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A comeback season is in order for Suns center Tyson Chandler

Phoenix Suns center Tyson Chandler walks off the court after being ejected for arguing with referees while facing the Denver Nuggets in the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Oct. 16, 2015, in Denver. The Nuggets won 106-81. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

PHOENIX — There’s no doubt the Phoenix Suns’ signing of Tyson Chandler to a four-year, $52 million deal last summer had other motivations at play. After free agent LaMarcus Aldridge signed with the San Antonio Spurs despite the lure of playing alongside Chandler, it was also worth noting that the 32-year-old Chandler was still a positive addition and would help Phoenix in its push to the playoffs.

Of all the things that went wrong during a 23-win season, perhaps the biggest surprise was Chandler’s poor play.

It’s safe to say a fair bit of that had to do with Chandler’s health. The now 34-year-old suffered a hamstring injury in mid-November and wasn’t able to find his footing the rest of the season despite missing only eight games because of the injury.

“I feel night and day. From really January on it was really tough for me,” Chandler said after practice Tuesday. “At the end of the year, I felt a little bit better, but I wasn’t myself. Right now, I’m having a lot of pop in my legs.”

The physical toll wasn’t the only aspect that wore him down. The mental adjustments Chandler had to make with not only looking out for his young players but also doing so on the court had a major effect on him.

“It’s also mentally knowing what’s ahead of you, that also takes a lot of the weight,” Chandler said. “It seems like when you spend so much energy thinking and trying to react and recover and all of that, it wears you down.”

Chandler didn’t seem prepared for playing with such a young team, but he’s already seen progress in that regard.

“Last year was my first time [as a veteran] with such a young group, so it’s a lot of teaching while you’re out there and not just playing,” Chandler said. “This year, it’s been much better.”

Chandler speaks like he’s on a completely different team this year than last, and when also looking at his numbers last season compared to the rest of his career, signs point to a bounce-back year.

Viewed as a long, physical presence to protect the rim and grab rebounds, Chandler’s statistics in the past actually point toward most of his impact coming on the offensive end.

One of the best finishers around the rim in the NBA, Chandler shot an absurd 66.6 percent on field goals in 2014-15 with the Dallas Mavericks. Even in a down year last season with the Suns, Chandler still shot a very good 58.3 percent on field goals. His 64.1 percent shooting around the rim last season wasn’t far off his 66.6 percent average in the past six seasons either.

Gravity is a basketball term created for players like Chandler. Defenses are forced to close the lane when he rolls to the basket since it’s an automatic two points if he touches the ball within five feet of the rim. This either opens up more space for other players or creates an extremely efficient look for him.

“He’s got so much respect over the time he’s played with catching lobs. He just opens it up for everybody else,” Eric Bledsoe said after practice Tuesday.

Even with that in mind, Chandler is still able to get those lobs and easy looks at the rim. The potential for Chandler maintaining a solid offensive role was shown earlier in the 2015-16 season.

This would not hold up for the rest of the year.

Chandler’s 95.5 offensive rating — the points per 100 possessions a team scores when that player is on the floor — was the third-worst number amongst NBA centers who played at least 50 games and 24 minutes a game last season, leading only two Sixers, Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor.

The poor rating is unheard of for Chandler.

In the past 10 seasons, Chandler has averaged a 105.4 offensive rating, an above-average number that includes his terrible rating last season. He’s been a consistent factor in the top 5 and 10 amongst that same center group in the past decade, posting an offensive rating number above 107 in six of the last ten seasons, including his last three prior to last season.

Chandler is a terrific supporting piece for an offense, but when the main focal point of the team isn’t established, he’s going to struggle more than anyone else. That was the case for the Suns in 2015-16 with Bledsoe and Brandon Knight combining to play just 83 games and rookie Devin Booker establishing himself throughout the rest of the season.

Those three all healthy and in defined roles will help Chandler’s offensive game immensely.

“My game is really setting those guys up and playing off them, so the more comfortable they are scoring and making reads, the easier it comes for me,” Chandler said.

No one likes such a simple answer for an important question, but his horrible number essentially boils down to the Suns being a very bad basketball team last season and not being able to find their rhythm offensively when he was on the floor.

The Suns’ guards were very aware of Chandler’s most unstoppable offensive play: catching a lob.

In his prime, Chandler is so quick and explosive for a man of his size that it’s nearly unguardable if an above average guard with speed can get by his man in a pick-and-roll.

The beauty of Chandler’s evolution is he has nearly perfected the timing of rim runs and catching lobs, making up the difference for his decline in athleticism with older age.

Knight and Bledsoe were capable of the setting up the play. As for throwing the pass, well …

Sometimes a simple pass to his chest instead of a lob is the better option. Even when that was the case, the guards struggled.

(Gifs via Scott Chasen of Valley of the Suns)

Both guards were unable to get the timing down or make the adjustments when necessary. Most notably, that was on Knight, who was the point guard for the team when Bledsoe was out for the rest of the season. Chandler still got his, but his dunk numbers were down significantly.

When asked about if he thinks the lobs and passes inside will be better this year, Chandler smiled instantly, saying, “yeah, absolutely.”

Chandler’s field goal percentage would have been up to at least 60 percent had the guards been able to set him up properly. A year of trials and tribulations for Knight and Booker along with a healthy Bledsoe should get Chandler up to that mark and even higher.

On the glass, Chandler was as good as ever despite looking less spry when he was banged up for a good deal of the season.

His 19.3 percent rebounding percentage — the percentage of the team’s rebounds a player grabs when they are on the floor — was No. 8 among regularly-used centers, and Chandler has been in the top-10 of that group the past three seasons.

Defensively is where Chandler’s weaknesses lie when looking at the numbers and where he is most likely to fall off quicker with older age.

His defensive field goal percentage at the rim — the percentage the opposition shoots at the rim when that player is on the floor — was 53.6 percent, the second-worst mark in the group of centers, only leading Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic, who has a reputation as one of the worst defensive players in the league.

When speaking earlier about his first time playing with a young team as a veteran, Chandler admitted there are a lot of errors that leads to defensive breakdowns, something Chandler, at the heart of the offense, will take on the most.

“It’s a lot of covering up,” Chandler said.

“At the end of the day, if I can just guard my man, I can probably take my man out of the game, but it’s about playing team defense.”

Chandler’s past seasons of protecting the rim haven’t been nearly as bad when compared to other ways he impacts the game, but they also haven’t been great. His below-average 50.8 percent allowed at the rim 2014-15 and 2013-14 aren’t wildly detrimental and is a number the Suns will hope to see from him this season.

Chandler’s time  with the New York Knicks in the 2010-11 season playing with Amar’e Stoudemire was a good example of the impact he can make. As Suns fans know, Stoudemire has his deficiencies defensively, so despite posting a ridiculous 109.7 offensive rating that season, his net rating was only 1.2 because of a very poor 108.5 defensive rating. Chandler, on the other hand, had a similar 109.1 offensive rating while boasting a much better 101 defensive rating, good for an 8.1 net rating, the 16th-best mark in the NBA that season.

There’s no doubt Stoudemire is a tremendous offensive player and better than Chandler on that end by a considerable margin, but Chandler in his prime and even in latter years can still be a better overall positive for his team and a real difference-maker because of his two-way play.

Offense is where Chandler will look to make a big jump compared to last season, and the funny thing is, when asked about finding that aforementioned rhythm on offense, Chandler answered with defense.

“I think the biggest thing is defensively we know what we’re trying to accomplish so things are a little bit settled down, you know, last year we were going so fast. This year we know what we’re trying to get.”

A defensive rating of 101 isn’t realistic for Chandler given his age and current team, but something around the 103-105 mark that he’s shown to be capable of the seasons prior to joining the Suns could  elevate his team. Like Chandler said, it should greatly help the chances of his offensive numbers gravitating back to his norm. It would make head coach Earl Watson’s goal of Phoenix becoming a top-20 team on offense and defense more realistic.

Given Alex Len’s failure to challenge Chandler for the starting center role, an underrated X-factor for the Suns this season is Chandler. If there’s anything to read in the numbers or what the veteran had to say about his health, it’s that a comeback season is in order.

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