Tyson Chandler was the Phoenix Suns' major free agent signing during the 2015 offseason, and it was a surprising acquisition at that, considering his presence presented a roadblock to Alex Len's move into the starting lineup. However, the move was sold as an attempt to shore up a shaky back line with a veteran defensive center who could help mentor Len along the way. The pairing of Chandler and the Suns didn't bear the expected fruit in wins and losses, but Chandler's season individually went about as expected.
Chandler has never been known as an offensive-minded center. Despite possessing the third-highest career field goal percentage in NBA history at 59 percent, he takes a low volume of shots, averaging 5.5 field goal attempts per game over his 15-year career. That has translated into a career scoring average of 8.7 points per game.
That held true this season for Chandler, as he averaged 7.2 points on just 4.8 field goal attempts for a field goal percentage of 58.3, which was his lowest field goal percentage for a season since his lone, injury plagued season with the Charlotte Bobcats in 2009-10. He also shot 62 percent from the free throw line, which was the worst percentage on the team and his worst since suiting up for the New Orleansin 2008-09. All Chandler's numbers came while playing just 24.1 minutes per game, however, which was his lowest minutes played since that same season in Charlotte.
The majority of Chandler's offense came in the paint as dunks or tip-ins, with 76.8 percent of his field goal attempts coming from 0-3 feet from the basket and another 12.4 percent coming from 3-10 feet. His offensive game necessitated he get as close to the hoop as possible because while he shot 68.5 percent from 0-3 feet, even moving to the 3-10 foot range saw his percentage drop to 33.3. Anything beyond that range and he was shooting in the mid-teens. And not to put too fine a point on the whole close-in issue, but of his 183 made field goals this season, 103 were dunks.
Chandler also needed to be set up for him to be most effective, with two-thirds of his made field goals coming off assists. He just did not display a strong one-on-one post game and never really has for that matter, but with most of the team struggling to grasp the finer points of throwing a lob pass, setting Chandler up for easy baskets was an adventure.
On the whole, Chandler was exactly who he has been his entire career on the offensive end. Most of his lower-that-normal numbers are a result of fewer minutes and the offense's inability to utilize Chandler's skill set as effectively as teams like Dallas or New Orleans did in the past. When the majority of a player's offense is dunking the basketball, it becomes less likely that player will suffer some sort of regression on offense. But with the Suns being less than flush with gifted playmakers on the roster, Chandler may need to broaden his offensive horizons for 2016-17.
The Suns believed they were acquiring a defensive-minded center during the summer of 2015, but Chandler's defensive numbers this year were underwhelming to say the least. Chandler averaged 0.5 steals per game, which was his lowest average since 2010-11. Even more of a concern, though, was his 0.7 blocks per game, which was a career low. And looking at those numbers per 36 minutes to account for splitting time with Len offers only a slight reprieve because even though his steals per 36 minutes becomes the third-highest average of his career, his blocks per game remains a career low.
In fact, there isn't a single metric that suggests Chandler was a significant deterrent at the rim this past season. His blocks (36), blocks per game (0.7), blocks per 36 minutes (1.0), blocks per 100 possessions (1.3), and block percentage (2.2 percent) are all career lows. Even when it came to having standout games he disappointed. Chandler had just one game last season with three or more blocks — the fewest of his career. When he played 35 games for the Chicago Bulls in 2003-04 he mustered up three such games.
Of even greater concern than his declining blocks stats is his apparent decline as a defensive force in general. While Len's field goals defended at rim percent of 50.6 percent was disappointing, Chandler's 53.6 percent was downright bad. That percentage ranked him 99th in the NBA among players 6'10'' or taller and behind such defensive luminaries as Enes Kanter (95th), Chris Kaman (84th), Dirk Nowitzki (81st), and Michael Beasley (69th). Chandler's 53.6 number is a decline of almost three percent from his past two seasons at 50.8 percent.
And sticking with this downward trend, Chandler allowed opponents to shoot 2.5 percent better than their average on the season, including 3.3 percent better on 2-pointers. However, he did hold his man to 2 percent worse shooting from within six feet of the basket as compared to shots defended 15 feet or farther from the hoop, where his man shot 2.8 percent higher. The same trend held true for Chandler last year as well, suggesting that at this point in his career, his effective defensive range is around the basket and not hedging out towards perimeter players despite possessing the mobility to do so.
Chandler usually guarded the power forward in lineups this season where he and Len were both on the court. With that being so, it could go a long way in explaining some of his defensive drop-off. It is harder to block shots the farther from the basket a defender plays and easier to get steals. Still, playing out of position doesn't account for all of his defensive struggles around the basket.
Ultimately, one of two things needs to happen for 2016-17. The Suns need to find a way to better utilize the tandem of Chandler and Len at their natural position of center, which means not playing them together, or Chandler needs to find a way to be more effective defending on the perimeter. Chandler can only directly control the second one of those scenarios, though, and considering the NBA's shift to perimeter-oriented big men, he needs to work on that aspect of his game regardless of whether he returns to playing predominantly center or not next season.
One area where Chandler proved he hasn't dropped off is in the rebounding department. Although he averaged his fewest rebounds (8.7) since 2009-10 (6.3), his per-36 rebounding average of 12.8 was the third highest of his career. Those numbers coincide with his strong rebound percentage stats, where he ranked among the league leaders for offensive rebound percentage (11.5, 14th overall), defensive rebound percentage (27.5, 11th overall), and total rebound percentage (19.3, 11th overall) according to basketball-reference.com.
It's no wonder, then, that only Andre Drummond (9) and DeAndre Jordan (7) had more 20-rebound games than Chandler's two (which came consecutively), and only Drummond had a game with more rebounds this past season than the 27 Chandler ripped down against the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 23, 2016 — a total that tied Paul Silas' franchise record from Jan. 18, 1971 set against the Cincinnati Royals.
Still, even his rebounding wasn't immune to some decline. While Chandler's 2014-15 contested rebounds percentage was 45.3, his contested rebounds percentage this season fell to 34.7 for a drop of nearly 11 percent. However, Len's contested rebounds percentage dropped about nine percent from 2014-15 to 2015-16, so perhaps the combination of the two centers this season eroded these stats for each.
Chandler has always been an effective rebounder in the NBA, and even as he gets older, his height and length will allow him to hang his hat on that skill for years to come, just as he did in his minutes this season.
Player Specific: Leadership
One of the qualities Chandler was expected to bring to the table for the Suns in 2015-16 was veteran leadership and tutelage of younger players like Len, but that leadership seemed to come in fits and spurts.
It started before training camp when Chandler, coming into a completely new environment with teammates he was unfamiliar with, showed up to voluntary workouts in mid September, beating only the disgruntled Markieff Morris to the Valley. Of course, there was no requirement that Chandler needed to be there earlier, and as an older veteran, that extra rest can be important. But considering the other veterans on the roster — P.J. Tucker and Ronnie Price — each showed up in August to join their teammates and begin building chemistry, he could have done better.
Then there was the time he was ejected against the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 2 for arguing a no-call while Len was unable to play due to injury, leaving the Suns without a center against DeMarcus Cousins. To Chandler's credit, though, he did say after the game, "I'll take blame for this whole game. You can put it on me."
It is also fair to question why, as a veteran player, Chandler was not more prominent in rallying the troops as the losses mounted. In fact, Chandler was quoted by azcentral.com's Paul Coro after a particularly bad loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in January as saying, "[The losing is] testing all of my character and my patience."
Even Coach Earl Watson had to stay on Chandler to keep him from getting discouraged during the losing because the team needed him, with azcentral quoting Watson as saying, "Tyson being Tyson, he's like, ‘I admit it, I've been a frontrunner.'"
Chandler's leadership qualities have been questioned before, especially related to his 2013-14 season spent in New York, and it is fair to wonder at least if he isn't at his best leadership-wise on teams that fall short of expectations.
But there were positives as well. Chandler played 66 games for the Suns in a lost season and battled through injury when many veterans would have simply shut it down. And also worth mentioning is that Chandler was only whistled for five technical fouls this season. Maybe having nothing to play for mellowed Chandler somewhat, but considering this was an area of concern for the tech-happy Suns entering the season, it's worth noting.
Chandler's mentorship of Len was also a highlight. His influence did lead to some echoes of Tyson's game in Len's — the tap-out rebounds being the most pronounced. But his biggest impact might have been as a supporter in Len's corner when he could have played the role of grumpy veteran upset about sharing minutes with the young center. "It means so much to me to watch him and his success," Chandler told azcentral after Len scored a career-high 31 points against the Orlando Magic. "He has all the tools in the world. He's a big that you don't see in this league anymore. He has the touch. He has the skill. My job is to keep encouraging him, keep teaching him all the little things about the game. I'm [proud] as hell of just the type of dude he is and the way he approaches the game."
Chandler sounds as though he is already gearing up for a bigger leadership role next season, suggesting he will host a camp at his home in California over the summer to get the team together early, even handling the logistics himself if need be.
"If I have to pay for everybody, I don't care," Chandler told azcentral. "To me, it's important that this organization builds the right way. When I signed on to it, I'm here. I want to win. I want to be part of the change. In order to do that, I know there are areas I've got to lead because it hasn't been done for a while. The (Steve) Nashes and all of them, they're gone. We've got to turn this thing back around to a winning culture."
Chandler made similar statements shortly after the season ended. "This will be the last time we do exit interviews in April. In order for us to accomplish that, everybody has to go off and do their part. I'm not familiar with this (missing the playoffs), and I don't want to get familiar with it. I'm going to do my part, and I'm going to make sure everybody else does theirs."
But while the promise of a closer team with better chemistry is encouraging, that is a matter for next season's report card, not this season's.
The Suns brought in Chandler to provide defense and leadership to a team believed to be on the cusp of the playoffs. The Suns as a team failed miserably on their end while Chandler seemed to get beaten down by the losing. While he remained a strong rebounder and a steady offensive player in the right situations, his defense waned in a Phoenix uniform. Even worse, his effort and leadership were not beyond reproach.
With three seasons remaining on the contract he signed last summer, Chandler needs to realize this Suns team is not a ready-made winner. He can still do many of the things basketball-wise that have made him a successful NBA player over his career, but he cannot get discouraged when the young team he signed with plays like a young team; those are the moments his teammates need him the most.
"Honestly, I feel like I came in blind this season," Chandler said to Coro. "I expected one thing and it was another. I've been trying to adjust. I was expecting to play a certain type of basketball and it was different.
"It's been an adjustment throughout the year. I'm really looking forward to, ‘Look, this is what we have. This is our coach. This is the free agent we're bringing in. This is our draft pick. These are the guys we're bringing back. Let's build.' It's been a year. It's always been something. I'm looking forward to the boat not rocking and being steady and getting to work."
He's not the only one.
Final Grade: B-