For Zeke, the eye test was enough. More than enough.
In 2006, then President of Basketball Operations Isiah Thomas looked at film and live performances of the Chicago Bulls and decided that Eddy Curry would be the cornerstone of the New York Knicks. Loaded as Curry was with an ever-improving offensive repertoire of crafty pivots, soft hooks, and deceptive agility — all unbecoming the snapshot impression one might have of a player already nearing 300 pounds — who could blame him?
Beside Curry stood Tyson Chandler; all 150 offensively challenged pounds of him — a good inch or two taller, far lither, the same age, and inferior both statistically and, it would appear, skill-wise. To be sure, the 7’2″ center had certainly shown some promise, particularly on D and glass; two facets which would later come to define the Compton native as a legitimate anchor in the paint. Even in his halcyon Chi-Town days, Chandler did the dirty work, touting a comparatively rudimentary offensive quiver centered around ungodly hops and keen timing — alley-oops and put-back and little else.
Which is all well and good, for anyone not drafted second overall. As it was, by 2005, Curry was seen as the one who might actually live up to his lofty draft status. Chandler, on the other hand, appeared doomed to a career of one-dimensionality — a niche player that needed the right situation and the right personnel around him in order to truly thrive.
Taken second and fourth in the 2001 Draft (Chandler’s rights were immediately dealt by the Clippers for Elton Brand), Chandler and Curry were immediately cast as potential saviors for a Bulls franchise then a full two years removed from a completely predictable fall from glory. Like the reign of the Rome-razing Visigoths, the Bulls saw their new era as one of brute force in the trenches, with Curry and Chandler the battering chieftains. Over the next four years, the two’s play — wholly distinct in style — would be borne out in numbers both similar and disparate, depending on the what you were looking at:
Curry: 15.8 PER; 0.09 WS/48; 57% TS%; 18.1 PP36; 7.7 REBP36
Chandler: 14.9 PER; 0.112 WS/48; 54% TS%; 11.3 PP36; 11.0 REBP36
You can see which stat Isiah’s found himself fixated on. Curry was the better scorer, and seemed to boast the higher offensive ceiling than Chandler, content as the later appeared to be with honing a game whose radius seldom exceeded five feet from the basket.
Chandler has admitted that his stint in the Windy City — co-anchoring a Bulls team that included Ben Gordon, Kirk Heinrich and Luol Deng – was more challenging than rewarding. After one year sans his former draft-mate, Chandler would spend the next three seasons catching Chris Paul lob’s in New Orleans, before being dealt (quite injured, it should be noted) to Charlotte for Emeka Okafor in late 2009. A year later, Chandler would be dealt to Mavericks, in what history will– and should — look back on as one of the great trade steals of the last 20 years.
Now, six years and one Chandler ring removed from one of the most debilitating and infamous acquisitions in Knick history — six years too late, perhaps — it seems as though, this time, we finally got the right Bull.
* * * * *
On the afternoon of December 7th, the NBA Twitterati leaked word that the Knicks were making a last-second push to acquire the now title-owning Chandler. In the hours and days leading up to the sudden coup, the Warriors and Nets were by all accounts the two teams closest to landing the unrestricted free agent. When Chandler found out the Knicks had started making calls, he was as intrigued as he was taken aback. All the while, the post-lockout conversation in Knickland had been almost exclusively focused on the prospect of somehow adding to the mix the one binding agent capable of turning gruel into championship gold: Chris Paul. But with New Orleans backed into a corner not unlike that which the Denver Nuggets found themselves in the season previous, the league-owned and operated Hornets couldn’t help but start looking elsewhere for potential suitors. Lacking the assets to make a deal for Paul, the Knicks turned their attention to Chandler, who had somehow been rendered the odd man out in Mark Cuban’s resigning equation.
Three days later, the ink had dried on a four-year, $56 million contract that landed the Knicks their best defensive presence since Marcus Camby. More importantly, the reams of pulp dedicated to lampooning the Bockers for their disinterest — some would say out and out hostility — towards defense-first players had at least temporarily been rendered moot. Coming as he was off of a season in which he not only won a title, but put up arguably the most well-rounded stat line of his career — the points (13.1) and rebounds (12.1) per 36 were nothing if not on career par, while his FT% (73%) and TS% (a robust 70%) were high water marks — even the most acrid Knick critics couldn’t help but tip their cap to the infamously impulsive and one-track-minded Dolan-led front office.
The many who quipped that we’d finally exorcised the worst of Isiah’s specters doubtless recognized the Chandler signing for the weird full circle closing that it was. But really it was bigger than that. For many, the signing amounted to a kind of catharsis for the franchise itself, still recovering as it is from a lost decade of endless bullshit, unnecessary drama, and putrid basketball. And while it’s easy to scoff at the long money involved, as far as perceived-versus-actual value goes, the Chandler signing is anathema to everything the Knicks have tried to do lo this past 10 years, at least with respect to free agent signings.
Then, consider this: Lest you think Guitar Jimmy doesn’t remember the LeBron alter ditching with anything less than proper Irish rage, imagine knowing you had a shot at a guy who played an integral role in keeping that same King’s ascendance thwarted. You can just imagine Dolan sitting in his Victorian leather chair during Game 6 of the Finals, eyes fixated on this 7’2″ paint-roaming beast as he time and again neutralizes — often by mere presence alone — the slashing abilities of arguably the two best wings in the game. Ever vindictive, never long for a chance at revenge, it’s possible Dolan’s had this card tucked up his sleeve since summer.
In two preseason games, Chandler’s play has — like many — been limited in both time and predictive statistics. Moreover, he’s no doubt still figuring out the nuances of a system different than any he’s ever played in, in a city something wholly apart from what he’s used to, in front of fans equal parts loyal and cutthroat. Here’s the thing though: Unlike free agent signings of years past, few worry about Chandler “figuring it out.” Not in the same way we fret — and will continue to fret — about Amar’e, Melo, TD, Landry, or even Baron “figuring it out.” Chandler’s had it — solid rebounding and lockdown defense — figured out for a while now. Obviously the concerns over Tyson’s health (he missed a combined 68 games between the ’09 and ’10 seasons) aren’t totally off the reservation; for someone who makes his living protecting the rim at all costs, Chandler has rarely been asked to cover up for defenders as routinely disinterested as Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony.
Still, the hope is that the mere presence of Chandler will be enough to ignite within his two superstar wingmen the wherewithal to make playing D — more a matter of effort than ability anyway — necessary, integral, even fun. For a team that finished 22nd in Defensive Rating last year (a whopping 110.1 points per 100 possessions), it’s certainly no small task. But one need look no further than last June to understand how fundamentally a player of Chandler’s unique caliber can alter an entire franchise’s attitude, focus, and defensive dedication.
Maybe it’ll come back to haunt us. Maybe he gets hurt or maybe Amar’e and Melo’s weaknesses are far too vast to cover for or maybe he clashes with Coach or the whole thing just doesn’t work ever, at all. Maybe we come up snake eyes again. But at least it was an earnest roll of the dice; with an eye more towards protecting what’s been earned — which, truth be told, isn’t much yet — than towards the one big signing, the one contract, the one superstar that’ll bring it all together. It was a gamble borne from the recognition that any ship — no matter how fast or sleek or prolific — will only go as far and as deep as its tallest mast will allow.