“I’m a basketball minimalist.” Brett Koremenos rocked my psyche with that self identification. The term now haunts so many of my NBA thoughts.
Brett offhandedly used his invented phrase over Gchat, in reference to the inexorably fluid spread pick-and-roll attack. It’s an approach that requires four three point shooters, one of whom waits for the pick from a non-shooting big man like Tyson Chandler. The offense conquers because it exists in just too much space for a defense to hug. It’s practically a cheat code.
For the offense to be even feasible, the Knicks need Tyson Chandler to compensate for all those defensively-deficient shooters with defense and rebounding. He does that, but he’s also about as good an offensive player there is to do it on seven shots per game.
Tyson Chandler can’t shoot well, or dribble well, and he’s a bit skinny. Though, I sometimes wonder whether he’d be worse for his team were he any more blessed in those categories. His lack of a jump shot has led to a cartoonish 70% field goal mark. His lack of a handle has led to one turnover per game. His lack of bulk means fewer shotclock ticks sacrificed to the altar of dribble-dribble-back-down post-ups. New York’s big man enters a game, and only expertly controls a manageable amount of reality.
The reigning assumption is that the best center must be someone who does a lot, especially in the scoring department. Chandler might be changing that notion, if we would only bother to notice what he’s doing.
Catch-all player performance statistics are inherently problematic, because the value of taking a shot will always be up for debate. I do like Win Shares on Basketball Reference because the metric rewards volume shooting less than some other stats do. This is not to say that those other metrics are worse–just that, WS provides a nice counter balance to the mainstream line of rewarding heavy involvement. By this measure, Tyson Chandler’s current Win Share average would qualify for better than any season in Hakeem Olajuwon’s past and all but one Shaq season. Lest you believe it’s a fluke, Chandler’s WS average last season was better than all but one Hakeem year.
I perhaps should have slowplayed you into that factoid. The idea of a 29 year-old non All Star as the league’s best center is already too much for some folks to handle. When you factor in that Chandler was traded for Emeka Okafor in 2009, and gifted to the Mavericks in 2010 for Erick Dampier’s contract, the whole case sounds all the more ludicrous.
But it doesn’t seem silly if you closely watch Tyson Chandler play, especially in his off-the-ball natural habitat. No center traverses more ground than Chandler, and perhaps no center owns more vertical space. The combination of his horizontal and vertical talent makes for a constant threat to the defense. He races out quickly to set a screen and dives back to the rim just as fast. Not only is he slick about setting sticky screens for driving guards, but Chandler’s also adept at spinning off the screen for an alley oop from said guard.
His occasional butt-screens (there is probably a more technical term) make for an amusing, effective tactic. Tyson will put his back and rear into a defender, and bounce off them towards the rim, like a pro wrestler leveraging the ropes. Once he makes a catch off these rim runs, it’s usually over. He’s too large and moving with too much ever-engulfing speed. The rushing wave will make the hoop splash.
The Minimalist also conveys a sense of moment with a mere one-hand redirecting of the basketball. Chandler has effectively closed out at least two games I’ve seen this season with a series of backtaps. Near the end of the fourth quarter, defenses tire in the same way an NFL D might start giving up chunks of rushing yardage. When this happens, Tyson is liable to make as little contact with the ball as possible while making as much impact on the game as possible. Then, teams in their final throes suffer the demoralizing death pang of watching Chandler tap out Knick misses again and again.
That’s Tyson Chandler, so special a specialist as to make him more valuable than any big man generalist. So maximally minimal as to be great. Nowadays, the center position isn’t dead; It’s just found a way to be dominant without dominating.