The Knicks are enduring without Amar’e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin. They have survived without Carmelo Anthony consistently playing at the top of his game.
And none of this would have been possible without Tyson Chandler.
Mike Woodson offered the ultimate compliment for any professional athlete when talking about Chandler’s impact on the team:
“He’s a true winner.”
Based solely on the fact that Chandler singlehandedly brought defense back to Madison Square Garden — after the long-lost franchise fundamental spent almost a decade in exile — he should be a candidate for the NBA’s coveted Defensive Player of the Year award.
Members of the media vote on this award, and for the first time in six years, I won’t have a vote. If I did, Chandler would be my first-place choice.
Obviously he doesn’t have the statistics (1.5 blocks, 0.9 steals and 9.8 rebounds) to compare to other candidates, such as Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka (3.4 blocks per game and an astounding 1.2 blocks per foul) or Chris Paul’s 2.4 steals per game or LeBron James’ amazing 1.3 steals per foul. He’s not among the NBA’s top defensive rebounders, like Dwight Howard’s 10.8 per game.
But what Chandler does can only be quantified statistically by the improvement of the team since his arrival. The Knicks rank among the top defensive teams in the NBA in many categories:
• 4th in the NBA in defensive efficiency (0.967), which is a huge jump from last season when they were the ninth-worst team in this category (1.063).
• 12th in scoring defense, allowing 94.4 points per game this season, which is a 11 points better than last season’s unsightly 105.4 points per game allowed, which was the fourth-highest in the league last season.
• 10th in shooting defense, holding teams to 44.1 percent, compared to 47.2 percent last season, which was the fifth-highest last season.
• 9th in points in the Paint allowed, at 39.2 per game, compared to 45.4 percent, which was the fifth-highest last season.
But if you need individual achievements to qualify Chandler for Defensive Player of the Year candidacy, look no further than his head-to-head matchups with three all-star centers this season:
• Dwight Howard (season averages: 20.6 points, 14.4 rebounds, 3.3 turnovers): In three games, Howard was a virtual non-factor as he averaged 9.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and had 5.6 turnovers. The Knicks won two of the three games. Granted, last night’s game came with heavy distractions for Howard and the Magic, but Chandler didn’t allow Howard to have an easy time.
• Roy Hibbert (season averages: 12.9 points, 8.6 rebounds): In three games, Hibbert was just below his standard, with 12.6 points and 6.6 rebounds which is bolstered by one solid game — 24 points and 12 rebounds on March 17, in a Knicks win. In the other two, Chandler kept Hibbert in check with 4 points and 3 rebounds in the first meeting and 10 points and 5 rebounds in the most recent, this past Tuesday.
• Andrew Bynum (season averages: 18.3 points, 11.9 rebounds): In their only matchup of the season (Bynum was sitting out his suspension when the Knicks played in L.A. on Dec. 29), Chandler frustrated Bynum to 1-of-8 shooting and a 3-point, 13-rebound performance in a Knicks win on Feb. 10 that will go down as the signature win for the Linsanity era.
Let’s also factor in that Chandler has appeared in 53 of the team’s 55 games so far this season and played a bulk of those games with a painful hand injury that affected him catching the ball and finishing around the basket (and yet he still leads the league in shooting at 67.5 percent).
When he’s in the lineup, the Knicks are 28-25. Obviously a big part of making a final decision on this award is the overall success of the team. You generally don’t give any kind of Player of the Year honors to someone on a team that is below .500 and doesn’t make the playoffs.
But the reason why the Knicks can believe — even in the absence of Stoudemire and Lin — that they are a playoff team is because of Chandler. They reason why Knicks fans are buying into this team is because it plays defense, which is a personality that has developed with the perimeter efforts of rookie Iman Shumpert and reserve J.R. Smith and being emphasized by Woodson. But Chandler is unquestionably the anchor and the one who sets the standard.
If he’s not the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, he’s certainly the Knicks’ MVP.
WHEN EARL IS A PEARL
J.R. Smith has been such an enigma throughout his NBA career because he can tantalize you with talent, yet madden you with attitude. Smith once again showed the potential of just how good he could be in Thursday’s win over Orlando when he scored 15 points and recorded a career-high nine assists.
The problem with Smith has historically been a mercurial trend that ranges from so good to so bad. His altercation with Leandro Barbosa, in which he was ejected for tossing the Pacers’ guard to the floor late in the loss in Indiana, drew the usual head-shakes. His glassy eyed performance in Atlanta last week resulted in questions about his readiness to play after a night in a city many NBA players love to enjoy.
And that’s what led to a long conversation with Woodson after practice on Wednesday in Orlando. After what came off as a father-son chat, the coach candidly said, “I want his shorts pulled up.” In other words, stop being a kid and start acting like a grown man.
Smith responded not only with his best effort of the season, but also an appreciation for a coach who is taking a direct interest in his development.
“It means a lot because it’s the first time I’ve ever had verbal conversations with the head coach,” Smith said. “It gives me confidence.”
Smith has had his issues with Byron Scott and George Karl. He did like playing for Mike D’Antoniand once pointed out on Twitter D’Antoni’s words of encouragement. But with Woodson, Smith is in a unique situation. The player needs the coach just as much as the coach needs the player. Woodson is in an interim situation and success could vault that into a contract extension. Smith has a player option next season for $2.5 million, which, for his talent, is well under market value. A strong finish to this season and in the playoffs could get him a bigger contract if he opts out.
“I’m going to keep pushing him to do the right thing,” Woodson said, “. . . and hopefully the results will be wins.”
BACK TO DOIN’ WHAT TONEY DOUGLAS DO
The celebration in the visitors’ locker room at the Amway Center wasn’t strictly about a critical win for the Knicks, but the critical re-emergence of a player who could be an important piece in this final stretch of the regular season. Toney Douglas had 13 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, when the Knicks put the final touches on the blowout win over the Magic. Perhaps they weren’t important points in the result of the game, but they were important to the confidence of a player who was buried on the bench for most of the season.
“That locker room was so happy and proud for Toney because he hasn’t played a whole lot this season,” Woodson said.
“It’s good to see him back playing like that,” Carmelo Anthony added. “He was prepared when his number was called.”
Douglas, who also had six assists, five rebounds and a steal in 24:57, said it was the full-court press that helped get him into the game and get into a rhythm on offense. Douglas loves to pressure the ball and also to play passing lanes like an NFL defensive back.
The press is something Woodson said he has been wanting to implement and, with athletes like Shumpert, Smith, Douglas and Landry Fields (not to mention, once he returns, Jared Jeffries), it could be something we see more of as the season winds down.
THE DIRTY LOWDOWN
“Nothing you can’t handle, nothing you ain’t got
Put your money on the table, drive it off the lot . . .”
By next weekend, we’ll have a very good idea about the race for the final spots in the East. The Knicks have a tough home-and-home with the Bulls, starting Easter Sunday afternoon at The Garden (and, yes, Derrick Rose said he will make his comeback that day).
After that miniseries with Chicago, (which could be a preview of the first round), the Knicks will then play the Bucks in Milwaukee in the second game of a back-to-back in what will be a pivotal game. The Bucks, who will be closing out a five-game homestand, will have a day of rest after hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night.
If the Knicks lose this game, the Bucks will win the season series and own the first tiebreaker if the team’s ended with the same record.
The week ends at home against a Washington Wizards team that is playing a lot harder — and with nothing to lose. And then comes the final gauntlet, home against the Heat on April 15 and then home against the Celtics on April 17. Hey, all optimists should look at that game as a potential battle for the Atlantic Division crown.
Just drank a fifth of Kool Aid. Dare me to drive? * Eminem voice*
The schedule closes with a bit of a reprieve, as three of the last five games are against lottery-bound teams (Nets, Cavs and Bobcats).
If it comes down to one final game, the Knicks end the season at Charlotte, while the Bucks will be at Boston and the 76ers are at Detroit.
So, yes, we’ve re-attached the rear view mirror and see the Bucks are closer than they appear. But we’ve also got an eye on plummeting Philly’s parachute. Will it open in time?