The New York Knicks visit the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night for the front end of a Lone Star State back-to-back that will see them face a pair of tough tests against the defending champs and the San Antonio Spurs, who boast the league's third-best record through 37 games.
Tuesday night's matchup marks Knicks center Tyson Chandler's first return to the American Airlines Center since heading northeast in free agency after helping Dallas win its first NBA title in franchise history last season. As such, he will, at long last, get the championship ring he worked so hard to earn as the Mavs' man in the middle last year. He's the last member of the 2010-11 Mavericks to receive his ring, a wait that must have been made all the more excruciating by the fact that he had to present former Dallas assistant Dwane Casey, now the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, with a ring back on Valentine's Day, all the while knowing it'd still be weeks before he got his mitts on his own.
According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, the Mavericks will air a video tribute to Chandler lauding his contributions to their title run during his lone campaign in Dallas. After that, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle will say a few words about how Chandler is the finest man he has ever met in his life (probably) and Mavs owner Mark Cuban will wear his finest tuxedo T-shirt to give Chandler his ring (probably). It should all be very nice.
The problem is, as Frank Isola of the New York Daily News noted, when Chandler finally gets his well-deserved jewel-laden reward, "it may hurt to put it on," thanks to a badly injured left wrist and hand that Chandler's been playing with since suffering a hard foul from former teammate Brendan Haywood during the second quarter of the Knicks' 104-97 win over the Mavs at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 19.
"There's a lot of problems beyond the bone bruise," Chandler said after Monday's practice [in Dallas]. Chandler is now wearing a pad for protection on his non-shooting hand and expects to play with pain for the rest of the season.
"I told him even [if] it's broken you're playing," Mike D'Antoni joked.
You get the sense that D'Antoni's joke was an example of what Al Franken famously called "kidding on the square" — when you act as if you're messing around, but really, you're serious as a heart attack. Because while all the headline-grabbing narratives and human-interest sidebars are great, if you read between the lines you see that there's no Knick more irreplaceable than Chandler. And no one knows it better than the team's head coach.
Obviously, the meteoric rise of Jeremy Lin, the emergence of Steve Novak, and the developing and often exciting relationship between mercurial second-unit guards Baron Davis and J.R. Smith have all played a major role in New York shaking off an awful start to the season to get into the Eastern Conference playoff picture. But as the Knicks enter their second month with Lin at the point and work through the third week of their newfound existence as a pretty deep team, it's the stable defensive foundation that Chandler provides that has afforded D'Antoni the opportunity to figure it all out.
Without Chandler both consistently winning his matchup at the five (where he's holding opposing centers to a below-league-average Player Efficiency Rating while putting up the 11th-best PER among pivots, per both Hollinger and Hoopdata) and providing active, attentive help defense to cover up Knicks wings' mistakes on the perimeter, D'Antoni wouldn't have time to conduct the ongoing chemistry experiment that is trying to figure out the Knicks' offensive identity when everyone's in the lineup.
If Chandler wasn't captaining the league's sixth-most efficient defensive unit — a unit that, as I noted in our Knicks season preview back in December, has been 20th or worse in that statistic every year since 2003 — and turning in a pretty damn good performance on the offensive end, leading the league in field-goal percentage and offensive rating, then Linsanity probably wouldn't have gotten a chance to take off, because Mike D'Antoni very well may have been fired. The Knicks' free-agent prize has, thus far, been worth every penny; he has been job-saving good.
Which is why the prospect of losing him should scare the wits out of Knicks fans. As it stands, Chandler told reporters, including The New York Times' Howard Beck, that his wrist and hand injury won't require surgery. But the fact that his taped-and-padded left paw could take six weeks to properly heal, and that he'll continue to ache for the rest of the season, is grim news heading into what should be a full-fledged celebration. To some degree, though, it also stands as confirmation of his value — as much as Chandler meant to last year's championship Mavs, he might mean even more to this year's teetering Knicks.