There is no denying the 2012 Olympic roster is brimming with valuable pieces. LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant possess unmatched skills and talent. But somewhere in the shadows cast by the glow of the NBA’s biggest names and brightest games, Tyson Chandler stands alone –- literally. Due to Dwight Howard’s back injury, Chandler was the only center selected for the squad the US and now plans to dispatch to London with the request of capturing the gold.
But Chandler’s role in that process seems to be a relative afterthought. The ironic part is, that on a team full of superstars, one of two players without an All-Star berth (James Harden being the other) holds the fate of Team USA in his shot-blocking hands. This isn’t an attempt to compare Chandler’s accomplishments with those of James, Durant or Kobe Bryant.
Instead, it’s simply to point out that Chandler’s importance stems not from his laundry list of positive attributes, but from the scarcity of other players like him on the roster. Now, simply being tall in the absence of meaningful height doesn’t mean Chandler gets elevated to star status by default. Make no mistake about it, Chandler is a role player but he still is vitally important to Team USA’s success. As ESPN’s Beckley Mason, founder of HoopSpeak, points out, that doesn’t mean he’s not elite:
Chandler is in a great position with this team because the only things that will be expected of him are things he does really well: rebound, defend the paint and pick-and-roll, run the floor and catch/finish at the rim. That's pretty much all he does, but he does all those things at an elite level. In some ways, Chandler is just a highly-evolved role player. And that's fine, especially on Team USA. Chandler will also be vital because he's the team's lone 7-footer and Spain, Team USA's biggest test (both literally and figuratively), has a trio of big men with whom to bludgeon the paint. But Chandler's primary contribution is that he'll do his job, and well, and that will allow everyone else, especially those super talented wing players, to do theirs in comfort and style.
Mason does a great job illustrating Chandler’s two-fold effect on Team USA’s defense. His absence due to injury or foul trouble means the United States is without a true center to battle any international foe capable of trotting out competent big men (like Spain).
To compensate, the US would then have to ask their collection of supremely skilled forwards to do things outside of their natural strengths. In particular, James, Kevin Love or the defensively-challenged Blake Griffin will likely be asked to man the pivot in Chandler’s stead. A result that could cause Team USA’s defense, and overall performance, to noticeably suffer.
Chandler illustrated this effect most clearly perhaps in Dallas. His presence there was the glue that allowed team containing a lone-superstar and a host of specialized role players sneak up on everyone and win a title. To explain how this happened, I enlisted Rob Mahoney of The Two Man Game and New York Times’ Off the Dribble blog to review the “Chandler Effect” he witnessed while covering the team during the 2010-11 season.
Defense in general is tough to pick up on if you're not watching a player game-to-game, and in that Chandler may not always pop out to the casual viewer. But few contemporary big men are as capable of switching onto quicker players on the perimeter, hedging and recovering against pick and rolls so seamlessly, and contesting drives with perfect verticality.
Beyond that, it's amazing how much space Chandler can clear on offense just by rolling to the rim. It's no coincidence that Chandler has led the NBA in offensive rating the last two seasons; he expands the court vertically and has an impeccable understanding of how to manipulate space -- a true rarity among big men. Chandler's entire process is a bit more nuanced, as even the most straightforward uses of his size or athleticism come on the heels of active movement and perfect timing. It was an underlying factor in why the Mavericks struggled so much offensively after he left.
All of that worked brilliantly for Chandler in Dallas. But what might he accomplish with an entire team of willing and skilled passers as in tune with the cadence of the offense as he is, and an array of athletic defenders helping to smother every opponent?
Mahoney brings up a fantastic point and often overlooked point about Chandler’s Team USA – he benefits just as much from his supporting cast as they do from him on both ends of the floor.
That dynamic wasn’t nearly as true in New York this past season. Chandler willed the Knicks into a Top 5 ranking in defensive efficiency – quite the feat considering the lack of accomplished defenders alongside him. I asked Seth Rosthenal, author of the Knicks blog Posting & Toasting to try to explain this phenomena. Seth obliged and described Chandler’s season in a way only a Knicks fan can:
Tyson Chandler was New York's defense last year. He caused trouble for pretty much everybody who dared enter the paint when he was on the floor and, moreover, his mere presence caused offensive players to think better of driving the lane. It covered for weak perimeter defense like you wouldn't believe, and Chandler helped those guys out, too, by barking directions constantly.
He has weaknesses -- he commits some really dumb fouls and has trouble with bigs who can step out and shoot (which might be an occasional problem during Olympic competition) -- but is generally a defensive master. He single-handedly thwarted so, so many opponents' possessions last season, and his impact was doubly evident when he sat down and the Knicks suddenly couldn't stop anyone.
I have loved and revered many Knicks in my life, but I've only had two nightmares about the Knicks losing a player. One was about Allan Houston when I was about eight years old, and the other was about Tyson Chandler.
The common theme emerging from all these observations is pretty easy to spot. Chandler’s defensive impact matters -- even on a team full of stars. He has evolved from Bobcats’ benchwarmer to the lynchpin of two separate teams. It’s become increasingly clear that he’ll be burdened with a similar responsibility for a third team this summer.
So those rooting for a gold medal might start sharing Seth’s trepidation. If Tyson Chandler goes missing, the London Olympics could be a nightmare for Team USA fans as well.