The Dallas Mavericks have shown us this part before: The gaudy early-season record (16-4), the offense that’s crisp as country bacon (47.5% FG, 3rd in the NBA), the MVP push by Dirk Nowitzki (24.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg). And 100 percent of the time, their impressive early efforts have failed to produce an NBA championship.
Why should anybody believe this year will be different? Because these Mavs are winning with defense and rebounding, two areas in which offseason trade acquisition Tyson Chandler has carved his niche. Through Sunday’s schedule, the Mavs ranked third in the League in points allowed (92.2 ppg), second in field-goal percentage defense (43.1% FG), and fifth in defensive rebounding differential. Chandler, the 7-foot-1 starting center, is averaging 8.8 points, 9.2 boards and 1.4 blocks per game.
“I’m the defensive anchor of this team,” Chandler says. “I feel like I gotta be the emotional leader of this team. They’ve had so much success for so many years, but haven’t won that one championship. What I wanted to bring was what the team needed to get over the hump, that defensive presence, that rebounding presence.”
In Saturday’s win at Sacramento, Chandler proved his worth in the final minute. After breaking a tie with two free throws to complete a fourth-quarter Dallas comeback, Chandler made two defensive plays to preserve the win — first when he blocked Carl Landry at the rim to snuff out a potential game-tying layup, and then on the Kings’ final possession, when Chandler cut off Landry’s baseline driving lane and forced Landry into a wild pass that was intercepted.
The Mavs are one of the oldest teams in the League, and conventional wisdom says Nowitzki (32) and point guard Jason Kidd (37) in particular will have trouble staying in front of younger, quicker players at their position. Even longtime defensive stalwart Shawn Marion (32) and Jason Terry (33), who ranks in the NBA’s all-time Top 75 in steals, aren’t as stingy as they once were. So how is Dallas getting it done?
“Defensively, we wanna limit teams to one tough shot each possession,” says the 28-year-old Chandler. “If we hold them to one tough shot instead of multiple opportunities and offensive rebounds, we’re doing our job.”
Though he was a part-time starter on last season’s Charlotte Bobcats team that earned the franchise’s first-ever playoff berth, Chandler struggled with injuries and never seemed to find a flow in Larry Brown‘s system. The Bobcats traded Chandler in the offseason in what was basically a salary dump. He’s attributed his success in Dallas to playing with Kidd (“He threads the needle with passes most people won’t even attempt”), improving his confidence in his shooting stroke (80.2% FT), and winning a gold medal with Team USA at the FIBA World Championship in September.
“With me, Chauncey (Billups) and Lamar (Odom) being the more veteran guys on the (USA) team, it gave me more confidence,” Chandler says. “If I was able to lead these guys and have success, there’s no reason I couldn’t help lead the Mavericks.”
Chandler was a borderline NBA All-Star a few years ago when he played for the New Orleans Hornets, a top-3 rebounder in the League and highlight-reel regular thanks to alley-oops from Chris Paul. But even though his scoring, rebounding and minutes are down from his N.O. days, this may be Chandler’s best year as a pro. If the 2011 All-Star rosters were chosen today, I have Chandler as the backup center in the West. And if the League finds a way to move Pau Gasol to the starting five-spot for All-Star — Yao Ming will win the fan vote, but no way will the Rockets allow him to play in a meaningless exhibition — Chandler’s best competition for an All-Star nod are Al Jefferson and Marc Gasol. If the Mavs keep winning, he has a good chance of making his All-Star debut.
“It would be huge for me to be an All-Star,” Chandler says. “At the beginning of the year, I was talking to Dirk and told him I want to make an All-Star game before it’s all over with. He said, ‘You can do it this year.’ I just have to continue to put in work.”