Barely a third of the way through the year, the Knicks already are already riding a hype-fueled roller-coaster. After an 8-15 start, they’re now riding a 5-game winning streak and Jeremy Lin is looking like a potential star. Yet despite outscoring their opponents, the team is still 1 game below .500 and would make the playoffs as only the 8th seed if they started today.
As detailed already by Chasing23 writers Daniel Douglas and Tony Maglio, the Knicks have a whole lot of problems. The biggest ones are that their high-priced forwards, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, are falling pitifully short of expectations. And while their backcourt oozes potential, it remains to be seen whether it can sustain its recent success over the long haul or, perhaps more to the point, when Anthony and Stoudemire come back into the lineup.
That said, there’s a guy in New York secretly having one of the best seasons in the NBA so far. Tyson Chandler – the backbone of the New York Knicks, made a huge difference for the defending champion Dallas Mavericks last year, and he’s making a huge difference for the Knicks this year. His numbers might look pedestrian at first glance-11.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, but his deceptively high level of play has kept the Knicks alive to date.
Lets start with the offense, because we generally don’t think of Chandler as a great offensive player. And while he’s not a guy who’s going to regularly put up huge point totals, he’s a guy who maximizes what he does with the ball and almost never hurts you. So far this season, Chandler is taking scoring efficiency to a level never seen before in the NBA by shooting 70.4% from the field.
Chandler isn’t the most naturally talented offensive player in the league. Most of his shots are dunks, putbacks, and short jumpers. He’s had success with the pick and roll as well. He’s also done a good job of getting to the line this year, after developing into a pretty good free throw shooter.
Of course, when you play with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, there aren’t a lot of shots to go around. Chandler’s 5.6 field goal attempts per game are 7th on the team, but he’s fourth in scoring. His 70.4 field goal percentage, if he can maintain it, would be the second best single season in NBA history, behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 1972-1973 season. Perhaps more impressive, Chandler currently boasts a .739 true shooting percentage, which would crush Artis Gilmore’s old NBA record of .702. And it’s not a fluke-last year, Chandler’s TS% of .697 was the third highest of all time.
Looking at this another way, Chandler has taken 6% of his team’s field goal attempts, but has 12% of their points. Add in his ridiculously low turnover rate (1.4 per game in 33.7 MPG), and you’ve got a guy who maximizes his opportunities on offense better than anyone else in the league. He currently leads the league in offensive rating and is third in offensive win shares, which is shocking for a guy who frequently appears to be an afterthought in the Knicks’ offense (he is 305th out of 337 NBA players in usage percentage).
The Knick’s much maligned defense, on the other hand, has been shockingly competent this season. Considering where they have been recently, that’s a huge compliment. They give up 94.4 PPG , ranking them 14th among all NBA teams at this juncture, but a far cry from their pitiful 105.7 PPG given up last year, and a shockingly low number for a D’Antoni team. And while their pace has slowed down, from 99.1 possessions per game to 93.8 this year, it’s not enough to account for such a vast improvement.
It’s always dangerous to attribute such a change to one player, but in this case, it’s hard to find another cause for the Knick’s defensive improvement. Chandler’s already shown the ability to solidify a defense, as he did last year for the Mavs. Furthermore, the only other real upgrade they had, defensively, was assistant coach Mike Woodson. Carmelo and Amare couldn’t be less interested in trying to play D, and the perimeter defense has been spotty and inconsistent. They cut their best perimeter defender, Chauncey Billups, to make room for Chandler. Yet with Chandler in the middle, the defense has been consistently respectable.
Statistically Chandler’s having a fine season on defense as well, averaging over a block and a steal per game and hovering just outside the top 10 in defensive win shares as well. In Win Shares overall, he’s third, and in WS/48, he trails only Lebron James. And his PER, which notoriously overvalues volume scoring, is still a very respectable 20.4 despite his ridiculously low usage rate. Simply put, Tyson gets it done.
Even if his torrid shooting rate is unsustainable, Chandler will probably find his way into the record books this year. More importantly, despite never having played in an All-Star game, Chandler’s proving that he’s truly become one of the NBA’s elite players by quietly putting together one of the most uniquely impactful seasons in recent NBA memory. Now if only his highly paid teammates would start pulling their weight, these Knicks might really have something.