Trade Candidate: Wilson Chandler

Wilson Chandler won’t be hailed as a savior for any team should he be traded this season, but he’s nonetheless the sort of player capable of subtly tipping a title race during a season in which no clear favorite has emerged. Raw numbers suggest the 27-year-old has been remarkably consistent throughout his career. Save for his rookie season and his abbreviated eight-game 2011/12 campaign, the eighth-year veteran has never scored fewer than 13.0 or more than 15.3 points per game. His rebounds per contest, discarding his rookie year, have ranged from a career-low 4.7 last season to a career-best 6.1 this year. He’s reportedly drawn interest from the Thunder and no shortage of others, but the Nuggets are apparently reluctant to give him up. Still, as the season wears on, it would seem that barring a dramatic turnaround from their 13-18 start, there will be more motivation for the Nuggets to trade Chandler as the February 19th deadline draws near.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Denver NuggetsChandler is on an expiring contract of sorts. He’s scheduled to make almost $7.172MM next season, but only $2MM of that salary is guaranteed. He offers the potential of salary cap relief, or at the very least flexibility, to teams that might pursue him via trade. Yet Denver would have little to gain from releasing him, since the Nuggets already have more than $58MM in commitments for next season, leaving the ability to clear only marginal room beneath a salary cap that the league projects to come in around $66.5MM for next season. He’s the team’s second-leading scorer this year, with his 14.5 PPG a shade better than Arron Afflalo‘s 14.4, but it remains to be seen just how much longer he’ll be a starter in Denver. Danilo Gallinari had a minor procedure recently on his right knee as he continues to shake off the rust from having missed all of last season with a torn ACL in his left knee, but once he’s back to full health, he’ll surely challenge Chandler for his playing time. Afflalo and Kenneth Faried man the other positions Chandler seems suited to play.

The Nuggets appear as though they’re in no rush to make drastic moves, but while they’ve gone 12-12 since a disconcerting 1-6 start, a .500 record won’t get it done in the Western Conference. It’s quite conceivable that the rival executives interested in Chandler are engaged in a waiting game of sorts, confident that Denver will deal by the deadline. By the same token, there’s a decent chance that Nuggets GM Tim Connelly is merely waiting to see if the offers improve. There’s no pressing need for Denver to deal Chandler, whose contract will continue to serve as a potential money-saver for teams into next season. Still, Denver finds itself in a most unenviable position, without any semblance of the pieces needed to contend and nowhere near the inside track to the top of the draft order. The Nuggets must either act decisively or languish.

Chandler has been a minus defensively under coach Brian Shaw. The Nuggets were better on defense with Chandler on the floor during their 57-win season in 2012/13 by a measure of 2.6 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The opposite was true last season, when Denver was 4.1 points per 100 possessions stingier without him, and this season, the Nuggets are a stunning 10.2 points per 100 possessions better when Chandler sits. That’s approximately equivalent to the gap between Golden State’s NBA-best defense and the Pelicans, the league’s fifth least efficient defensive squad.

It’s not hard to see that the former 23rd overall pick from the 2007 draft has played differently under Shaw than he did for ex-Nuggets coach George Karl. A significantly higher percentage of his shots have come from behind the three-point arc the last two seasons, as Basketball-Reference shows, largely at the expense of his close-range looks. Chandler has proven a capable three-point shooter, nailing 41.3% of his tries in the last season before Shaw took over and 35.5% this year. He kept up his usual rate of heading to the free-throw line last year, but this season he’s taking only 1.7 free throws per game, his lowest number of such attempts save for his rookie campaign and that abbreviated 2011/12 season.

The net result of the changes under Shaw haven’t affected his points and rebounds, but his PER, a stout 16.6 in 2012/13, dipped to 12.4 last season and 12.7 this year, both marks well below the 15.0 threshold for an average player. He’s played almost exclusively as a small forward the past two years, but during his final season under Karl, he was mostly a power forward, according to Basketball-Reference.

Chandler’s value appears to depend on the context in which he’s playing. That’s why it’s not difficult to see why the Thunder are high on him. Oklahoma City could surround him  with the long arms of Kevin Durant and perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Serge Ibaka to minimize his defensive shortcomings. The Thunder, long in need of a reliable outside shooting complement to Durant and Russell Westbrook, could assign Chandler to that role. The stumbling block, as ever, is what the Nuggets would want in return.

Connelly probably can’t get a first-round pick for Chandler, and there’s little sense in merely pawning him off for second-rounders. The Nuggets could attempt to attach Chandler to an undesirable contract to help clear real cap flexibility for the summer ahead, but he wouldn’t be enough to entice a team to take back JaVale McGee and the $23.25MM in total salary he makes this season and next. J.J. Hickson doesn’t seem to be a fit in a crowded Nuggets frontcourt, but dealing his nearly $5.614MM salary for next season along with Chandler wouldn’t really move the needle much for Denver. The Nuggets stand to benefit from an infusion of intriguing young talent, but the Thunder aren’t blessed with much of that outside their core players.

The Rockets also make sense a suitor, given the strength of their defense and emphasis on outside shooting, and Houston has more fungible assets that Oklahoma City does. But Houston is always on the lookout for a star, and at this point the addition of Chandler wouldn’t do much to help the Rockets toward that goal. The Hawks have a top-10 defense, a penchant for three-pointers, and movable pieces, but there might not be a reason for Atlanta to make a win-now move this season.

There’s no obvious fit for Chandler. However, almost two months remain before the trade deadline, and costly injuries along with other seismic changes may still alter the picture. Chandler looms as a potential solution for a team in a position to help Denver lurch one direction or another away from the clutches of mediocrity.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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