Hamilton: In title chase, Tyson Chandler may be most important piece

Moke Hamilton, NBA Analyst

Long before the Knicks defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in their season-opener and long, long before dropping their second game of the season to the Chicago Bulls, Tyson Chandler assured anyone who would listen that he would be more assertive this season.

USATSI_7523632_110579513_lowresUnderstand: the NBA season is not a sprint, it is a marathon. And this race is not for the 12-man clique that can collectively run the fastest, it is for the ones with the chiseled physiques and low-gluten diets. It is for those with the stamina, those who can endure.

But even still, after two games, Chandler has given Knicks fans a sight — actually, about 68 game-minutes of sights — to behold. And slowly but surely, it is he who has emerged as the most vital cog in the Knicks’ machine. It was just quite easy to forget that over the course of last Spring.

Battling a myriad injuries, neck soreness and rapid weight loss as a result of a late-season battle with the flu, Chandler looked a step slow throughout last season’s playoffs, especially as the Knicks were eliminated by the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Since then, emboldened and audacious, Chandler has spoken of raising his level of play and becoming a more complete and dependable player for Mike Woodson and his team, and not just on the defensive end.

Offense, he said, was now a concern of his.

Call him “Tyson 2.0.”

Wednesday night’s 10-point, nine-rebound, five block-effort against the Bucks — though not an auspicious debut from a numbers perspective — saw Chandler come up big when it counted most for his team. Down the stretch, it was his gritty defense and shot contesting — and Carmelo Anthony’s shot-making — that ensured that the Knicks would not drop their home opener after walking all over the point guard devoid team for the gross majority of the night.

The following night in Chicago, Chandler put together an absolutely dominant performance, though it came in a disappointing one-point loss at the United Center. Still, his seven-point, 19-rebound, four-block effort is a testament to the quality of play he is able to deliver.

As the Knicks have surrounded Anthony with a formidable collection of talent, scoring is not something that this team necessarily needs to be concerned about. Even with Anthony combining to shoot just 15-for-40 over the first two games of the season, the Knicks won one game and should have won the other.

Chandler was the major reason why.

In each of the first two contests, the team’s defense was inconsistent over the course of 48 minutes, but did show the potential to string together consecutive stops and take control. With J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr., Carmelo Anthony, Metta World Peace, Andrea Bargnani and the forgotten Amar’e Stoudemire, this team has a diverse array of interchangeable players that can play at least two positions, from shooting guard to power forward.

But as far as the center position goes?

After winning 54 games last season and seeing their season end in disappointing fashion, the Knicks did what they could with the limited flexibility afforded to the team due to the NBA’s restrictive collective bargaining agreement and have assembled an upgraded roster.

Only problem? The top of the conference has upgraded, as well. At this point, the major weakness on the roster is its lack of depth at the center position, and that is why Chandler is, in one word, unexpendable. He is the defensive anchor in the middle, and helps to maintain the Knicks as a formidable team in the Eastern Conference.

With him developing an offensive game, though? That is the stuff that championship dreams are made of.

201310311956718095886-p5Last season, it was no surprise that the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs were both able to take the Miami Heat to seven games. Both teams play tough perimeter defense, both had a single player who could make LeBron James work for his points in a one-on-one situation and, most importantly, both had effective big men that could consistently score against the Heat.

Like the Bulls, the Knicks do not have that, so it is no surprise that both the Bulls and Knicks have struggled against the Heat. If Chandler is a man of his word, though, that could change.

Focused and somewhat oblivious to the fact that, but for the select few, players like him—players who have been in the league for 12 years and have made the rounds—do not reinvent themselves, Chandler believes he can do more. His reputation as offensively inept, be damned. Here he was, looking me in the eye after helping the Knicks win their season opener.

“Yea, absolutely,” Chandler said, when I asked if it felt good to hit his first jumper of the season. Earlier that night, at the 7:35 mark of the second quarter, Chandler converted on a 15-footer on the elbow after receiving a pass from Tim Hardaway.

“But I was a little short on the second one,” he quickly added.

And as for whether or not he will continue to expand his game, Chandler says he will.

“I worked on it the entire summer and I’m gonna continue to work on it before and after practice,” he said. “I’ll be doing my team and myself a disservice to not keep the defense honest. I’m sure I’ll have a couple opportunities each game where the defense will try to lay off and I’ll have to make them pay.”

He converted on one of two jumpers against the Bulls on Thursday night, this one, a 14-footer over the outstretched arm of All-NBA First Teamer Joakim Noah. Though Chandler would not convert another jumper for the rest of the night, from that point forward, he commanded the respect of Tom Thibodeau’s interior defenders.

Obviously, not much is to be taken from a mere two games, but in this instance, Chandler’s taking four jump shots and converting two of them may be a microcosm of what is to come. This early in the season, as the long road toward the playoffs begins, it is interesting to see how teams and players begin to forge their individual identities.

If Chandler is a man of his word, things may be different for both he and the Knicks this season.

Finally, the public may realize, it is his health, productivity and, yes, development, that may make all the difference between a season in which the Knicks defy expectations or one which ends, once again, earlier than the fans of New York City anticipate.

Time will tell, and there is still tons of it.


Moke Hamilton is the NBA Analyst for SNY.tv and hosts The Knicks Blog Podcast with Harris Decker each and every week from SNY’s Midtown studio. Follow him on Twitter: @MokeHamilton