Q&A: Tyson Chandler on his career turning point and sweating the details
Welcome to The Craft, a serial look inside the world of player development in the NBA. On Wednesday, SI.com examined the career of 32-year-old Mavericks center Tyson Chandler, who grew from a raw, 19-year-old rookie into the Defensive Player of the Year. Below is a continuation of that feature in Q&A form, including some of Chandler's extended answers that were truncated for the story.
SI: You were drafted in 2001 and spent your first five seasons with the Bulls, who also brought in another preps-to-pros big man that year in Eddy Curry. Was the NBA a good developmental system for players coming out of high school?
Tyson Chandler: I think it's still the same: It all depends on the organization you go to and understanding its plan for you. I don't know if Chicago necessarily had a plan for me. They just felt like [I was a] talented young player – OK, let's draft him. Different coaching staffs didn't have a plan for me. That was always tough for my development because you never knew exactly what to home in on and how to develop your skills.
SI: There was a stretch where you and Curry were playing together, then he was starting, then you were starting. Does that constant shifting of the lineup make for a developmental concern as well?
TC: Absolutely. When they drafted me and Eddy, there should have been more of an understanding of how we were going to grow. If you're going to take two young players like that and the franchise is going to depend on their development, you have to make sure that we develop and that our confidence continues to develop in whatever facet of the game they thought we could be best at. That didn't necessarily happen. Three different coaches [Tim Floyd, Bill Cartwright and Scott Skiles] had three different opinions, so it was all so up and down.
SI: As a young player known best for rebounding and defending, did you ever feel pressure to develop as a scorer?
TC: I always felt like I could score and do so much more than what was being given to me. But for me it had always been that when I was in a rhythm, I was in a rhythm. Then, when I would start to feel great, something would change. That always made it difficult.
SI: Early in your Chicago days you were posting up a lot more and trying to work on that part of your game. At what point did that shift for you where posting up wasn't as big of a priority?
TC: When Cartwright was the coach [for 151 games over three seasons, from 2001-03], I got a lot of touches around the block and the high post. I started to feel comfortable. The only way to feel comfortable with something is to continue to do it, especially in-game. One of our best stretches came when Cartwright was kind of force-feeding me. Then he got fired and they hired Scott Skiles [in November 2003] at a time when I was hurt [with a back injury]. When I came back my game shifted again, with fewer touches, in his system.
SI: When you suffer an injury as a young guy who is still trying to establish himself, how do you get better when you're not playing? What do you work on?
TC: It should have been mental. It should have been watching game film, talking to coaches about what they saw in me and how I could come back and help the team. But it was just me rehabbing and being separate from the team.
SI: For a lot of young players there's one veteran teammate who really helped them. Did you have a mentor, and how much does that matter?
TC: For me, "that guy" helped more with the mental aspect of the game. It was Charles Oakley first, and then Scottie Pippen and Antonio Davis. When I got frustrated during practices or games in Chicago, Davis would always come by my locker and tell me: "Continue to be a professional, continue to work. Your time will come. You're too good for your time not to come. Be patient." That always stuck with me.
SI: The Bulls traded you to New Orleans in 2006. Why were you able to succeed immediately there?
TC: Coach [Byron] Scott put the confidence back in me. I know I've heard some older players say, "You should never lose your confidence. Confidence is the last thing you should ever lose." But that definitely happened to me. I lost confidence. There wasn't trust in my game. After I got traded, Scott pulled me into his office and said, "I want you to forget the last couple of years. I know the young player. I watched you through high school, I know who you are. You're going to go back to being that player."
No matter what happened, whether I screwed up a post move or fumbled the ball or whatever, he would always just smile. Every time. [Chandler crosses his arms, a la Scott] He would go, "We're going to keep coming to you, so stay with it." That gave me all the confidence. This is my head coach, and if he believes and is going to continue to come to me, what am I really worried about? With the trust factor there, my game quickly went to another level. Then I had Chris Paul, a young player who really understood the game. He was going into his second year [in 2006]. Our chemistry grew quickly."
SI: Young players today face pressure to expand their game – seemingly everyone needs to shoot threes, everyone needs to be able to work off the dribble. But as your career has progressed, you seem to have kept the focus on the things you do well. Is that a track that just worked for you?
TC: I think so. A lot of times teams don't have as much success and players don't have as much success because they're not great at something. They're either average or good, and below average in things they're trying to push. You should always work on your game. I work on my game all the time. I don't get many jump shots, but I shoot hundreds of jump shots all throughout the summer just for that one or two that I might get. But a lot of times, forcing your game in different areas can be overrated.
I think what's happening is that guys like myself, Joakim Noah, you just can't put a stat on what that guy does and how that guy impacts the game, how he can make the difference between winning and losing. I think it's just now starting to be recognized. [Before] you would just look at the stat line and see who scored 20 points, and they might take 19 shots to get it. To me, that's not very efficient. I'd rather a guy give me 16 points off of six shots and also do a whole lot of other things. And then it was like [players thought they] only had to play offense – that if they put up 24 points, no one's going to recognize that they gave up 30 on the other end.
SI: Your greatest strengths aren't simple things to improve. It's not as straightforward as getting in a gym and shooting a thousand jumpers. Getting better as an interior defender takes a lot more mental work. How does that process go? How do you develop into a Defensive Player of the Year?
TC: Understanding the league and understanding different teams. Everybody is so willing to play offense. Everybody runs out, everybody makes hard cuts. Everybody wants to score. I really started to notice that and realized that in order for us to win, we have to start stopping teams. And in order for me to help my team, I need to somehow lock down the paint and force teams into tough shots. I feel like I've always been a great defensive player, but it took me awhile to realize the importance of what I could actually bring to a team.
SI: When you go out into the gym or the film room to improve in that way, what are you working on?
TC: I'm watching other players. I'm watching the guards. I'm watching every position. I'm watching sets. In the NBA, every set is the same. Every team runs the same thing. I'm watching the mistakes that others make and understanding how to fill holes. So if I see guards on the floppy action constantly getting beat one way, I go, "OK, this is how I can give him half a second to recover." For most cases out there, especially now in the league, I'm not really guarding my man. I'm guarding the other four men on the court.
For the most part, I can control my man unless it's a very active guy in the offense. I never really have trouble with a guy who just gets the ball on the block. But if it's a guy like Anthony Davis the other night [when the Pelicans' forward had 31 points on 11-of-20 shooting against Dallas] ... he impressed me because he was able to fill the stat sheet through the rhythm of the game. I was often guarding him, and it made it difficult for me to help in other areas of the floor because – boom. He always got a bucket. So those are the things I watch for normally: How I can help my teammates and how I can get the win by either playing off my guy or completely locking my guy down?
SI: You rejoined the Mavericks this season after playing three seasons with the Knicks. How long does it take to establish high-level chemistry with a teammate? Like with Monta Ellis, for example, you're obviously familiar with his game from playing against him, but how long does it take to learn how he operates in the pick-and-roll?
TC: I showed up here about five weeks before training camp because of that reason: I wanted to get to know everyone. We played pickup, and we were off. He was throwing the ball and it was hitting me in my head, and then he'd throw the ball and it would hit my feet. He would start going before I would get there [to set the screen], and I knew in a game it was going to be a moving pick. So I would just pull him to the side [and tell him], "I'm going to get you open. You don't have to rush. I'm going to hit your guy." And that's another thing: He's used to guys not setting picks for him. He's used to just getting his. It's that communication and trust, and it took maybe two or three games in the preseason, so it had been six weeks before the time we started to click.
SI: With that communication, trust and knowledge of your teammates, is that something you would have had a good grasp of in your first couple of years in the league?
TC: No. That's not something I even would have thought about when I was young. But the more you grow as a player and the more you understand the game, the more you understand the importance of the finer details. I wasn't paying attention to the finer details. Let me get points and rebounds, because that's what everyone is going to look at. Not until it really became about winning for me did I start to pay attention to the finer details.
SI: Over the last few years there's been a lot more attention drawn to the idea of an interior defender being completely vertical right at the rim. How do you progress in that area of the game?
TC: For a while now I've been really into that vertical [leap] in making guys miss, especially interior shots and just forcing guys to take tough jump shots. It's way more important to make a guy miss and give myself or my teammates the opportunity for a rebound than to chase blocks and take myself out of position. A more solid, sound defense is having your paint pretty much surrounded and protected while having a challenger at the rim.
SI: Do you feel like you're still getting better as a player?
TC: Yeah. I feel like I grow every year. I'm playing some of the best basketball of my career. My thought process, my feel of the game, my confidence -- they're at an all-time high.
SI: It's easy to look at young players and decide what they can't do and what they need to work on. But when you've been a champion and an All-Star, how do you chart your way forward?
TC: Just continuing to find ways to help my team win. Every day in practice I want to lead my team. All of the finer details – the focus in the pick-and-roll defense or the focus in the walkthrough, in the scouting report. The attention to detail when I'm going through drills with the younger big men and making sure they understand what's going on. Because when I make sure they understand what's going on, it's making sure I understand what's going on. It's really holding myself accountable. That alone continues to make you a better player.
SI: How do you evaluate your own performance?
TC: How I impacted the game. Whatever the stat line says, sometimes I just don't feel like I put my stamp on that game. I didn't help much offensively or control the paint defensively, or my guys were really confused out there. I take that as a direct shot. If my guys are looking confused, there's something that I was doing wrong.
Sometimes I won't feel good about wins. My goal is to win championships. If you win a game with bad habits and you continue to win that way, those habits will be exploited by other teams in the playoffs. My whole thing now is doing things the right way consistently so that when s--- gets tough, you and your team are together and ready for whatever.
SI: On the floor you're very emotional, very expressive. Has anyone ever told you to rein it in? Or has it been encouraged in terms of being vocal on the floor?
TC: I've been very encouraged to be vocal. The only thing they ever told me to rein in was [yelling at] the refs. That's one of the things I've been trying to work on. I go at a high level all the time and it doesn't stop with the refs. So if a call is blown, I'm so revved up that a lot of times my aggression is not really what it seems. I get the quick techs because I'm on a high all the time.
SI: Being the guy on the back line of the defense, you have to talk to your teammates all the time about what's happening. What makes a good communicator from inside the defense?
TC: First, you have to know what you're talking about. A lot of times I'll hear guys talking and I laugh to myself because they're steering their [teammates] in the wrong direction. And I'll just pick them apart by listening to what they're trying to do and set picks the opposite way and throw their guard off. Then all of a sudden you see them bickering back and forth. It's funny. But I think the first thing is understanding your teammates' strengths and weaknesses, and whatever it is your defensive coach is trying to accomplish. I want to be an extension of him.
SI: Has playing on a bunch of teams and in a bunch of systems made you a better defender?
TC: I'm a better defender because I've been through and understand all the different defenses. I would rather stick with a certain scheme and drill it to death so you know it in and out – no different from a quarterback and an offensive coordinator. But I'm a lot more versatile because I've been through so many different schemes.
SI: If you could give your rookie self advice, what would you say?
TC: I would've blocked out the critics and stayed locked in on my game. My growth period was amazing once I got to New Orleans because I was able to lock out everything and regain my confidence. Then coming [to Dallas for his first stint with the Mavericks] and winning a championship [in 2011] just took things to a whole 'nother level. Things triggered after that: won a championship, won a gold medal [at the '12 London Olympics], won Defensive Player of the Year [with the Knicks in '12]. All of that started happening because I believed in myself and the things I could accomplish.