robin Lopez get when they sign.
Mahinmi is not at the level of some of those players, but he’s above a couple of them. He is a good athlete, an explosive cutter who improves just a bit every season. He showed much more polish from the mid-range and around the rim last season than ever before, including an ability to finish non-dunks on the move. He got lost now and then on defense, especially in Dallas’ complex schemes, and he’s not an elite rebounder or shot-blocker. But he merits token attention, on both sides of the floor, and you pay some for that.
The Pacers won’t pay as much for it as they would have to extend Collison, and that’s the crux of what’s going on here. Perhaps they could have gotten more for Collison, a former first-round pick for whom Indiana dealt Troy Murphy and swallowed James Posey’s contract two years ago. But Collison’s Player Efficiency Rating has dipped in each of the last two seasons, falling to a below-average level in 2011-12, and he has been one of the league’s most confounding players over that span. He has never figured out how to defend the pick-an-roll, showing a tendency to guess wrong and take weird routes around picks.
Collison has developed into a good spot-up shooter on offense, but he is far from a dynamic pick-and-roll creator. He and Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings have been neck-and-neck (with a couple of others) for the last two years for fewest assists per minute and lowest assist rate among starting point guards. The 6-foot Collison goes through stretches where he pulls up tentatively on the pick-and-roll instead of probing deeper, and his lack of height is going to be an issue on defense and in his ability to make difficult passes in tight space.
He’s a nice player and still young, but the Pacers’ starting lineup functioned slightly better on both ends with Hill in Collison’s place, and the team still believes Lance Stephenson can grasp the backup role next season. Another signing may also be around the corner, as Indiana has around $8 million in cap space to play with before making the deals for Hill and Hibbert official.
On the flip side, Collison, despite his lack of dynamism, will walk into Dallas as the team’s fastest off-the-bounce creator and a larger threat to get to the rim than anyone the Mavs had last season. Context is everything in a deal like this. Only the Sixers attempted fewer shots per game at the rim than Dallas, a result of both a lack of athleticism among the ball-handling guards and the downgrade from Chandler’s explosive pick-and-roll finishing to Brendan Haywood’s slow-motion, gather-and-rise game. Collison attempted more shots at the rim per 40 minutes last season than Jason Terry and Jason Kidd combined — a remarkable thing, given Collison’s rim attempts per minute have dropped every season, per Hoopdata. (Indiana’s reliance on post-ups for its bigs has a lot to do with that.)
Collison is an upgrade, and he’ll fill the same role J.J. Barea did as a go-go pick-and-roll partner for Nowitzki, a guard speedy enough to actually turn the corner when Nowitzki’s defenders stick to Dirk’s hip, terrified to leave him for a jumper, instead of sliding away to contain Collison’s dribble.
This deal, combined with the signing of center Chris Kaman, the use of the amnesty provision on Haywood and the team’s likely victory in the amnesty auction for power forward Elton Brand, has Dallas positioned as a solid Western Conference playoff team next season. Two days ago, the Mavericks looked like a lottery team. Neither Brand nor Kaman is on Chandler’s level defensively, but Kaman knows where to be, Brand is wildly underrated and the Mavs maintained a top-10 defense without Chandler last season. Both are very good rebounders, and as Nowitzki ages, the Mavs need good rebounders around him.
The Mavs’ offense failed them last season, when they plummeted into the bottom 10. But the signing of two big men with mid-range games, one decent post-up player (Kaman) and a guard who can actually attack the rim should push them back up toward the league average in points per possession — and maybe over it. Nowitzki is still here, and still a star, after all.
The moves won’t tilt the balance of power in the Western Conference. But the Mavericks will be a tough out, again, and with all these deals expiring after one season, they can position themselves with max-level cap room next summer — the real goal here. The Pacers, too, remain pretty lean, with as much as $9 million or so in potential cap space next summer before factoring in cap holds linked to West and Hansbrough.
Both teams, in other words, have managed to fill needs while remaining flexible. The Mavs are probably going to win the Collison/Mahinmi exchange, but when you consider the context and Mahinmi’s improved play, it’s not going to be the landslide that Indiana fans are fearing.