Seeing the Forest for Its Tallest Trees

Posted by Rob Mahoney on October 6, 2010 under Commentary | Read the First Comment


The Mavs’ acquisition of Tyson Chandler was dressed with an effusing of praise typical to an average NBA roster move. Sort through the post-trade quotes from Donnie Nelson, Mark Cuban, Rick Carlisle, and Dirk Nowitzki, and you’ll find an incessantly complimentary pro-Chandler soundboard without a single mention of the seven-footer’s weaknesses.

The buzz words? ‘Defense,’ ‘length,’ ‘depth.’ Conspicuously absent words of note? ‘Offense,’ ‘injury-prone,’ ‘limited’.

Chandler is a welcome addition to the Mavericks’ roster for exactly the reasons that team officials have noted, but Dallas hasn’t simply acquired the long, athletic defender that Nelson, Carlisle, and co. were quick to laud; all of Chandler’s shortcomings were packed up in suitcases and imported from Charlotte as well. The Mavs’ reps can attempt to cake all of Chandler’s weaknesses in makeup, but once the season begins, those claims (or convenient omissions) will likely begin to smear.

Among the first of the post-trade sound bites to dissipate could be the praise for Chandler’s positional versatility. Apparently, those in Mavs’ HQ have flirted with the idea of playing Chandler and Brendan Haywood on the floor together, convention be damned. Considering the impressive size that the Lakers boast, it makes sense that the thought would have crossed the minds of the Mavs’ brass. Plus, in principle, that idea deserves a pat on the back for creativity, if nothing else. But in practice? It should be an outright disaster.

Chandler, shockingly, doesn’t share in that pessimism.

“Whenever you have the versatility that we have at the guard positions and at the forward positions, there will be no reason that we wouldn’t be able to play together because we have different styles,” Chandler said. “When you have such great scoring from the perimeter, you can have two big guys that can just clog the paint and go after every rebound and make some noise defensively. I think it could work out.”

Right. Obviously Chandler wasn’t going to sell out an opportunity for more playing time (playing alongside Haywood, even if a bit awkward basketball-wise, is still better than riding the pine), and he took a shot at justifying the Haywood-Chandler tandem by way of the Mavs’ versatility. Well-played, but I still worry about the concessions that such a lineup would make on both offense (driving, spacing, double-teams off of the bigs, etc.) and defense (D4, perimeter exploitation, etc.). It’s an idea that’s worth a try in small doses, I suppose, but doesn’t make a ton of sense on either a conceptual level nor a more specific one.

Chandler did introduce one noteworthy idea to the twin towers discussion, though: the zone defense. Rick Carlisle selectively employed the zone last season, and if he chooses to do so again in the coming year, that system could empower Haywood and Chandler to reach new defensive heights as part of the same on-court unit. “If we do throw a big lineup out there, [running the zone] could be something that we could potentially do,” Chandler said. “Throw the zone in, and with all of our length out there, it could be trouble for teams.”

Now there’s an idea. Both Haywood and Chandler are intelligent defenders with solid instincts, and periodic stints of the zone could be an interesting way to utilize both players simultaneously. That wouldn’t solve any of the far more glaring offensive problems such a lineup would present, but it could give the Mavs’ an overwhelmingly effective defensive look capable of taking away particular elements of opponents’ offenses. By removing specific assignments from our list of defensive concerns, a Mavericks lineup featuring Haywood and Chandler could completely smother opponents’ shot attempts around the rim. Plus, having two seven footers crashing the boards would allow the Mavs to stave off the usual rebounding limitations of the zone.

The offensive end is where things get tricky. I’d like to include Jason Kidd, but that would leave the Mavs with three players limited in shot creation. Kidd is able to generate offense with his passing, but asking him to bail out a lineup that has two bigs, neither of whom can score when more than four feet away from the rim, may be pushing it. Instead, I’d probably go with this lineup:

Tyson Chandler (rebounder)
Brendan Haywood (rebounder)
Rodrigue Beaubois (creator/scorer)
Jason Terry (scorer/creator)
Caron Butler (scorer)

I feel like that lineup has the best potential for offensive/defensive balance. Beaubois and Terry can share ball-handling responsibilities, Butler can work the baseline and create in isolation, and both Chandler and Haywood can work the screen-and-roll game with the creators.

Then again, if the point of playing Chandler and Haywood together is to overwhelm opponents with length and defense, including Terry, who is neither long nor an effective defender, in such a unit is counterproductive. However, take Terry’s scoring and ball-handling out of the equation and Beaubois is suddenly left trying to figure out a pretty bizarre lineup all by his lonesome. That’s a lot of responsibility thrown onto the shoulders of a player who has struggled running the offense, and expecting him to thrive in such an unconventional lineup may be asking a bit much.

So, in the spirit of this lineup doing what it does best and trying to figure out the rest later, I’ll offer the following:

Tyson Chandler (rebounder)
Brendan Haywood (rebounder)
Shawn Marion (rebounder/scorer)
Caron Butler (scorer)*
Jason Kidd (creator)

*Butler is probably interchangeable with Beaubois here, but for the sake of having lots of size at the top of the zone, we’ll go with Butler.

It’s weird. Very weird. It has the potential to make the Timberwolves’ defense look like a world-class outfit; after all, if an opposing defense can rush Kidd like San Antonio did in the playoffs, Butler is essentially left to carry the load on his own. Spoiler alert: that doesn’t end well.

I’m not convinced that playing Chandler and Haywood together could ever end well, but the zone makes me wonder. It provides just enough doubt to deny that perspective certainty. That’s not much, I’ll admit, but when considering how ridiculous the idea sounded on first mention, fleshing it out in greater detail represents a world of progress. Now, rather than an absurdity, we’re looking at a unit with bonafide gimmick potential. Just as some teams have employed a full-court/half-court press unit in the past (the Memphis Grizzlies come to mind), could it actually behoove the Mavs to employ a zone unit?

Maybe. How’s that for preseason finality?