Per 36 Minutes:
When thinking about Tyson Chandler, I can’t help but conjure that scene in Hoosiers where the freshly hired Norman Dale (played to the marrow by Gene Hackman) shows up to practice for the first time to find his charges mired in some half-assed scrimmage. The team’s yokel assistant keeps barking at the guys to “quit throwing it around and get it in the hole,” while Dale looks on, horrified. The two then engage in a super awkward exchange, culminating with yokel coach threatening to “strap your ass to a pine rail, and send you up the Monon line.”
Having assumed full command, Dale then proceeds to put his team – four-and-a-half players, remember – through a series of rigorous, defense-oriented drills that damn near end the Huskers’ season on account of mass death before it can even begin. Only they don’t die, they’re better for it, and their defense becomes just as important as any Jimmy Chitwood (Melo) jumper from thereon forward.
That’s Tyson Chandler.
Long before Mike Woodson’s [ostensibly] defense-first ascension brought about a top to bottom philosophical pole shift, the Knicks’ 12th hour offseason signing of Chandler signaled something of a sea change in an organization once again undertaken a course re-charting. Four years and $56 million later, the Knicks had added the final piece to the league’s most lucrative frontcourt. And despite the backcourt question marks and team turmoil doomed to follow, Tyson Chandler – from day one and with bearded aplomb – moored himself in a Garden floor typically wont for quicksand, “scrapping and yelling and mixing it up,” as another Hackman vessel might say.
Spending a full season covering for a pair of players almost savant-like in their defensive disinterestedness would’ve proven an injured errand for most. Instead, Chandler was one of the more durable cogs in a machine perpetually shedding bolts and gears in the form of knees, ankles, and other leg-related bits, this despite playing with a left wrist made of roast beef for much of the season.
He also charted the second highest field goal percentage in, like, a thousand years, which is ridiculous, no matter the system. Even more incredible, he did it with an offensive repertoire as dynamic as a Lunchable; oops, put-back slams, deep-paint flips, and little else (he attempted 10 shots beyond 10 feet this year – TEN!) Which hasn’t mattered much ever since Chandler first took the amateur plunge in 2001, when he was paired with fellow high school standout – and, by virtue of his extensive ballet training, far more offensively refined – Eddy Curry. Like any intelligent player, Chandler figured out a might quick that the key to his longevity had its pivot in the pivot’s essentials: defense, rebounding, energy, and a few loose ‘bows. It’s a formula that helped prove him the binding agent of a Dallas title team just a season ago, and one which will be key to any successful equation the Knicks manage to chart in the coming months and years.
As evidenced by a Defensive Player of the Year Award – the franchise’s first ever – and a second team All-NBA Defensive team selection (how you reconcile those two things, I have no idea), Chandler exhibited nothing in the way of payday malaise. If anything, he was the only point on the troika that truly earned his keep, in the process taking on the mantle of emotional and psychological leader. Even more remarkable was the effortlessness with which Tyson endeared himself to a fan base built largely on the currency of grit – grit and bad beards. In a city where quick fix solutions often result in the marshaling of stars as mercurial as they are polarizing, the stabilizing effect of Tyson’s grounded quawn is less a luxury than a necessity; the front office might continue to orbit a lifeless rock, but with Chandler, at least we know the locker room is in good hands.
Given their precarious cap situation, the Knicks have basically afforded themselves a two or three-year window within which to vindicate the current core. Fair or not, deserved or not, the burden’s onus will fall disproportionately about Melo and Amare’s shoulders. And, given their ring-less pedigrees and questionable two-way ethics, it probably should. Chandler, on the other hand, is the kid who can do no wrong; the Galahad at a table full of flawed peers; the good apple in a barrel risking rot. I mean, you know, minus the dumbass techs.
Because of Tyson, the Knicks’ D – in less than a year – went from league laughingstock (21st in defensive efficiency last year) to the ones holding the whoopie cushions and squirting flowers (5th). In an Eastern Conference where the M.O. has been – and will most likely continue to be – defense first, second, and last, that’s no small thing. As such, rediscovering their decade-past taste for blood and box-outs will be key to the Knicks’ future prospects, while that of an offensive fool’s gold fades into the forgotten.
In the wake of Mike Woodson’s multi-year extension, it’s likely that this season’s stretch run will serve as the philosophical template going forward. Whether that means an iso-Joe-like, Melo-centric offense, one built around the quickness and probing prowess of Lin, or something wholly other, it’s clear that defense will be the team’s North Star for the foreseeable future. And Woodson doubtless deserves partial credit for that. The rest goes to number six.
Grades (5 point scale):
Final Grade: A