There is plenty of credit to go around for the New York Knicks' fast start, one of the biggest storylines in the NBA through the first quarter of the season. After a tumultuous (to say the least) offseason, New York has the best record (19-6) and highest point differential (+6.6) in the Eastern Conference. They’ve done this without getting anything from Amar'e Stoudemire, although integrating him back into the rotation has as many potential pitfalls as it does benefits.
Without Amar'e, Mike Woodson has found a winning formula, starting Carmelo Anthony at the 4, Tyson Chandler at the 5 and spreading the floor with shooters. The result has been a team better than the sum of its parts: Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith are playing some of the best basketball of their careers, while Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace look like they’ve found the Fountain of Youth. It’s the same formula the Mavericks used to win the 2011 title, with Carmelo playing the role of Dirk Nowitzki.
However, while Nowitzki was the MVP of the 2011 NBA Finals, there’s a reason he wasn’t the regular-season MVP -- Chandler was just as valuable. Without him, Dallas has stumbled back into the pack in the Western Conference. Very few teams win a title without an elite primary scorer like Carmelo or Dirk, but an elite defensive big man like Chandler is essential too. Right now, he’s playing like an All-Star, an All-NBA player and even an MVP candidate.
Big men traditionally develop slower than perimeter players. Not only do they need to grow into their bodies, but they can usually dominate on size and athleticism alone in AAU ball, high school and college. And with so few athletic 6’10+ human beings in the world, centers are usually rushed along and placed into bigger roles than their play merits. Chandler is the perfect example: he wasn’t drafted No. 2 overall as an 18-year old because of his high school production. He was drafted that high because he was 7’1 225 with a vertical well over 30 inches. Translating those tools into on-court results, the hope was, would come with time.
As a rookie, he was as an incredibly raw player who couldn’t shoot, score or play team defense. There was no one in AAU ball who could prepare him to defend guys like Shaquille O'Neal and he never had to play the type of help defense demanded of an NBA center. On offense, after a devastating motorcycle accident prematurely ended Jay Williams’ career, the Bulls never had anyone who could create easy shots for him, as his five seasons with Chicago were the five lowest shooting percentage seasons of his career.
At the age of 24, Chandler was traded to the Hornets, where he was reborn as one half of an unstoppable pick-and-roll combination with Chris Paul. His field goal percentage skyrocketed from 56% to 65%, which increased his minutes, and in turn, his rebounds and blocks. As Shaq once infamously said, “if you don’t feed the big dog, he ain’t going to guard the house.” If a center gets the ball on offense, he’s going to feel better about himself and be more active on defense.
In their second season together in 2008, Paul and Chandler led the Hornets to a 56-26 record and a No. 2 seed. They steamrolled the Mavs in the first round, then lost a heartbreaking seven-game series to the Spurs in the second round after San Antonio won a Game 7 in New Orleans. Despite the setback, they looked like one of the NBA’s up-and-coming young teams.
That, unfortunately, is when injuries struck. All of a sudden, Chandler’s body betrayed him and he played in only 45 games in the 2008-09 season. When you get above 7’0, you are in the 99% percentile for height. The human body just isn’t designed to be that tall. The inherent fragility of players that size is accentuated by the brutal demands of an NBA season: 82 games played all over the North American continent and crammed into six-months.
Many thought Chandler would never be able to stay healthy again. If he hadn’t failed a physical at the trade deadline in 2009, he would have ended up with Oklahoma City. Like Yao Ming, Greg Oden and possibly Andrew Bynum, Chandler could easily have gone down as another “what if” in recent NBA history. What if Williams had stayed healthy in Chicago? What if Chandler and Paul had stayed together in New Orleans? How would he have looked next to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?
Instead, he was dealt to Charlotte before stumbling through another injury-plagued season in 2010. As a result, when Dallas acquired him before the 2010-11 season, it hardly made a splash. Of all the moves made that summer, who would have guessed a trade for the Bobcats backup center would decide the NBA title? The chemistry in Dallas was incredible: Chandler was the piece that Nowitzki had been waiting for his entire career, as the two formed a 7’0 Voltron that dominated the league. In the 2011 playoffs, the Mavs went 16-5, defeating three “super-teams” -- the Lakers, Thunder and Heat -- in the process.
Chandler was incredible on the defensive end: a 7’1 jumping jack who could guard any frontcourt player and clean up any dribble penetration. Just as important was what he gave Dallas on offense: he shot 65% from the floor and 73% from the free-throw line. Surrounded by shooters at the other four positions, he had a ton of space to cut to the rim and attack the offensive boards for long misses. The most pivotal game of that playoff run may have been Game 5 of their first round series against Portland. The Blazers had tied the series at 2-2 due to Brandon Roy’s Game 4 heroics, but Chandler pulled down an incredible 13 (!!) offensive rebounds to turn the tide of the series.
He was the perfect complement to Dirk, the yin to his yang. By all rights, he should have spent the rest of his career in Dallas. Instead, the Mavs' front office got greedy, dreaming of a possible super-team with Dirk, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard and letting their co-MVP walk in the name of “cap flexibility”. They lost in the first round the year before he came and they lost in the first round the year after he left.
There’s a lot more to winning basketball games than scoring 20+ points a night. Chandler is an elite rebounder, rim protector, individual defender and finisher at the center position. There are only four other guys in the NBA with that skill-set: Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut, Andrew Bynum and Kevin Garnett.
Howard is coming off back surgery, no one knows when Bynum will play again, Bogut hasn’t been healthy in years and Garnett is 36 years old. Chandler is why Javale McGee, DeAndre Jordan, Serge Ibaka and Omer Asik are rich and why Meyers Leonard and Andre Drummond went in the lottery. Because maybe, if those guys stay healthy and stay hungry, they might one day be as good as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
Without Chandler, Dirk never gets his ring. Without him dominating the paint on both sides of the ball, “Linsanity” never happens. And if he had stayed in Dallas, Carmelo would be battling the tabloids on a .500 team, not competing for an MVP award on a contender. Chandler doesn’t create enough individual offense to be a “franchise player”, but there’s only one franchise player in the league who can win a title without someone like him. And Chandler was on the only team that’s been able to come out of South Beach alive so far.