Several weeks ago I was sucking up all the basketball related news I could find and stumbled across a bunch of comments at Ira Winderman's Sun-Sentinel Heat Blog. To my surprise someone there had brought up my Evaluation of Peja's defense from earlier in the year, sparking a sporadic discussion about whether I had any credibility at all or if I was just a fan with a computer. It got quite involved, with one side going so far as to cite Henry Abbott of ESPN's Truehoop linking to me in my favor, while others cited the use of the word "yay" in my post about Chris Paul's extension as proof of my inferior style and talent. For those of you who care, it was decided in the end that I'm just a fan with a computer. I'm proud of them for figuring that out, though I still sniffle at being so dismissed. Am I not human? If you mock my analysis, do I not respond with bitter sarcasm in the comments section? Or, in this case, in a random blog posting?
Anyways, in the midst of them talking about me – as all people everywhere should – they had the nerve to start a subdiscussion regarding the defensive talents of Tyson Chandler. One side was certain he was an exceptional defender, while the other argued that Chandler was a piece of crap because he only managed one block a game. That, of course, is an argument I've seen played out in a dozen different places, and all season long I wanted to enter the fray with an evaluation of Tyson Chandler and his game.
Well, it's the off-season, things are slow, I'm a fan of Chandler, and I'm armed with a computer, so here goes:
The Perception of Chandler
The first thing you have to do when evaluating Chandler's game is discard the popular perception of him. What most fans associate with Chandler are his rim-rattling dunks and alley-oops. When commentators talk about Chandler, it's consistently about his value on the boards, how useless he is in a half court offense, and how he's a great protector of the paint because of his shotblocking. He, like all the Hornets, is also erroneously identified as a fast-break focused player that is at his best when he gets out and runs: a player with passion and abandon, but little skill or discipline.
The reality is that Tyson Chandler is a player who has a lot of value in the half-court, is skilled at altering shots without risking fouls by leaping for blocked shots, and plays a very fundamental, effective and disciplined game. Okay, maybe his discipline doesnt extend to his emotions, which always run high and lead him to bark too much at the refs or unleash some highly entertaining mugging for the crowd. But in all, the fantastic alley-oops and dunks are just a enjoyable cherry on top of his highly deliberate game.
Chandler's discipline grows out of necessity. Despite standing over seven feet tall, Tyson carries only 235 lbs, thirty pounds less than the average listed weight of the NBA's other starting centers. Without great bulk to anchor him, his height actually becomes a bit of a liability. Shorter but heavier players with a lower center of gravity can force him under the net if he's not set, or edge him away from the basket with their massive backsides.
To counter this problem on the boards, he is diligent at boxing out opposing players, sealing them on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor as soon as it appears a shot will go up. While on one hand, this contributes to his high turnover rate by exposing him to three second violations if the ball takes longer to go up than he thought, it also allows him to set and be braced against attempts to dislodge him. This approach allows him to have the best offensive rebound rate of any center who plays starting minutes and to post the seventh best rebounding rate in the entire game.
Chandler's focus on rebounding does have some detriment on the defensive end. His help defense against penetrators is typically superb due to his agility, but pump fakes on the perimeter can sometimes take him out of the picture, because he will move to seal his man from the boards. This makes him have to cover more ground to reach the penetrating guard if they get past their primary defender. The result is some easy buckets, since he will not close on the penetrating guard aggressively, preferring to not risk a foul – especially early in games.
Chandler is also much more likely to only lightly contest any center who steps out to 10-15 feet, instead preferring to allow them to shoot over his long arms and then seal them away from any rebound. Against centers adept with the midrange shot – like Ilgauskas – this can hurt.
That said, Chandler is an excellent defender. Adept at defending the pick and roll, his speed and ability to recover making it hard to use most centers as the roller, even when he makes a hard show on the rolling guard. His rotations to cover penetrating guards are better than average, though if he can't beat them to the hoop, he's more likely to try to make them shoot over his raised arms than risk fouls by trying to block shots.
Chandler perhaps shines the most defending post players, refusing to bite on the myriad of jabs and feints thrown by most skilled post scorers. He barely bothers to jump when the offensive player does shooot, instead relying on his height and long arms to bother the shot. Since he doesn't leave his feet, he can cut off most moves to the basket, forcing fade away jump shots, face-ups where his speed can match almost any big man, or force the player to attempt a hook shot across the lane, exposing them to being stripped by the active hands of the Hornets perimeter players and only provides a low-percentage shot to most.
Outside of Amare Stoudamire, there isn't a better big man in the game to run a true pick and roll with. Most centers and power forwards settle for the Pick and Pop, taking a mid-range shot and not truly rolling to the basket. Tyson, however, runs headlong to the hoop. This either gets him in position for an alley-oop, or in prime position for an offensive putback. He's such a threat that the opposing team must keep one of their big men home on him to prevent those high-percentage plays. That, of course, leaves Paul covered by one defender – so they either have to hope that's enough, or send a perimeter defender – which leaves a shooter open. Watch any playoff game against San Antonio this past season. Tim Duncan is nearly neutralized as a weak-side shot blocker for the Spurs while Tyson is on the floor because he cannot leave him without giving up an alley-oop or an easy offensive putback.
Now certainly, some credit does go to Paul for his ball control keeping Chandler so dangerous in the post – but the fact remains that while Paul can deliver it, how many centers in the game could actually put it home with the consistency of Chandler? Stoudamire. Howard.
Outside of that, he is still valuable offensively in a half-court set for other reasons. Despite his lack of bulk, his wide frame allows him to set solid, wide screens. His offensive rebounding is exceptional.
His weakness? His post game has not developed – and I don't think it never will, a casualty of his lack of weight. His post moves are actually fundamentally sound – he's clearly worked on them – but all it takes is a little bodying by Chandler's defender to throw him off balance and force him into fading, sideways jumpshots that inevitably miss.
Guess you can't have everything.