The Craft: Tyson Chandler's evolution
Welcome to The Craft, a serial look inside the world of player development in the NBA.
Upon entering the NBA in 2001, Tyson Chandler was a natural basketball resource. His game had gone largely untouched through a dominant run at Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif., where length and athleticism brought championships and accolades. Sometimes raw materials are more than enough. The transition from prep to pro, however, demanded a refinement that the 19-year-old had never known.
In the years that followed, Chandler would frustrate himself and his coaches. His body would fail him, his team would trade him and his self-doubt would challenge him. Yet he would ultimately emerge as a near-maximized version of his basketball self – still recognizable from the raw big man who began his career with the Bulls, but entirely remade in terms of playing sensibility.
There is a pervasive notion – one implied more than said outright – that what Chandler offers is attainable. Any young, athletic big man who can dunk and block shots is projected along the Chandler track, as if time alone could turn any raw prospect into a compound Defensive Player of the Year and offensive catalyst. It simply isn't so. Players this specifically exceptional tend to make for lousy archetypes. That what Chandler does might not appear overtly skillful doesn't make it any more replicable.
To best understand that, it makes sense to establish just how far Chandler has come to reach his current proficiency. Chicago acquired Chandler for Elton Brand, the team's best young player in the wake of Michael Jordan's retirement. It was explicitly clear that Chandler was no Brand; he debuted in the NBA without the same repertoire or pedigree, playing every bit the way one would expect a gaunt 19-year-old might. Under a best-case scenario, Chandler would have been brought along patiently with clear directives. Instead, his first coach, Tim Floyd, was fired 25 games into his rookie season.
In a sense, success in the NBA is dependent on coming to terms with this kind of instability. There are no guarantees. Coaches can be dismissed at a moment's notice or teammates dealt without warning. There's a cold business that acts as the beating heart of the league, and the sooner Chandler could grapple with that fact the better off he'd be.
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The only problem was that Chandler, the player, was in no position to deal with the moving target of a shuffled coaching staff. Floyd and his assistants had given Chandler certain developmental priorities, and Bill Cartwright – Floyd's successor – gave him different ones. Two seasons later, the same would be true of Scott Skiles. Each of the three employed a different style and held Chandler's talent in varying levels of esteem. Accordingly, Chandler's role was toggled and his growth disrupted with every change.
"I think consistency in development is so important for a young player as far coaches having an understanding of what the player is, how you can develop him, how you can continue to grow his confidence," the 32-year-old Chandler told SI.com. "I look back at my rookie year and my first couple of years – first five years or so – that was never really in place. I think we went through three head coaches in the first three years, changed GMs, constant change of players. It was never quite stable. The most important thing is having a stable environment when you're drafting a young player, especially when you're taking high schoolers."
To the extent that any of Chicago's coaches had a clear plan for Chandler (a point he questions), it hardly mattered. The transitions between each sent him searching, as did the messages conveyed therein. Chandler was force-fed in the post under Cartwright until a back injury cost him most of the 2003-04 season. By the time Chandler returned, Cartwright had been fired and Skiles hired. The team had moved on. Not only was Skiles more rigid than Cartwright, but his treatment of Chandler also reflected that of an inflexible coach desperate for wins. What resulted was an awkward basketball player born of stilted development:
Chandler could be bold and brash on the floor, but rarely did he look comfortable. His highlight plays were successes in spite of his surroundings – powerful slams off broken sets or soaring blocks earned on instinct. Chandler played a part in Chicago's defensive ascent, but inconsistency rendered him more a contributor than a centerpiece. Minutes would go by without Chandler so much as touching the ball on offense. A simple pump fake would send him flying, often into foul trouble. Chandler wasn't prepared to fill the role his coach wanted and only became more discouraged with Skiles' mounting irritation. The feedback loop was in full effect: Chandler's mistakes would anger Skiles, whose response made Chandler all the more unsure, which only led him deeper into frustration and error.
"I had a problem with one person," Chandler told The Oklahoman in 2007. "It just happened to be my head coach. To me he's not a good person, and that's obvious in the way he treats his players and the comments that he makes. So I don't even pay attention to him because he's so little to me.”
If you were to ask a collection of the world's finest teachers and skill instructors what makes for an optimal learning environment, you'd turn up a healthy variety of answers. The simplest truth, though, is that development tends to be terribly specific. Everyone learns differently. Some need detailed walkthroughs and others only vague concepts. Some perform best under fire and others in open air. For Chandler, so much of what held him back in Chicago came down to comfort. An inability to trust in his surroundings begat Chandler's inability to trust in himself.
"I know I've heard some older players say, 'You should never lose your confidence. Confidence is the last thing you should ever lose,'" Chandler said. "But that definitely happened to me. I lost confidence. There wasn't trust in my game."
That changed, ironically enough, when the Bulls gave up on Chandler. On July 13, 2006, Chicago signed Ben Wallace, a defensive specialist with a skill set similar and superior to Chandler's. In conjunction, Chandler was traded to New Orleans, where coach Byron Scott told the cast-off center to wipe the slate clean. Scott supported Chandler unequivocally. His every mistake was met with assurance, and the Hornets (now Pelicans) leaned on Chandler in its offensive and defensive systems far more than Chicago had ever dared. That investment paid off quickly with what was then a career year for Chandler, marked by averages of 9.5 points (on 62.4 percent shooting) and 12.4 rebounds, followed by another in which Chandler averaged 11.8 points (on 62.3 percent shooting) and 11.7 rebounds.
"Getting to New Orleans and playing in the Princeton offense where there's a lot of movement – I had the ball in my hands a lot, a lot of dribble hand-offs and pick-and-rolls to the rim – helped me develop these skills I didn't know I had," Chandler said. "Quick rolls to the rim, I started making reads. All of a sudden you get this confidence in something that you didn't understand that was there."
Whereas Skiles' prickly micromanagement had sparked resentment in Chandler, the relief in playing for Scott yielded a more productive focus. Chandler acknowledges that his time in New Orleans was transformative. It was with his newfound freedom that he began exploring the "finer details" of the game, as he puts it: the minutiae that forge elite basketball players. Court awareness may be innate on some level, but it must be cultivated. Before joining the Hornets, Chandler – always looking over his shoulder in anticipation of the next benching or lecture – hadn't had the luxury. Yet one could see quickly the nuance taking hold in Chandler's game as a Hornet, with every passing month bringing added sophistication.
It was then that the current version of Chandler began to take shape. He was still a bouncy 7-footer. Yet alongside Chris Paul in a pick-and-roll-driven offense, Chandler found his calling. With trust and confidence restored, he began to challenge the best bigs in the league with his defense. Chandler continued forward as his health allowed (his body has never been the most reliable) through Charlotte and Dallas and New York and Dallas again, honing his game rather than expanding it.
Chandler didn't toy with adding a few moves off the dribble or stretching out to three-point range. He also gave up whatever post-up aspirations he once had, to the point that just one percent of his current offensive usage comes from the block, according to Synergy Sports. Chandler's progression has been one of sharpening to the point of excellence. There are few better roll men in the league and few superior rim protectors. That's just as he intends it.
"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," Chandler said. "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."
It's hard to argue with Chandler's contention, given that his seemingly narrow skill set translates to such real, sustainable advantage. He remains a capable defensive anchor, if not quite effective enough to bail out Dallas' defense as much as it needs. Still, Chandler's success in walling off the rim has helped put the Mavericks on a 57-win pace with offense-first personnel. At the core of his game is tactical fluency, through which Chandler derives all kinds of defensive advantage.
"I'm watching other players," Chandler said. "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."
Learning the ins and outs of team defense made Chandler one of the NBA's best at defending in space. What makes him a singular player is the way he applies that same knowledge on offense. Chandler will screen and roll as a natural part of Dallas' brilliantly efficient offense dozens of times a game. Every one is a calculated manipulation of the opponent's defensive principles.
"Because I know defense, I know where the tag is coming from [on my rolls to the rim] before they come," Chandler said, referring to a help defender. "So if you're playing against Miami and they show really hard [to prevent the ball handler from moving toward the rim], most of the time the tag is going to come from the opposite man. So before it was [Dwyane] Wade or LeBron [James] that was mostly the tag guy. They would come out of the corner to tag and they would want to run a three-point [shooter] off [the line] with their athleticism.
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"Teams like Chicago, they call 'ice' on everything – which is they're downing the pick-and-roll and trying not to let the big man get behind them – so the tag is most likely going to come from the opposite side. So a lot of times it's just me playing cat and mouse with [the defense] and also taking that guy out of the play. That's also underrated to me: If there's a shooter on the wing, or if Dirk [Nowitzki] is popping up and I'm rolling hard and his man has to tag me at the rim and he gets a wide-open jump shot, that's an assist to me."
That effect that Chandler describes is a tremendous source of inverted spacing. The best shooters have a gravity to them that all but demands opposing defenders stay attached; to leave them open would too easily result in a routine three-pointer. Chandler (who is shooting 68.2 percent from the field) has an even more powerful sway on his rolls to the rim – actions that often require interference from several defenders as they tag and rotate. Smart coaches (like Dallas' Rick Carlisle) will have their teams leverage that attention to open up all sorts of opportunities, but the entire sequence of forced defensive rotations begins with Chandler.
And, really, it begins with a good, hard screen. Chandler has not only improved his rolls to the rim, but he's also become better at freeing his teammates by setting a more thoughtful, deliberate pick.
"It's all about intensity and the lines on the floor," Chandler said. "So, understanding what direction I'm trying to get for Monta Ellis, and understanding how Monta likes to drive. Monta is going to eat up any space. Or, if I'm screening for a Dirk Nowitzki, he just wants space around his feet. If he can catch the ball and he has air space, he's going to get off a good shot. So a guy like Dirk, I'm going to pin that guy so Dirk feels comfortable when he's getting a shot. Or a guy like Monta Ellis, I just want to hit a guy good enough for him to be off balance because Monta is going to take up the space.
"The key is really being a student of the game and understanding your teammates."
Development, then, isn't as simple as hoisting jumpers in a practice gym until the overhead lights flicker out. It's not as hokey as a weekend workshop with Hakeem Olajuwon, nor is it some inevitable part of aging into the NBA scene. For Chandler to grow as a player, he had to cull wisdom for himself and build it into the very architecture of his game. He then chiseled and chiseled until his approach, a studied tribute to specialization, became as lean as any in the NBA. Any attempt to imitate only what Chandler does best, then, misses the point. It's not just high efficiency and strong defense that make him a standout. What defines Chandler are the very means through which he's come to process the basketball world around him. Chandler thinks the game, and within it, his place.