Tyson Chandler is hardly a consolation prize for the Knicks. He could bring them the biggest prize of all.
When Chris Paul appeared to be headed to the Lakers on Thursday instead of New York, the Knicks looked like losers who were glomming onto Chandler as a backup option. For years it had been rumored that they would bring Paul to New York. But they are going to realize that signing Chandler as a free agent is a better move than leveraging a deal for Paul.
I'm not saying that Paul isn't the more valuable star, or
But here's a question that makes all the difference: What would Paul have done for the Knicks? They already have plenty of scoring, and so he would have added to an existing strength. He would not, however, have addressed their big weakness at the other end of the floor.
It is at the defensive end that Chandler has a chance to become New York's version of Kevin Garnett. Consider the identities of Boston All-Stars Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and coach Doc Rivers before they became associated with Garnett. Pierce and Allen were viewed as scorers who didn't defend, and Rivers was known as an offensive-minded coach who had never won a playoff series.
All of those aspersions were proved wrong as soon as Garnett arrived. Pierce and Allen showed they could contribute to a defense that at times was the best in the NBA. Rivers was able to demonstrate that he cared about both ends of the court while winning his first postseason series on his way to the 2007-08 championship.
The Knicks need Chandler now just as much as the Celtics needed Garnett then. Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire are known as unreliable defenders, and the overwhelming criticism of coach Mike D'Antoni is that his teams have shown little interest in defense. In fact, I remember watching his Suns team play excellent defense in their 2007 series against the Spurs, before Stoudemire was infamously suspended for leaving his team's bench during a scuffle involving Steve Nash and Robert Horry. But D'Antoni never had anyone who could contribute defensively in the same way that Nash contributed offensively.
The presence of Chandler gives the Knicks an elite level of defensive leadership that Anthony, Stoudemire and D'Antoni have never experienced -- much the same as Pierce, Allen and Rivers had never experienced until they were teamed with Garnett. He is one of the few players in the league who can demand that everyone, including his most famous teammates, follow his example at the defensive end.
D'Antoni has already hired a defensive-minded assistant in Mike Woodson, who can fulfill the same kind of role that was created in Boston for Tom Thibodeau, who served as "defensive coordinator" when he was hired by Rivers in 2007. Now the Knicks have a leader who has earned a championship by transforming the defense of the Mavericks, who before Chandler's arrival last season were written off as a soft team. The Knicks could not have brought in some athletic rookie to provide what they'll receive from Chandler, who has the experience and charisma to demand respect.
Any team would prosper with Chris Paul at point guard, because he excels in so many areas. But the truth of this Knicks team is that it doesn't necessarily need an MVP point guard. Of course D'Antoni would love to have someone like Paul or Nash, who, in the latter case, could yet wind up signing with the Knicks as a free agent next summer.
The truth about point guards is that it has become one of the easiest positions to fill. The new rules of the last decade have liberated the NBA point guard, because defenders can't hand-check him on the perimeter and big men can't hammer him hard when he drives to the basket. Little men or shoot-first guards who never would have been allowed to run the point 10 or 20 years ago are now routinely placed in charge of NBA teams.
Point guards are available everywhere, and D'Antoni is a master of exploiting their strengths. Look at the success Raymond Felton had while playing for D'Antoni last season: His reputation improved so quickly and drastically that he became valuable bait for the Anthony trade.
When the Knicks paired Anthony and Stoudemire last season, I never agreed with the next wave of speculation that focused on acquiring Paul or Deron Williams to round out their team. The only way the Knicks were going to make it work was to convince Anthony and Stoudemire to apply their size and athleticism to the defensive end. Now they have a chance to do just that.
There is a foreboding sense that D'Antoni will be replaced at the end of his contract next summer by a coach who can elevate the Knicks to championship contention, but I don't necessarily believe that either. The arrival of Chandler could change everything for the Knicks. By the end of this season, provided everyone is healthy, the Knicks are going to be viewed as a more serious team and D'Antoni is going to be seen as a coach who blends offense and defense together via Chandler. All of this can come true because they came to their senses and invested in defense rather than more offense.