After winning the Sixth Man of the Year Award last season, James Harden would appear to be the clear favorite to repeat as the league’s top bench player entering 2012-13. However, Harden must be aware of a new threat to his title this season, with the return of Wilson Chandler from a season spent in China.
Chandler struggled in his brief return to the Nuggets last season, largely due to injuries and the tough adjustment back to the NBA style of play. But given the opportunity to go through a full training camp with his team, Chandler should be able to step up his level of play significantly this coming season.
Chandler has shown great versatility thus far in his career as a player proficient at three positions. However, it just so happens that Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried already occupy those three slots for the Nuggets.
Consequently, Chandler should step into the sixth-man role in 2012-13, where he will have the opportunity to spend time at all three positions.
The 6’8” Chandler is best suited for the small forward position but has potential to create serious matchup problems at the power forward and shooting guard spots. Chandler’s combination of size, shooting ability and athleticism render him a tough matchup for two-guards and big men alike, and his devastating finishing ability ties the package together to represent tremendous upside.
Chandler has yet to fully live up to that considerable potential, but with a full season in an ideal role, he should have little trouble tearing up opposing defenses while playing solid D to boot.
Chandler should put up big numbers this season, but that alone won’t allow him to beat out Harden, who has solidified himself as a top-20 NBA player and who could benefit from the common post-Olympics boost.
There’s no doubting Harden’s ability, and he is expected to continue to improve heading into his fourth season. However, a few factors could hinder Harden from playing at his maximum level next season.
Harden was far and away the best sixth-man last season, but it didn’t hurt that he was an intriguing and exciting player on an up-and-coming contender. The impact of popularity and intrigue cannot be underestimated in awards. When Derrick Rose won the MVP award in 2010-11, it was as much due to his popularity as a breakout star and voters’ unwillingness to honor LeBron for a third straight year as it was due to his outstanding success in that season.
Likewise, Chandler will have one distinct advantage over Harden: a better storyline. While Harden will likely be plagued by trade rumors and the stress of his upcoming free-agent status, Chandler has the opportunity to burst onto the scene in his new sixth-man role with Denver, a rising contender and one of the most exciting teams in the league.
Fans are inevitably drawn to the excitement of breakout players, and although Chandler has already experienced moderate success in his first few seasons in the league, he fell off the map last season after spending most of the year in China. This season, Chandler will have the opportunity to reinsert himself into the minds of NBA fans as a top player on the rising Denver Nuggets.
If Chandler can emerge as a successful sixth-man for Denver, he will undoubtedly be a major candidate to challenge Harden for the award. But perhaps more importantly, Chandler must win over the hearts of NBA fans if he is to have any hope of threatening a repeat by Harden and his beard.