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Phoenix Suns Player Preview 2016-17: Tyson Chandler no longer a defensive stalwart

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Rim deterrence has waned but rebounding, leadership remain

NBA: Phoenix Suns-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Tyson Chandler signed with the Phoenix Suns in 2015 expecting to provide a veteran presence to a young team with playoff aspirations. He could never have expected his decision would instead result in him experiencing the worst losing since his early days with those miserable post-Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls teams.

Entering the second season of a four-year contract, Chandler may have more of the same awaiting him, with the Suns clearly looking toward the future with their roster makeup. But just as his teammates and coaches have echoed, Chandler is not ready to throw in the towel on 2016-17.

“We’re gonna compete. We’re gonna go about this thing as a family. We’re gonna stay together,” Chandler said during Media Day. “We hit some rough patches last year where (the) foundation kind of broke, but I think this team realistically is a playoff team. Now, some things have to happen in order for you to accomplish that goal, and it’s tough with youth. But it’s definitely something that we can accomplish.”

It is encouraging to hear from so many that last season’s failures have not poisoned the well, but games are won and lost through action, not words. Hearing Chandler sing the praises of his team is one thing, but if the team is to actually make noise, the Suns will need him to rediscover his old self — or perhaps, his younger self.

Chandler is often spoken of as a veteran leader brought in to mentor the younger players, particularly Alex Len. But this minimizes the 34-year-old’s on-court value as a 7’1 presence in the middle who ranks third in NBA history for career field goal percentage.

Forgetting all that he brings would be inexcusable if not for the fact that Chandler himself gave Phoenix fans reason to do so by posting his worst season since 2009-10. His numbers for scoring (7.2), rebounding (8.7), and field goal percentage (.583) were all the worst they’ve been since that lone season in Charlotte. Even worse, his blocks average (0.7) was a career low.

Playing devil’s advocate for a second, Chandler’s numbers were not helped by him playing 24.5 minutes per game while platooning with Len. His hamstring injury early in the year did not help matters, either. And it can be difficult to play at one’s peak when everything around you is crumbling.

Perhaps some of those arguments have merit. For example, his per 36 numbers from last season match his career averages more favorably than his per game stats. Yet his blocks numbers are more concerning, as they do not improve no matter how you look at them. Besides blocks per game, his blocks per 36 minutes (1.0), blocks per 100 possessions (1.3), and block percentage (2.2 percent) also represented career lows.

Again, injuries could have played a role in his diminished blocks proficiency, but even in his most injury-plagued seasons, he still managed over a block a game.

The question then is whether this is the new normal for Tyson Chandler. Is this Father Time catching up to the player who entered the league straight out of high school in 2001 and has logged over 30,000 regular season and playoff minutes combined? While an imperfect metric, his preseason would seem to bear this out.

Chandler appeared in just two preseason games — the first and last games. While initially ruled out of the middle four games for personal reasons, a hamstring injury was later cited as the absences piled up, which is a concern in and of itself. In his bookend appearances, though, Chandler posted familiar numbers: 10 points, 9.5 rebounds, 60 percent field goal shooting…and 0.5 blocks per game. His 8-point, 10-rebound, zero-block performance in the season opener only backed up those preseason numbers.

It makes sense that scoring wouldn’t decrease much with age for a player who lives off lobs and the occasional putback, and rebounding is a skill that tends to age well. (Dennis Rodman was still averaging over 11 rebounds per game with the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks as he approached 40 years old.) But blocks — a skill that requires split-second reaction time — holds up less well, especially in a league where nowadays centers spend less time clashing in the paint and more time chasing jump-shooting big men.

This is not to say that Chandler cannot remain an effective player for the Suns — his 27 rebounds in a game last season proves this; rather, it merely suggests that the defensive stalwart who won Defensive Player of the Year in 2011-12 probably never arrived in Phoenix and is unlikely to emerge from hiding this season. Adjust expectations accordingly.

With that said, the Suns should expect Chandler to sweep the glass at an effective rate, finish around the basket, improve on his 62 percent from the free throw line last season, orchestrate the defense from the back line, and continue to grow out a beard that increasingly hints at a future career as an old prospector.

And then there’s that leadership everyone mentions. Chandler himself likens the role of veteran leader to that of a father teaching his kids life lessons.

“They don’t have a clue of what the NBA is about and what being a professional is about,” Chandler said of the younger players. “It’s our job to kind of show them on a day-to-day (basis). You know, get on them when they’re wrong, pat them on the back when they’re doing a great job, encourage them when you see them working hard and doing the right thing.”

Chandler credits his NBA “fathers” Scottie Pippen, Antonio Davis, Charles Oakley, Othella Harrington, and Jalen Rose for guiding him as a young player. Over the years, those interactions informed his personal style between being a veteran influence like Pippen, who Chandler used to sit beside on bus rides and team flights in order to pick his brain on what it took to be a champion, and other styles, like that of a Charles Oakley.

“Oakley was a different story,” Chandler said, laughing. “Oakley was, if you want to equate that to a father figure, that father with the belt waiting for you when you come into the house a little too late.

“I’m not gonna beat up every rook.”