And thanks to the Milwaukee Bucks losing to the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night, the Knicks (33-29) officially clinched a berth in the NBA’s postseason party. At the very least, Knicks fans can be assured of four more games after the Knicks conclude their regular season in Charlotte on April 26, even if we’re yet to learn whether they will square off against the Celtics, Pacers, Heat or Bulls.
This time of year is renowned for playoff discussion but considerable time is also spent on arguments as to which of the league’s elite deserve accolades in the form of the NBA’s annual season-ending awards.
You’ve probably read accounts about how Tyson Chandler has changed the defensive culture of the Knicks. As Jamie O’Grady pointed out in the New York Times’ Off the Dribble Blog, the Knicks are 11th in the NBA in points allowed per game – up from 27th last season. And speaking of last season, the ‘Bockers were ranked 26th in points allowed in the paint; this season, they are a much more respectable ninth.
The improvement is a result of a team-wide effort to defend. But anyone that follows the Knicks knows that Chandler is the diesel engine that motors the Knicks’ defense.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to Chandler about his defensive contributions to the team and what winning Defensive Player of the Year would mean to him.
“It would be huge for me,” he told me. “It would signify a lot of hard work being recognized as well as the hard work of my teammates.”
Over the past decade, the NBA’s awards have been dominated by players on winning teams. Most voters subscribe to the notion that only the league’s most successful teams (e.g. top four seeds in each conference) “deserve” to have any individual award winners.
Rubbish, I say!
And that’s the same way I felt back in 2002 when Jason Kidd lost one of the NBA’s closest MVP races to Tim Duncan. Duncan led the Spurs to a 58-win season and won the award over Kidd, whose arrival in New Jersey was the primary reason the Nets doubled their win total to 52, one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in NBA history.
After the ballots were cast, Duncan’s Spurs lost in the second round while Kidd’s Nets made their first trip to the NBA Finals. Maybe it was poetic justice.
Even still, to me, that was a travesty, and I’ll always remember it. But I can’t necessarily say it was unfair. “Most Valuable” is a subjective term. And as the years have gone by, the question as to what it means to be MVP has not become any clearer. Kevin Love will probably receive some votes this year, and he’s headed to the draft lottery. That’s simply because some voters value individual statistical production while others care more about wins and losses.
At this point, I do not think that Chandler is going to win, and I can understand why. Although he may not be Defensive Player of the Year (especially since Chris Sheridan himself confided to me that he does not plan on voting for Chandler for first place), he’s probably the NBA’s Most Valuable Defensive Player.
If those two things seem like they’re the same, they’re not. Unfortunately, due to an overall dearth of responsible accounting and metrics, the NBA’s statistics do not lend themselves to accurately portraying defensive dominance.
That’s something Chandler and I agree on. “I think people get caught up so much with blocks and statistics and what a person averages.” He said. “To me, that’s not necessarily the best defender.”
And therein lies the problem. This new era of statistics and advanced metrics have revolutionized the way we watch and think about the game. Too often, we seek to resolve arguments as to who “can” and “can’t” do something based on averages or percentages. Easily accessible box scores and running numbers gives anyone a voice in any argument.
For example, LeBron James is shooting 53.3 percent from the field while Kevin Durant is shooting 50.1 percent. Does that make James a better shooter than Durant? Of course not.
So forgive my refusal to anoint Serge Ibaka with the defensive distinction merely because of his league-leading 3.6 blocks per game. Chandler, ranked 16th in the league, blocks only 1.5 shots per game.
But here’s the difference: Ibaka usually has Kendrick Perkins beside him. Ibaka is free to roam and come off the weak side in an attempt to block shots. Going after those blocks is a risk and it’s one too great for Chandler to take as often as he’d like.
“To me, a lot of the time when you go after blocks, you take yourself out of position,” he said. “I’m a little different, I like to not take myself out of position and just challenge shots, make ‘em miss, and let my teammates get the rebounds.”
It’s just another example of how everything Chandler says and does while on the court is about the team. He once famously said “You don’t just play with your teammates. You play for your teammates.”
So no, I don’t think this is all a coincidence.
But what I do think is that the NBA needs to redo and rethink the way in which it officially keep track of individual players’ defensive statistics.
I’d like to see the following :
- Forced Misses: When a defender is guarding an offensive player who misses a shot
- Forced Turnovers: When a defender causes an offensive player to turn the ball over via a bad pass, traveling violation or offensive foul
- Deflections: When a defender separates the offensive player from the ball without causing a turnover (in other words, the defender pokes the ball away but the offensive team retains possession)
I want to know who leads the leagues in those categories. Because I think they’re more telling than steals and blocks. And I also happen to believe that Chandler would be among the league leaders in all three.
In the Knicks’ last three wins (at Nets, Celtics, Wizards), based on my count, Chandler had 21 forced misses, seven forced turnovers and nine deflections. I tracked those stats because I knew that a lot of the effort plays he makes – plays that ultimately make a huge difference – are invisible in box scores.
As basketball fans, we are trained to watch the ball. Very few of us are interested enough in the intricacies of the game to watch a particular player for five consecutive minutes when that player doesn’t get the ball or when that player’s activity causes the player he is defending to not get the ball.
Worse, NBA stats that are supposed to prove defensive superiority are flawed. For the most part, steals result from playing passing lanes and shooting gaps. Blocks often come from the weak side, and rebounds (considered by some to be a defensive stat) can be poached by a point guard when his power forward does a good job of boxing out an opposing big.
Too many of us judge “good” defenders by how many steals and/or blocks they average per game.
Defense is more about team, and the stat-conscious might jeopardize valuable points in the hunt for numbers. Chandler, however, is the antithesis. He is content with playing his position on the court and doing a lot of his defensive dirty work behind the scenes when nobody is watching. It’s not about individual glory.
“Coach Woodson and his staff watch tons of game film and I try to do my own scouting and watch teams,” Chandler told me. “He throws out the game plan and if I saw something I’ll kinda pull him to the side and we’ll talk about it and we might try to find a way that we know will make the team understand it.”
And scouting opponents prior to games isn’t all Chandler does to make the Knicks’ defense click. During games, he’s actively coaching defense on the floor.
“I want my teammates to feel comfortable out there,” he said. “I want to let them know where they’re supposed to be and what’s coming. I feel like if your teammates constantly hear you talk and they constantly hear a voice, they won’t feel like they’re out there by themselves.”
For a championship-starved city, Chandler is a breath of fresh air. The big money, riches, and the championship ring he won with the Dallas Mavericks haven’t affected his desire to win. He knows that it takes a team to win, and both team and winning are more important than any individual accolades.
“Bill Russell was one of the great position defensive players. He got a lot of blocks but he kept a lot of blocks in play,” Chandler told me. “But I think he was even better at just challenging shots and making guys miss. That’s what I want to do most.”
From scouting to coaching, playing, and idolizing, Chandler is there for his teammates.
And while those attributes might not be quantifiable from a statistical standpoint, Chandler is probably the NBA’s Most Valuable Defensive Player, even if he’s not Defensive Player of the Year.
Moke Hamilton covers the New York Knicks for SheridanHoops.com and is the Deputy Editor for CHARGED.fm. For the latest on the New York Knicks and all things NBA, follow him on Twitter.