July 10, 2012; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Team USA center Tyson Chandler during practice at the UNLV Mendenhall Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE
The more things changed for Tyson Chandler over the past four years, the more things stayed the same. Here's a reflection on his jagged path toward being Team USA's most important big man.
Four years ago, when Team USA was preparing for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Tyson Chandler was just discovering the power within himself to be the league's premier defensive force. That year, he was an alternate, and a deserving one. Four years later, Chandler is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and the man tasked with anchoring the interior defense for the world's best national team.
You could say that, sometime in these last four years, Chandler indeed discovered the power within himself to be the league's premier defensive force.
But the path from point A to point B was anything but conventional. Heck, the path from the prelude to point A was anything but conventional. Through it all, Chandler has persevered, and now, he is tasked with plugging the hole on Team USA's biggest weakness: interior defense.
It's a bit odd to think that, on a team with LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and more, the most important player on the roster is a guy that is currently playing for his fifth NBA team. Perhaps that's propping Chandler up unnecessarily; ultimately, success in the Olympics will come down to the stars. But with Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh, the top two big men from Beijing, out due to injuries, somebody is going to have to be the first line of defense against the beefy Spanish frontcourt of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. That somebody is a man that strayed off the conventional path so many times in his career.
Stardom of some kind was expected for Chandler ever since he was picked No. 2 overall in the 2001 NBA Draft. The Bulls thought so highly of his star potential that they dealt away their own young franchise cornerstone to land him. With Chandler and Eddy Curry, the Bulls were supposed to have the ultimate frontcourt for the modern era, replete with post scoring, width, physicality, shot-blocking, length and athleticism. But several false starts resulted, especially as Chandler got lumped in with his less cerebral teammate. First, Tim Floyd wouldn't play his two young big men, all while still finding a way to blame the Bulls' problems on them. Then, Bill Cartwright made them run the Triangle when they still hadn't mastered how to run screen and roll. Finally, Scott Skiles got something out of both of them, but it all fell apart when Curry got traded and Chandler got saddled with going on his own.
A trade to the Hornets in 2006 was inevitable, both due to money and the need for a change of scenery. It was here where Chandler truly thrived. Finally, he had a point guard in Chris Paul that knew how to keep him just enough involved offensively to justify his defensive effort. He learned the importance of positioning; while his shot-blocking tumbled to 1.1 per 36 minutes in 2007-08, he committed just 3.1 fouls per 36 minutes. After seven years in the league, Chandler had finally figured out a way to harness his incredible length, athleticism and sense of timing. He was never going to be an elite scorer, but he had justified his draft position.
And then, the injuries struck.
First, it was a toe injury that knocked him out of Team USA consideration in 2008. Then, it was an ankle injury that knocked him out near the all-star break in 2009. Then, it was the toe ailment again, this time torpedoing a shocking midseason trade to the then-lowly Oklahoma City Thunder. (Imagine if that one actually went through). A stress fracture the next season followed after a deal to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats actually went through. By the time 2010 rolled around, Chandler's career was very much at a crossroads. He was tall, so he was going to be under contract for 10 more years regardless, but was he ever going to regain his 2008 form?
In many ways, the continuity of Team USA saved him. Had the national team not failed so badly in 2002 and 2004, perhaps Jerry Colangelo doesn't stress keeping the same core group together over multiple years. Maybe Colangelo wouldn't have put together an alternate pool to choose from in the event of injuries. Of course, had Chandler not had his breakout right before the 2008 Olympics, maybe he isn't a part of that pool in the first place. But in any event, with the 2010 World Championships team down in size, Chandler, due to his familiarity with the program, was chosen despite all his injury problems.
From there, Chandler starred in 2010, was traded to Dallas, and the rest is history. A return to health allowed Chandler to remind everyone about what kind of force he once was. He was the key to the Mavericks' 2011 championship, and once they decided he was too expensive for a long-term contract, he moved to the Knicks and turned a roster full of defensive liabilities into one of the most difficult squads to score against in the league. It only made sense to rely on him to be Team USA's defensive stopper.
Everyone on Team USA has gone on some sort of jagged path to get to where they are. It's safe to say, though, that nobody's path has featured as many twist and turns as Chandler's. You'd be forgiven if you forgot that, like James and Durant, he was once the future of the NBA. Eleven years later, Chandler clearly isn't them, but his role, both on his pro team and on Team USA, is arguably just as important.
In his case, he hasn't really discovered the power within himself as much as he regained it.