Of all the 7-foot gambles dotting the rosters as NBA teams prepare for training camp -- Shaquille O'Neal and Greg Oden among them -- the shrewdest risk was Charlotte's offseason acquisition of Tyson Chandler.
In exchange for Emeka Okafor, the Bobcats received a top five defensive center entering the chronological prime of his career. He's highly motivated both to embarrass his former franchise and boost his value with free agency approaching (he has a $12.7 million player option in 2010-11, the last year of his deal). His new head coach and the rest of his new starting front line should be perfect complements for his skill set.
Chandler's downside risks involve a bad ankle sprain and a bizarre turf-toe diagnosis. He hurt his left ankle during the first game of the regular season for the Hornets last year, and eventually aggravated it enough to create fluid around the tendon. The damage was two months out and 45 games of lousy lateral movement, among other forms of wincing underachievement.
But it was last February's turf-toe fiasco that seemed to harm Chandler's long-term reputation. The Hornets were willing to dump Chandler's salary in a trade with Oklahoma City for the expiring contracts of two journeymen (Chris Wilcox and Joe Smith) and a 2008 second-round pick (DeVon Hardin) who couldn't make the team. Then OKC's team physician -- the same guy who operated on Chandler's left big toe less than two years earlier -- advised the Thunder to rescind the trade because of the risk that Chandler would reinjure the digit. Never mind that Chandler has never missed an NBA game, before or after that 2007 operation, because of the toe.
The doctor's recommendation set off a chain reaction of surprises. The Thunder decided not to keep Chandler, an ideal, if now riskier, pivot man for their small, defensively challenged front line. The Hornets then went penny-wise and pound-foolish in a straight-up swap of Chandler for Okafor in July. Okafor will make about a million less than Chandler this season, and their salaries are a wash over the two-year life of Chandler's deal, but Okafor will cost the Hornets about $40 million more over the three years after that.
Now that Chandler, according to at least one doctor, is certifiably prone to another toe injury, was Charlotte unwise to pick him up? How can Chandler be too risky to warrant trading Wilcox, Smith and Hardin in February but, after another ankle aggravation in March, is suddenly able to fetch Okafor, Charlotte's younger franchise cornerstone?
The answer is that, along with the long-term payroll savings, the Bobcats obtained a player who has a larger upside and is more compatible with their personnel. And Charlotte had the guts to roll the dice on Chandler -- imagine that, a group with Michael Jordan in it making a gamble -- who had operations on both his ankle and his toe in May and then rested during a summer that didn't even include pickup games.
"I'll be good when the season starts," he said in an interview last week, moments after walking through some drills with his new teammates for the first time. His new franchise believes in him. "Our medical people thoroughly checked [Chandler] out," Bobcats director of communications B.J. Evans said. "At this level, there are no secrets."
Also no secret is Tyson's frustration with speculation about his future health. "The toe isn't a problem and I've honestly forgotten about it," he said. "All last season was filled with tricks, but now I'm with a good organization that really wants me and needs me, so I feel like it happened for a reason."
When the focus moves from the trainer's table and the salary cap to the basketball court, Chandler is a good fit with Charlotte. It's no coincidence that Bobcats coach Larry Brown was specifically cited and lavishly praised by his former player David Robinson in the Admiral's Hall of Fame induction speech, or that Brown won a title with Ben Wallace patrolling the paint in Detroit. The man has an affinity for quick, defensive-oriented centers.
"He creates opportunities for guys like myself, who have quick hands and feet and like to roam," Chandler said of Brown. "His system also funnels the [opponent] to the best defensive player on the team, toward the anchor." Not coincidentally, Chandler referred to himself as the defensive anchor more than a half-dozen times in a 30-minute chat.
But maybe Brown won't funnel this time. Maybe he'll use his two small but smart and dogged forwards, Boris Diaw and Gerald Wallace, to pressure the ball and let Chandler clean up the paint.
"You can block a lot of shots and still be a bad defender; a good defender gets consistent stops," he said. "I make people miss by studying tendencies, not just my man but what the point guard likes to do and what the other team likes to do in crunch time. I can use the angles and the anticipation I have from that and talk to these guys, let them know what I see and that I'm behind them. That will let them use their quickness as a mismatch the other way. One reason I am making sure I'm healthy this season is that the coaches have told me I'll run harder than any year in my career."
Tromping on the throttle in transition would be a tonic for an offense that finished in the league's bottom five in both pace and points last year. But even without the ultimate creator in Chris Paul feeding him alley-oops this season, Chandler said he expects his own offense to improve. One of his few permitted activities this summer was honing his free-throw stroke and short jumper.
"The flaw in the past is that I'd stop working on it during the season," said Chandler, who averaged 8.8 points and shot 57.9 percent at the foul line last season. "This year I'll keep working. I need to be able to make my free throws."
Maybe it's the toe worries, or his struggles last season, or the feeling that the Thunder know personnel better than the Bobcats in recent years, but Chandler's move to Charlotte is flying beneath the radar this offseason. However, with Diaw and Raja Bell on board for an entire season, and some depth behind Chandler with DeSagana Diop and Nazr Mohammed (prompting Brown to wonder if he might occasionally deploy Chandler at power forward, a position he played with the Bulls), the Bobcats could make the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
"This team came close last year," Chandler said. "This season I definitely think we can make some noise. But we've got to understand that we don't win those [playoff-deciding] games in April; we win them [working hard] in training camp."
Of course, one of the keys to the Bobcats' camp is how hard Chandler will be able to go. But if his feet don't fail him now, discount Chandler at your own risk.
Here are four other players who, like Chandler, have a good chance to exceed expectations this season:
• Marvin Williams, Atlanta: Williams will always be the guy the Hawks drafted ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams, but for those who've paid attention he has been slowly but surely figuring it out on the court. He just turned 23 yet has already logged four NBA seasons, improving his rebounds and effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of three-pointers) every year while dramatically reducing his turnovers and fouls committed. He shares the front line with the erratic Josh Smith and the ever-game but undersized center Al Horford. Atlanta's backcourt is laden with volume shooters in Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson and new acquisition Jamal Crawford. How nice is it for coach Mike Woodson to have a 6-foot-9, 240-pound option at either forward slot, who plays hard and doesn't need a lot of touches to be happy or productive? While Williams is already a much-needed glue guy, the Hawks are shelling out about $40 million over the next five years in the not unreasonable hope that he'll become superglue.
• Mario Chalmers, Miami: When you share a backcourt with Dwyane Wade, your numbers will be suppressed, yet this second-round pick still averaged 10 points and 4.9 assists while finishing fourth in the league in steals as a rookie last season. As the Heat tread water this season in the hopes of re-signing Wade and adding a complementary star in 2010, Chalmers seems like a better bet than the aging Jermaine O'Neal or the defensively challenged Michael Beasley to surpass expectations once more and ease the load on Wade. We know that can happen in ball-handling and distribution (if Wade trusts his teammate). And Chalmers demonstrated in the 2008 NCAA tournament that he isn't afraid to take and make the big shot.
• David Andersen, Houston: The Rockets' ability to overachieve when Tracy McGrady and/or Yao Ming have been sidelined the past couple of years is no coincidence. This is a roster brimming with smart, hard-working players capable of multiple offensive sets and styles under Rick Adelman. Anderson, a 6-11, 29-year-old Australian rookie who has been playing in Spain, fits right in. Offensively, he boasts good range and a quick release on his jumper, but can also score with either hand with his back to the basket. Defensively, while not quite in the bruise-brother fraternity of Luis Scola, Shane Battier and Carl Landry, he's not afraid to bang. Immediate plans are to make him the starting center in Yao's absence. At the very least he'll be in the rotation and fulfill the blue-collar demands of Rockets culture without a hitch.
• Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia: Count me among those who don't think Lou Williams pans out at the point in Philly. He's got a career assist-to-turnover ratio of only 1.6 to 1, and has never averaged more than 3.2 assists a game in his first four years in the league. He's also been quoted as saying his shooting sets up his passing and that he loves to penetrate, but his career field-goal percentage is 41.5. Even in Eddie Jordan's free-flowing Princeton offense, it makes sense to start grooming Holiday, a bigger 'tweener at 6-3 with a much higher upside than Williams. After a heralded prep career, Holiday disappointed in his one year at UCLA, and fell all the way to the 17th pick in the draft after being rumored to go in the lottery. But his raw talent is formidable, and Jordan is a good fit to exploit it.