As Stan Van Gundy, one of the preeminent wordsmiths of this or any generation, once so eloquently stated: "We just form a (expletive) wall!"
It may not have been by choice, but Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek has heeded those words over the last two games, starting both of his 7'1'' centers — Tyson Chandler and Alex Len — in the frontcourt. It is a look never before seen from a historically undersized franchise but one that has borne surprising returns.
Let's begin with Chandler. In the first 18 games since he returned from a pulled hamstring on Dec. 13, Chandler averaged 5.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 0.4 blocks per game. However, his last two games sharing frontcourt duty with Len have been a complete 180, averaging 10.5 points, 23.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks. Those stats include back-to-back 20-rebound games, making him the first Sun to ever accomplish that feat, and his 27-rebound performance against the Atlanta Hawks was a historic one at that, tying Paul Silas' team record for most rebounds in a game and coming one rebound shy of tying Silas and Neal Walk's franchise record (18 rebounds) for most boards in a single half. He also broke the franchise mark for offensive rebounds in a single game with 13, besting Charles Barkley's and Curtis Perry's record of 12.
Then there's Len. The third year pro has been dealing with an injured left hand that hampers his ability to secure the basketball, but while he still guards that hand while on the court, Len has found a way to be more productive in spite of it, averaging 14.5 points and 10 rebounds in 35 minutes per game since joining Chandler in the starting lineup.
Utilizing both Chandler and Len at the same time was not a look Hornacek was interested in for much of the season, with a couple minutes during a Jan. 3 blowout against the Lakers comprising the bulk of the experiment. The thinking was that neither would be able to cover stretch-fours on the perimeter and would clog up the lane for drives to the basket on offense. But after a rash of injuries to Jon Leuer, Markieff Morris, and Mirza Teletovic necessitated the move, the pairing doesn't appear to be as much of a mishmash as previously believed.
On offense, Len's ability to semi-regularly hit from 15 feet — including a huge jumper with 1:57 left in the 4th quarter against Atlanta that gave Phoenix a 93-88 lead — has kept the defense honest, and the presence of both on the court means one can go set screens to free teammates while the other can remain in position for offensive rebounds. And with both Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight out of the lineup with their various injuries, freeing up space in the paint has become less critical to the offensive schemes. Surprisingly though, Chandler and Len have even proved to be capable assist men, leading the team with five apiece against the Hawks.
Defensively, both Chandler and Len have shown decent mobility when switching out onto the perimeter, aided by the knowledge that another shot blocker will be waiting in the paint if their man beats them off the dribble. The Suns also fell into a zone defense on a few plays just to mitigate any mismatches San Antonio or Atlanta might look to exploit. And of course it pays when rebounding to have a couple 7'1'' players around the basket.
Can the Suns bank on playing both Tyson Chandler and Alex Len together on a regular basis and continuing to receive positive results? Probably as much as they can bank on playing Archie Goodwin at point guard. Both are intriguing trends but exist over a very small sample size and thus remain hypothetical good ideas. But the Suns need to make better use of their weapons, and if playing both centers together leads to positive results, then it needs to be explored. After all, this is a franchise that has dressed a total of nine players 7'1'' or taller in its 48-season history and has had two on the roster concurrently only twice before (Jake Tsakalidis and Daniel Santiago, 2000-01 and 2001-02).
No one will be confusing Chandler and Len for the second coming of David Robinson and Tim Duncan — especially since Chandler lacked the foresight to choose No. 50 for his jersey instead of No. 4 — but the two can grow to be a formidable pairing in the right situations if given the opportunity. Considering this debacle of a season, one looks for optimism wherever it can be found.