Jordan is the guy the Mavs hoped to build their franchise around for the next five seasons. Chandler is the guy Dallas should have built its franchise around for the last five.
Three years after they broke apart a championship team and let Chandler walk in free agency to the New York Knicks, Dallas re-acquired Chandler on the last season of a four-year deal, the same four-year deal it refused to offer him back in 2011. When it announced his return to a packed house at the American Airlines Center before the start of the 2014 season, Mark Cuban went as far as to say that he had learned his lesson.
“Let’s just say I learned from my mistakes,” Cuban told the crowd when asked about whether he would try to keep Chandler in Dallas the second time around.
“I thought even after my exit meeting [following their first-round loss to the Houston Rockets last season] that I would be back,” said a reflective Chandler before a preseason game in Dallas last week. “I thought this time I would be here for the long haul.”
But Dallas made the same exact mistake. Rather than playing it safe and retaining arguably the best center in franchise history, Cuban had stars in his eyes.
“We saw him as being Shaq-like but never having been given the opportunity,” Cuban said in a radio interview on the Ticket (h/t Los Angeles Times) following Jordan’s initial decision to sign in Dallas. “We told him if he came to the Mavs, he would be a focal point. He would grow into being a franchise player.”
“I never saw [DeAndre] coming to Dallas,” said Chandler. “I thought he would come back [to LA] the whole time. It just didn’t make a lot of sense. They were close to a championship and he was going to make the same amount of money and he had created something there with Chris [Paul] and Blake [Griffin]. The moment I started hearing he was talking with his teammates, I knew something would happen because I was like, he didn’t want to do it in the first place.”
The lesson in 2015 was the same lesson offered in 2012 when Cuban famously swung and missed on Dwight Howard and Deron Williams: Marquee free agents want a chance at a title. A Dallas team without Chandler in the middle wasn’t all that enticing a proposition.
Chandler’s presence in Phoenix suddenly made it a viable contender in the LaMarcus Aldridge sweepstakes this summer. The biggest free agent the Mavs signed in the last five years—Chandler Parsons in 2014—came when they had Chandler on the roster.
Jordan would have made Dallas younger, more explosive and more athletic, but there’s no guarantee swapping out the two centers would have improved the team. Despite the drastic differences in speed and athleticism around them, the defensive rating of the Mavs defense anchored by Chandler (107.1) wasn’t far behind the Clippers defense anchored by Jordan (106.2) while the former’s individual defensive real plus minus (3.54) was significantly higher than the latter’s (2.43).
There’s more to playing defense than being freakishly athletic. There are few big men in the league more accomplished at quarterbacking a defense and directing traffic than Chandler.
“He has been great for our team,” said Suns coach Jeff Hornacek. “He’s a veteran leader in the locker room as well as on the court, and he’s getting guys to talk more [on defense] when he’s out there.”
“He’s definitely been a great influence just on and off the court, especially on the court — just going through drills. In practice, no matter what we’re doing, if he sees something, he’ll let you know,” second-year Suns forward Cory Jefferson told Stephen Hunt of Today’s Fastbreak. “If practice is going on, he’ll kind of let coach know that he’s about to address something that he sees. We’ll stop practice for a second and he’ll tell us things that’ll help us as a team to be better. [He’s] just giving us his knowledge.”
Phoenix will likely compete with Dallas for one of the last playoff spots out West this season; it’ll count on Chandler to help improve a defense and a locker room that had fractured toward the end of last season.
The Suns had a defensive rating of 106.8 last season (17th in the league) with a raw second-year player at center (Alex Len). If Chandler can push that number into the top 15, that could be the difference after two seasons of finishing just short of the Western Conference playoffs.
A closer look at the numbers shows that Chandler can have that type of impact on a team.
Mavs 2010 (pre Tyson)
Mavs 2011 (with Tyson)
Knicks 2011 (pre Tyson)
Knicks 2012 (with Tyson)
Mavs 2013 (pre Tyson)
Mavs 2014 (with Tyson)
His impact isn’t limited to the defensive side of the ball either. He led the league with an offensive rating of 133.4, meaning that the Mavs scored 133 points per 100 possessions in Chandler’s 30.5 minutes a game last season. For comparison’s sake, the Clippers led the NBA with a team offensive rating of 113.21 last season and DeAndre was second in the league with an individual offensive rating of 126.1, almost seven points behind Chandler.
Chandler is one of the best pick-and-roll finishers in the league, and his ability to draw defensive attention when he rolls to the rim in Phoenix should make life easier for Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight in the two-man game, and it should create more open shots on the perimeter for guys like Markieff Morris and P.J. Tucker.
For Dallas, the irony is bitter: Chandler would be the perfect player for this season’s Mavs. He’d be the defensive anchor for an aged roster. He’d be the perfect rim-runner in a 4-out offense with Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons, Wesley Matthews and Deron Williams spotting up around him. He’d do the dirty work in Dallas.
“The part I was frustrated with was the legacy I wanted to leave [in Dallas]. At the time, I felt like I was robbed of that. That’s what hurt the most,” said Chandler. “This has to be one of the weirdest free-agent cases in the history of the NBA.”
Jonathan Tjarks covers the Dallas Mavericks and the NBA for RealGM and The Cauldron. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All offensive and defensive ratings statistics come from basketball-reference.com, and all plus-minus statistics come from ESPN.com.