Tyson Chandler's Return Is Last Best Hope for NY Knicks

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IDecember 12, 2013

To truly regroup, the Knicks need Tyson Chandler back—and soon.
To truly regroup, the Knicks need Tyson Chandler back—and soon.Elsa/Getty Images

In the four weeks since Tyson Chandler suffered a broken right leg, the fortunes of the New York Knicks have devolved from bad to worse to flaming dumpster fire seemingly by the week.

Last year's third-most efficient offense? Gone, replaced by a middling, utterly mediocre attack more prone to drought than perimeter-borne devastation.

The flawed but sporadically passable defense? Vanished. In its stead, an apocalypse of clumsy switching, rancid rotations and a cartoonish lack of collective accountability.

A promising locker-room bond? No more—collapsed beneath the pressure of mounting losses, exacting ownership and a fanbase furious at the latest in a long lineage of epic letdowns.

Getting Chandler back in uniform wouldn't be a cure-all. But it certainly couldn’t make things any worse.

Anchor’s away

That Tyson Chandler is New York’s most indispensable defensive presence has become so obvious as to border on gospel—the rare kind of basketball truism that bridges the gap between eyeballs and analytics.

Oct 31, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; New York Knicks center Tyson Chandler (6) is defended by Chicago Bulls power forward Carlos Boozer (5) during the first quarter at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor

For the three games prior to Chandler’s injury, the Knicks registered a defensive rating of 95.4—easily one of the best in the NBA.

In the 17 games since, that number has ballooned to 107.8, which, if it weren’t for the aforementioned trio of tilts, would put the Knicks at or near dead last in the league.

So there’s that.

Yet while the prevailing wisdom is that New Yorks struggles minus their stalwart center are reflective of a trend dating back to last year, that’s not exactly the case.

Solving for O

In fact, last year New York was actually slightly better defensively with Chandler off the floor (registering a 107.4 defensive efficiency) than on (107.2).

Which brings us to a point that’s been largely glossed over during Chandler’s much-discussed absence: The Knicks might miss him just as much on offense.

With Chandler on the court, New York charted an offensive efficiency of 114 last year, compared to 110 with him on the pine.

Though the sample size was slight, the 106 minutes Chandler tallied in this season's first three games paint a patently different picture.

While New York’s offense has been statistically better with No. 6 on the pine (an offensive efficiency of 103.4, compared to 98.2 with Chandler on the floor), the defensive differentials have been positively jarring: They’re allowing 113 points per 100 possessions sans Tyson, 98.2 otherwise.

Assuming Chandler returns to action before the New Year, it’s impossible to say whether any or all of these trends will hold true, even out or reverse completely. But it stands to reason that the Knicks will be getting help where they need it most.

Andrea Bargnani's defense has only accentuated Chandler's absence.
Andrea Bargnani's defense has only accentuated Chandler's absence.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Unfamiliar faces

The Knicks are a categorically different team than they were a season ago, in both makeup and moxie. On the whole, however, it appears as though the goal of New York’s front office during the offseason was first and foremost to bolster Mike Woodson’s gangbusters offense—hence the additions of Andrea Bargnani, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Beno Udrih.

Contrastingly, the only move that could be construed as being defense-first in philosophy was the signing of Metta World Peace, even with the numbers showing that to be somewhat of a stretch (see the defensive rating numbers on the right). 

Problem is, New York’s offense hasn’t been near the juggernaut many expected, nor has it come close to approximating last season’s impressive production.

Not having Tyson around has hampered Raymond Felton's game.
Not having Tyson around has hampered Raymond Felton's game.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The culprits are manifold: new faces, lost veterans, a bull’s-eye on their back. But to lose a two-way threat of Chandler’s caliber—someone who commands respect at both ends of the floor—is bound to take its toll.

Without him, the Knicks have no real pick-and-roll threat, what with both Kenyon Martin and Amar’e Stoudemire well past their respective P-n-R primes. That, in turn, has hampered Raymond Felton, who learned to make a living off of late lobs to a soaring Chandler as last season progressed.

Though certainly limited, Chandler's offensive effectiveness is anything but superfluous. Consider this: Since 2006, Tyson’s true shooting percentage—a metric that takes into account free throws, field goals and three-pointers—has dipped below 60 percent only once (in 2008-09, when he played only 45 games for the Charlotte Bobcats).

During those eight seasons, Chandler finished in the top 10 in that category six times, leading the NBA in 2011 and 2012.

Granted, not attempting more than eight shots per game at any point during a 12-year career is liable to pad one’s efficiency. But that’s exactly what makes Chandler so perfect for New York: Surrounded by so many players who depend on constant touches in order to find their flow, Chandler excels by either being in the right place at the right time or picking his spots with a surgeon’s precision.

Beyond the numbers

Chandler’s basketball bona fides are undeniable. Where the Knicks miss him most, however, lies well beyond grease boards and box scores. On a team littered with locker-room clowns and lightening rods, Chandler has been the steady, sturdy rock—a stabilizing agent in a delicate recipe very few coaches would be fully equipped to execute.

It’s the kind of clout that comes with being a part of the one team that truly beat the Heat. It’s a big reason why former Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald brought Chandler to New York in the first place: to have that psychological edge—however slight—should the two teams ever meet.

That didn’t quite work out how New York had hoped in 2012, when LeBron James and company clobbered the Knicks in five mostly lopsided games during the first round of the playoffs. But it certainly wasn’t because of Tyson.

How many other Knicks are willing to do this?
How many other Knicks are willing to do this?Elsa/Getty Images

The way the Knicks are playing, not even Chandler’s return guarantees a righted ship. With each mounting loss, the pressure—both internal and external—will only get more oppressive, as the tight-knit chemistry that imbued last season’s charmed march starts to look more and more like lightning forever free of the bottle.

Still, with the Eastern Conference in laughable shambles and the Atlantic Division still well within reach, it’s safe to think the Knicks—bipolar basketballers if ever there were any—could turn a shot in the arm into some real momentum.

Crazier things have happened, even to a team many fans must assume moonlight in asylums. If the Knicks hope to chart a course beyond a hollow divisional title or first-round playoff exit, a healthy Tyson Chandler is paramount.

For a crew this flawed, this fragile and this close to being permanently fractured, getting Tyson Chandler back doesn’t simply represent the Knicks’ best hope at redemption. At this point, it’s their only hope.

(All cited stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of December 11.)


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