A flu-ridden Tyson Chandler looks pretty good for a dude with the flu, last Saturday (Getty Images)
Tyson Chandler won the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award on Wednesday, as Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears first reported on Tuesday evening, and the New York Knicks center has more than earned the honor. The veteran big man was gracious in his acceptance, calling his singular recognition more of "a team thing" during the press conference announcing his selection, while tweeting later on that he was "blessed" to be the first Knick in the team's longstanding defensive history to be given the award.
Chandler has seemed to be the runaway winner for a few months now, especially since Orlando Magic center (and three-time winner) Dwight Howard seemed to flake out more and more. This allowed The Basketball Jones' Trey Kerby, in a pitch-perfect column, to point out the fact that Howard's team-based and individual defensive stats were actually on par or better than Chandler's in several instances, and that Howard (even in an off year of his own design) may still have been a victim of voter fatigue, 12 missed games, and his own submarining of Orlando's season. Trey's correct, even as he points out that Chandler deserved the award.
With that point in place, it's probably best to move on to another surprising element of Chandler's turnaround, and one that tends to get lost as we tend to stay in the day-to-day realm of the NBA's shifts and feints. Tyson Chandler was always supposed to be at that podium, accepting that award. Then he wasn't. Then he was, again. Then he definitely wasn't. Though Chandler probably doesn't want to look upon this honor as a culmination and/or peak moment in his career, especially at just 29 years of age, he should be proud at what he's had to overcome just to become the first Defensive Player of the Year in Knick history.
It's a legitimate comeback story, several times over, and one to consider when we slough off players following injuries or years of inconsistent development. Chandler was never a knucklehead, even after entering the NBA out of high school 101/2 years ago (yikes; we're all very old) he's shown remarkable poise, grace and patience that you wouldn't expect from a player that was documented on "60 Minutes" as a teen phenom years before even suiting up for the Chicago Bulls in 2001.
Charged, along with Eddy Curry, in turning the Bulls around eventually in the midst of an ongoing rebuilding project, Chandler struggled mightily to find an NBA role. The breathless scouting reports that painted him as a Kevin Garnett-like project were quickly hid under desks when it became apparent that his hands weren't up to KG's snuff (whose are?) and he was more of an orthodox big man. The problem with that orthodox role (who doesn't want a 7-footer adept at doing nothing but blocking shots and rebounding?) is that he didn't have the body suited for the banging, in just his third year out of high school.
Even after averaging a double-double (even considering an injury-addled two-point, 14-minute game) of 13 points and 10.3 rebounds in Chicago's first month of 2003-04, Chandler missed most of that season struggling through a back ailment brought on by interior pounding his skinny frame couldn't handle. A few crashes to the floor after charging after loose balls didn't hurt, either.
This is his third season, mind you, leaving Tyson too old-school to work as a KG-type, but without enough old-school muscle to attempt the sort of game that his skills sort of demanded. Or screamed for. With Curry looking just as bad, in a completely different way, Chandler didn't have many fans in Chicago despite his obvious hustle and strong attitude.
2004-05 changed things — which is a theme you'll no doubt notice as you work through this. Chandler worked to spell Curry off the Chicago bench and was his team's most destructive defensive force; starting 10 games but playing 80 on a Bulls team that was second overall in defensive efficiency. And yet, Chandler didn't even put up the sort of per-minute stats that usually crank a Player Efficiency Rating through the roof. His show was more in hedging, playing team defense that didn't always see him bashing a shot attempt into the fifth row or hauling in 20 rebounds. Chicago was smitten enough to hand him a contract averaging in the eight figures the following late summer.
Because he was a restricted free agent, Tyson didn't play much in the offseason as the Bulls let him seek out his own market, and as a result he wasn't in shape by the time training camp started. Contract in hand, Chandler pressed.
Another change — starting alongside the similar Antonio Davis after Curry's trade to New York, meant that Chandler had to watch his fouls, all without playing with the sort of offensive-minded partner (the year before it was Othella Harrington; something you shouldn't laugh at because that combo worked damn well for a 47-win Bulls team the year before) as then-coach Scott Skiles refused to play Chandler alongside the then-effective Michael Sweetney, and then the Bulls barely eked into the playoffs as a result. Tyson backed his way into a series of offensive fouls screening for his team's guards against defenses that weren't even bothering to cover Chandler and Davis, and he turned the ball over on over a quarter of the possessions he used up.
Uninspired by the change, the team dealt Chandler to New Orleans for the trade bait that was never traded, in P.J. Brown.
Paired with a guard in NOLA that could work a screen and roll a wee bit better than Ben Gordon and Chris Duhon, Chandler flourished alongside Chris Paul. He led the league in rebounding rate, an actual box score stat, and cranked out a couple of All-Star worthy seasons in the loaded West before injuries, again, hit. Hit so hard that the Oklahoma City Thunder — the team that does everything right — declined on adding a double-double guy in Chandler (mind you, a 26-year-old double-double guy who thinks team first and never about his own offense) for the price of expiring contracts because they didn't like the look of his surgically repaired turf toe.
(Think about that, the next time you see Tyson rise to finish for a tip dunk, or hound a guard 30 feet from the rim.)
Tyson spent a few more uneasy months with the Hornets before they dealt him to Charlotte, another change, where Chandler endured yet another frustrating year while dealing with a stress fracture.
Bad back, stress fracture, turf toe. Three things pro athletes don't tend to overcome. All signs pointed to fragile, as Chandler dealt with the three ailments that seem to limit big men the most. The Bobcats, mindful of the one year he had remaining on the deal Chicago signed him to, traded him to Dallas in the offseason for a contract they were able to waive for a few thousand dollars.
More changes, more low points (Dallas already had one center making quite a bit of money, in Brendan Haywood, on the roster), and a fourth team in four years. Not including the team that decided it didn't like the looks of his feet. Back to the wall, Tyson flourished. He helmed that Dallas screen and roll defense, helped make the crafty Jason Kidd potent again defensively, and may have been the deciding final push the eventual champions needed in the playoffs.
Could LeBron James have been more aggressive in the Finals last June? Definitely, but he also knew he had a 7-footer in the Dallas frontcourt that could just about keep up with his drives with either length or footwork or both. A veteran full of tricks and savvy that was still only two years older than him. Someone who had his own shoe company-led hype machine moving him around in high school; though Chandler's family immediately put an end to the sort of stuff that got James in trouble (Chandler worked on a farm during the summer months, James signed SUV leases), even if Tyson and LeBron had taken wildly divergent routes to get where they were following the end of their amateur turn.
As a result of all that, the goofy 2011 offseason rested on Chandler's Decision. He was the primo free agent, signing with a Knicks team that was rumored to be harvesting cash for the 2012 offseason and Chris Paul. Chafing at the knowledge that New York was no longer an option, Paul then demanded a trade; settling on a Clippers team once Chauncey Billups (who had been waived by the Knicks in order to help clear up cap room for Chandler) signed with Los Angeles.
And though the Knicks have been all over the map this year, the obviously Chandler-led defense steadily improved. From 21st in defense last season to 10th in defense by the time former coach Mike D'Antoni resigned a month and a half ago. In a month under Mike Woodson, Chandler and the Knicks managed to raise that mark all the way up to fifth in defense, once adjusted for pace.
Fifth, for a team often working with Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire up front. Fifth, for a team that featured a whippet-thin point guard out of Harvard for a month-long stretch. Fifth, and Mike D'Antoni still probably has aftershave bottles in that locker room somewhere.
We're OK to believe in patterns, with this league. Injury patterns, expectations based on size or upbringing or hype level, thoughts about ceilings and feelings and contract years. And it's true that two of Tyson Chandler's finest seasons have come in a contract year, and perhaps his worst season came following the signing of a big contract.
But his best season, at least personally, came this year; after signing a deal that shook the NBA's offseason. And through all our guesswork and scouting, presumptions and trend-obsession, we should probably learn from Tyson Chandler. Learn that players get better, through their 20s, if you give them a chance. Especially if they give themselves a chance by understanding their personal strengths while dedicating themselves to enhancing what can be improved upon.
So congratulations, Tyson Chandler. Not just on this award, but on this career. We're still catching up.
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