Midway through the first quarter of the New York Knicks' Tuesday night matchup with the Charlotte Bobcats at Madison Square Garden, Knicks center Tyson Chandler and Bobcats point guard Kemba Walker collided in the paint, with both players hitting the deck in pain:
Walker got up and stayed in the game. (He'd later leave due to an apparent shoulder or hand injury, but came returned to finish the game, scoring a team-high 25 points with six assists and five rebounds.) Chandler, however, appeared to take the worst of the collision, limping off the court and eventually being helped to the locker room by inactive reserve center Cole Aldrich; Chandler did not return, logging just over 6 1/2 minutes of playing time in a disappointing 102-97 loss that dropped New York to 1-3 on the season.
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The team called initial X-rays of Chandler's right leg "inconclusive," saying a full diagnosis would come following further testing. Well, that diagnosis came down Wednesday, and it's not a good one for the Knicks or their fans:
During last night’s game versus Charlotte, Knicks center Tyson Chandler suffered a small non-displaced fracture of the right fibula.
— NY_KnicksPR (@NY_KnicksPR) November 6, 2013
Further tests this morning showed no ligament or nerve damage. Surgery is not required. He is expected to be out approximately 4-6 weeks. — NY_KnicksPR (@NY_KnicksPR) November 6, 2013
That timetable would means the Knicks will be without Chandler for somewhere between 12 and 22 games.
The injury comes as Chandler — who missed 16 games last season battling a variety of injuries and looked weakened, slowed and badly overmatched when pitted against Roy Hibbert in the Knicks' six-game postseason loss to the Indiana Pacers back in May — was looking as healthy, strong and fierce as he had since New York's hot start last season ... or perhaps even his inaugural 2011-12 campaign in Manhattan, when he won the league's Defensive Player of the Year award, as he told Peter Botte of the New York Daily News after the Knicks' last-second loss to the Chicago Bulls last Thursday:
“I feel good physically,” Chandler said. “I feel a lot stronger, explosiveness to really attack the offensive glass, give my team second-chance opportunities as well as to control the paint defensively.
“I’m getting back to where I was the first year I came here, coming over and protecting the paint, jumping straight up."
Now, he'll be prevented from doing anything of the sort for at least the next month. It's difficult to overstate just how damaging missing Chandler for as much as a quarter of the season is for these Knicks; as Steve Popper of the Bergen Record wrote, "While Chandler may not be the team’s best player, he might be the player the team can least afford to lose."
New York is already struggling mightily to incorporate new pieces added in the offseason, establish any sort of coherent defensive identity in areas like containing pick-and-rolls and identifying matchups in transition, and develop the sort of cohesion that would help them more closely approximate the defense that finished the 2011-12 season allowing the NBA's fifth-fewest points per 100 possessions than the one that ended the '12-'13 campaign tied for 16th in a 30-team league in defensive efficiency. They've shown flashes of that kind of defense at times — in stretches while rolling up a big lead in the season opener against the Milwaukee Bucks (who were playing without their top two point guards), for parts of the tough road loss to the Bulls — but have also looked absolutely clueless at times. Losing Chandler certainly won't help in organizing things.
You can't draw definitive conclusions after watching just four games, but the eye test of watching the Knicks defense with and without Chandler thus far this season has seemed to mostly mirror his on/off-court statistics. New York has allowed opponents to score nearly 13 1/2 points more per 100 possessions without Chandler in the game than when he is patrolling the paint, according to NBA.com's stat tool. Knick opponents are getting to the foul line more than twice as often when he's not around — 29 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes without Chandler compared to 14.2-per-36 with him. (The Minnesota Timberwolves went 29 for 38 from the foul line in beating the Knicks on Sunday, and the Bobcats went 34 for 42 — their highest number of attempts in a year and a half — in Tuesday's win.)
Other teams have shot significantly better — especially in the paint and from midrange — during non-Chandler minutes, too. Here's how Knicks' opponents have shot when Chandler's in this season (remember, red's bad for an offense, yellow's middling and green's good):
And here's how they've done when he's out:
Combine the lack of a rim protector and paint deterrent when Chandler's not in the game with the drop-off on the glass — the Knicks have gone from a top-10 offensive rebounding team and a just-south-of-middling defensive rebounding team with Chandler to one of the league's five worst teams on the boards without him through four games — and you start to see the issue. With Chandler, the Knicks (while still scuffling, scrambling and not elite) had a chance to make up for routinely poor point-guard defense, sloppy rotations and forced switches, and get out of a defensive possession with a stop, a rebound and an outlet. Without him ... well, the Knicks' options aren't pretty.
Reserve big man Kenyon Martin — who wasn't supposed to play in back-to-back games or play more than 10 minutes in a game while working through a lingering left ankle injury — will likely be pressed into bigger minutes more often, as he was against the Wolves (16:10 of playing time) and Bobcats (18:17); he's the Knicks' best non-Chandler shot-blocker, but a subpar rebounder for his position and, at 35 years old and increasingly creaky, not exactly the most reliable long-term replacement. Another player on the no-back-to-backs-and-only-limited-minutes plan, Amar'e Stoudemire, could see more action, too, but given his play thus far this season — eight turnovers in just under 22 minutes of floor time, all three of his missed field-goals coming because his shot's been blocked, hardly any explosiveness off the hardwood, a shadow of a shell of his former self — that's not such a thrilling proposition.
Neither, though, is an increased role for offseason trade acquisition Andrea Bargnani, whose early-season struggles continue apace. The Knicks have been outscored by 38 points in Bargnani's 84 minutes of playing time this season, with opponents shooting better than 51 percent from the floor and 68 percent at the rim when the 7-foot Italian's working along the Knicks' back line. Worse still, the Knicks' offense has been more productive (scoring about six more points-per-100 without Bargnani than with him) and looked a lot smoother when the former No. 1 overall pick has sat, making the prospect of heavier Bargnani minutes a daunting one for Knicks fans, if not necessarily for coach Mike Woodson, who prefers a "big" lineup (even if Bargnani plays more like a sub-6-footer than a center) to the two-point-guard configurations that helped spark the Knicks' offense last season. (Pablo Prigioni has come off the bench for the last three games, playing less than 20 minutes in each; offseason signing Beno Udrih has seen 14 minutes in two contests and already picked up two DNP-CDs.)
Martin and Stoudemire's physical limitations, and Bargnani's performance limitations, could force Woodson into some uncomfortable rotation changes. Aldrich figures to be added to the active roster to soak up some center minutes; preseason cut/D-League re-acquisition Jeremy Tyler could be added, too, although that would necessitate the Knicks cutting someone from their fully stocked roster to make room for the 6-foot-10 big man. (The likeliest candidate is guard Chris Smith, J.R.'s little brother, although little about his path to the Knicks' Opening Night roster could be described as "likely.")
The re-activation of J.R. Smith following his five-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and the extra boost to the Knicks' depth on the wing and in the backcourt, could lead Woodson to use more small-ball lineups anchored by two-point-guard alignments featuring some combination of Prigioni, Udrih and starter Raymond Felton. Rookie guard Toure' Murry, who earned a roster spot out of training camp specifically because he showed a willingness to be a demon in defending opposing point men, could get dusted off. Defensive stalwarts Metta World Peace and Iman Shumpert could see more time at the four and three spots, respectively. A pout-infused panic trade could be in the offing, shuffling the deck and giving Woodson a new rotation to juggle.
“I have a lot to think about right now, with Tyson being out and Kenyon and Amar’e on restricted minutes,” Woodson said after Tuesday's game.
And Knicks fans, fresh off a 54-win, Atlantic Division-topping, playoff-series-winning season that stood as an oasis amid a decade of futility, have a lot to worry about while they wait for Chandler to get back on his feet, back in the paint and back in the business of trying to drag a struggling Knicks team to a fourth straight postseason.
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