Chandler battled through numerous injuries last year. Thankfully, he missed very few games, because when he did, the Knicks' defense was cover-your-eyes awful.
In the four games Chandler missed, opponents averaged 113 points per game (h/t ESPN New York).
With defensively-minded head coach Mike Woodson now at the helm, while Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire will seize most of the headlines, Tyson Chandler is without a doubt the single most important player on the team.
The addition of 38-year-old former Knick Marcus Camby will help shoulder the defensive load, but he's basically just an upgrade from Jared Jeffries coming off the bench. Camby averaged just under 23 minutes per game last season, while Jeffries (who was traded to Portland for Raymond Felton) averaged 18.7 minutes.
Chandler averaged 33.2 minutes last season and will again be a mainstay in the middle.
The Knicks need last season's Defensive Player of the Year to be their anchor in the paint yet again if they are to make more noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs than they did last year.
Even with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the absence of Bosh caused a domino effect on both ends of the floor. It put too much pressure on their weak center position and caused a vacuum in the paint. They went to six games against Indiana and seven games against the Boston Celtics.
When Bosh returned, the Heat flourished.
Tyson Chandler occupies a similar position on the Knicks' roster as Bosh does on the Heat's. Both are tucked behind two marquee names but are the linchpins for their team.
Likewise, Team USA will rely on Chandler as their sole true big man. Since Dwight Howard is out while recovering from back surgery, Chandler is the only true center on the roster.
The only other players with any paint presence and decent size are 6'10" power forwards Kevin Love and Anthony Davis. And Davis has never played in an NBA game.
Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski has shied away from playing Chandler too much in the first five exhibition games. Partly this is to save Chandler's legs for Olympic competition, and partly this has been due to him getting in early foul trouble.
One of the rule differences in Olympic play, along with 10-minute quarters, is that each player is allowed only five fouls instead of six as in the NBA. The bonus is also triggered on the fifth team foul in any quarter, resulting in free throws for all subsequent fouls.
Chandler picked up two quick fouls in his first-quarter minutes against Spain on Tuesday, as well as a traveling violation. He was charged with his third foul midway through the second quarter and headed for the bench.
He picked up his fourth foul just six minutes into the second half, and then fouled out on a silly reach-in 40 feet from the basket with just over eight minutes to play.
While they were able to hold off Spain in the final tune-up match, 100-78, Team USA cannot abide such foul trouble in these Olympics. It almost cost them the gold in 2008 when Dwight Howard, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant all hit the bench with early foul trouble.
And both squads certainly kept some tactical tricks up their sleeves for when Olympic play commences. As ESPN's Stats & Info Twitter account shared after Tuesday's game:
USA beats Spain by 22... in 2008, USA beat Spain by 37 in group play, but then only 11 pts in the gold medal game.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 24, 2012
While some stats aren't very significant, this indicates the increased level of play once the Olympics actually begin.
While the officiating in international play is certainly more sensitive than in the NBA (especially on traveling calls), and perhaps more uneven, Chandler will have to be mindful of this as Team USA needs him on the floor in London.
Does Team USA need Tyson Chandler to excel in order to win gold?
Hopefully, Chandler's contributions in the games that count are more significant. He played in all five exhibition games, totaling 66 minutes, 17 rebounds, four blocks, five steals and 14 personal fouls. He managed just 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field and 2-of-6 from the free-throw line (Team USA's cumulative stats are downloadable as a pdf from this site).
Davis has seen time at center, and while his offensive numbers are superior to Chandler's, his rebounding on both ends has been lacking (five rebounds in 27 minutes, whereas Love recorded 22 rebounds in 60 minutes).
Coach K only played Davis in three of Team USA's five warm-up games, relegating him to minutes against Spain when the game was already in hand.
Love has seen time at center as well, but he is even less of a combo PF/C than Davis. Chandler's defensive presence is key to keeping their opponents on the perimeter and away from the rim.
Spain took home the silver medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, losing the final game to the U.S. 118-107. The world's No. 2 team will be the stiffest competition for Team USA in these Olympics, and they have the size to lock down the interior.
Spain's roster boasts Serge Ibaka—the runner-up to Chandler in Defensive Player of the Year voting—as well as both Pau and Marc Gasol.
But they can wait until later in the tournament to worry about Spain. Team USA will play their first five games in Pool A against France, Tunisia, Nigeria, Lithuania and Argentina.
Lithuania is ranked No. 5 in the world, while Argentina is ranked third.
Argentina gave the U.S. a scare on July 22, outplaying them through the second half and narrowly dropping the exhibition 86-80 to the Americans. Coach K will certainly be studying the footage of that game in the video room.
Team USA is 35-1 in international play under Krzyzewski, with their only loss coming against Greece in the 2006 FIBA World Championships when they took home the bronze medal. They won gold at the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Championships.
If they want to bring home gold in 2012, the stellar perimeter shooting of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony may not be enough.
Tyson Chandler will have to stay out of foul trouble and provide his formidable defense, as well as set up high screens and threaten with the pick-and-roll. He will be the key to victory once the competition ramps up over the next two weeks.
As NBA.com writer John Schuhmann tweeted after the narrow victory over Argentina:
So, Tyson Chandler is a +83 in 58 minutes through 4 exhibition games. That's like winning a 40-minute game by 57 points.
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) July 23, 2012
While Chandler's individual stats aren't very impressive, this suggests his mere presence in the paint is more valuable than can be quantified.
If he can stay on the court and out of foul trouble, his contributions could very well be golden.