Numbers seem to care not for how they agree with observation. Case in point: Tyson Chandler, experiencing his second consecutive season as a focal point of a high-scoring offense, is on pace to tally his lowest assist total in seven seasons.
Last year, Chandler’s first in Phoenix, I was skeptical that coach Jeff Hornacek’s decision to use Chandler as a playmaker from the top of the key would continue through the end of the year, let alone into the next coach’s tenure and the next season. Yet here we are, almost halfway through the 2016-17 campaign, and Chandler continues to operate as a hub for the Suns’ offense.
You’ve seen it for months now: Chandler is often the first man to receive a pass on offense, which will then lead to his surveying the court and deciding on a ball-handler for which to screen or find room. Someone like Devin Booker or Eric Bledsoe will then get the ball in motion and drive toward the hoop with room to move and options around them.
I wrote of Alex Len’s chemistry with the team’s various ball-handlers in his Player of the Week feature earlier in the season:
He’s not only an improved screener, but he’s developed a great understanding of how to do so multiple times over the course of a single possession in a Suns offensive scheme that calls for a lot out of its big men at the arc.
No matter who the ball handler is, Len knows where they want their screen, which way they’ll go off of it, and whether they’ll accept or reject it.
Chandler has a lot of that same familiarity, but approaches the pick-and-dance with his guards in a different way. Where Len is a mover, Chandler might be described as a shaker, or a brick wall. Len creates room by screening and re-screening in different directions to get defenders out of position; Chandler stops them in their tracks. That he can manipulate the defense in this way with the ball or without it makes those skills even more valuable, and incredibly hard to defend.
He already has a beautiful chemistry with Devin Booker; these two are to the point where Chandler need not even set a real screen before rolling to the hoop for an open layup. Though Booker has had some frustrating moments and been put in some even-more-frustrating positions, running around with Chandler has often made him look his best:
The last Player of the Week went up on Saturday morning, so I know those plays aren’t from the two games since Saturday, but Chandler has earned this one. He’s averaging 10.0 points and 8.5 rebounds against two tremendous front lines. Rudy Gobert (and Derrick Favors) in Utah and DeAndre Jordan in Los Angeles are about the two most difficult centers to face back-to-back in the Western Conference, yet Chandler did his part in keeping the Suns close in both of these games.
He always uses his fouls wisely, sets the tone for the rest of the game by fighting hard in the first quarter, and does his best to get the offense going.
Back to those numbers, though: Chandler is on pace for only 32 total assists this season, which would be the fourth-lowest of his career. However, he is 13th in NBA.com’s Screen Assists, with 111 (18 less than Len) despite missing eight games. That’s the main way that Chandler is showing his value as an offensive tool despite low assist numbers.
He’s very good at holding point-of-attack defenders until the very last second, turning them away from the ball-handler ever so slightly, and then slingshotting his teammates to the hoop. Brandon Knight comes to mind as someone who benefits from Chandler without actually tangoing with him too much in the half court.
It’s understandable if screen assists and a not-quite-double-double couple of games isn’t inspiring enough for Player of the Week status. But in a way, Chandler’s quiet consistency over the long weekend was representative of his play throughout the season in Phoenix. Though T.J. Warren had a nice scoring night against the Clippers and Bledsoe was remarkable (and a two-time winner) in his own right, Chandler had two solid performances that put the Suns in contention against Western Conference playoff teams.
I know we like to bash the contract and question the minutes, but Chandler (down to 27.1 minutes per game despite a few monstrous totals) is a big reason the Suns are staying competitive. He is also, more importantly, a positive for the few young Suns who have shown signs of improvement this year.