The Nene Question

Startling truth: Tyson Chandler could be gone by Dec. 25. A realization that the Mavericks linchpin on defense and in the locker room could disappear has no doubt settled into the mind of the Dallas front office, and surely there's a contingency plan in place should this disastrous scenario unfold. Without a doubt Dallas will be a noticeably worse team (even on offense) without Chandler roaming around the paint and hedging point guards on pick and rolls.

Which makes this recent news detailing Dallas as one of the free-agent-center to be's preferred landing points intriguing. Nene is definitely a name, an athletic and talented big man with the unique offensive skill set that both attacks the rim and knocks down a 15-footer.

But the way he gets to Dallas (with Chandler going elsewhere) seems perplexing to me. The Ken Berger report has been followed up in the Twittersphere with nuggets (no pun intended) of info detailing that some teams are willing to offer Nene a max contract under the new CBA limitations. We aren't talking a Joe Jonhson deal anymore. But still, there is a great irony in this news seeping out after the league just spent an entire lockout about teams over-signing players above their worth. Giving a fringe All-Star center a max deal definitely qualifies.

Oops. Should I have said "spoiler alert"? Is Nene actually in that category of NBA players? Aye, there's the rub.

Nene's career averages are about 12 points and seven rebounds with his peak season being about 15 points and eight rebounds per game. A decent number for a center in this day and age of the NBA where the center is a dying breed. His skills definitely impress on an individual level: Nene posses a unique blend of power and finesse, able to attack the rim with a variety of back to the basket and face up moves while also being able to pass from the low block. Nene has averaged over two assists per game the last two seasons, with exceptional assist-to-turnover rates for the position. It's easy to see how Nene would blend in with Dallas' offense, with Dirk parked on the left block, three shooters spaced outside the three-point line and Nene sitting comfortably on the right elbow, ready to knock down that short mid-range shot once Dirk makes his move, or attract attention in the middle of the court to free up shooters at the top of the key or the opposite corner. Nene's passing in the post would be an upgrade over Chandler, who normally is only in the position to catch and finish once he gets ahold of the ball in offensive sets. Dallas' already pristine ball movement could become dreamingly perfect, a offense with five effective players on the court at once, ready to score from multiple spots on the court.

But I'm not sure this is really a need rather than a luxury. After all, the Mavericks' offense is already elite with Chandler anchoring the middle and drawing attention on his rolls to the basket. According to Mavs Stats, Chandler had the highest points per game average for a Maverick center since the 1992-1993 season, which can't be overstated how big a difference that was to the Maverick attack compared to previous playoff failures.

And that's just on offense. Chandler's defense he brought to the Mavs has been crafted into a legend, a tall-tale with credibility. In one season, he made an average at best defense shut down three incredibly potent offenses in Los Angeles, Oklahoma City and Miami (and Portland's can be thrown in there as well, even though it was an unconventionally effective offense. And yes, I realize Oklahoma City's ball-movement and sets were horrible, but still, it was a talented group of offensive players that were stymied.)

Nene's defense actually isn't as bad as one might think compared to Chandler with Nene's lack of blocks and his lateral movement seemingly at a tortoises' pace compared to Chandler's elite-level quickness. Having lacked watching Nene for 82 games last season, I was shocked to learn that Nene was technically more important to the Denver defense than Chandler was to Dallas. Part of that might have to do with Dallas having a more accomplished backup center (Timofey Mozgov wasn't too much of a factor and Chris Andersen dropped off considerably for Denver.)

Perhaps the reason this came as a shock was that Denver's defense was still overall mediocre compared to Dallas. But, with Nene off the court, Denver's defense was 4.1 points worse per 100 possessions on defense (106.8 to 110.9). Dallas' defense with Chandler on the bench fell off by 3.8 points (103.9 to 107.7). Of course, we're splitting hairs here and there's no denying Chandler was the leader of top-10 to top-five defense in the NBA last season, while Nene anchored an average, middle of the pack defense. Chandler has a lot to do with that, no discredit to Nene's skills.

Nene is a fabulous player and any team that picks him up will be getting a decently aged (29), middle-of-his-prime center with valuable offensive and defensive tools. But I'm not sure that's worth a max contract that teams like Indiana and Houston might overpay for. And besides, if the Mavericks are willing to match that offer, why not just throw it at Chandler, whose defensive contributions outweigh Nene's offensive tools. I can't imagine Nene will come to Dallas on a smaller deal if there's max money to be had elsewhere, and even so, Chandler is the better fit. He knows the system, the team, the coach and more importantly, he's brought a title to a town that seemed destined to never grasp one.

For a team known to carousel players in and out every off-season with mixed results (remember, the Mavericks completely revamped their 60-win, Western Conference Finalist team in 2003 that ended up losing in the first round in 2004), Dallas has finally found a core worth keeping. Nene would be intriguing and headline grabbing. But it would be overfilling, much like grabbing an extra piece of pie after a satisfying meal. It would behoove the Mavericks to keep things together, if only for one more year.

***

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