In 2004, Chicago Bulls center Tyson Chandler had the worst season of his career. The lanky seven footer from So Cal was the second pick in the 2001 Draft, traded to Chicago from the Clippers for Elton Brand, and paired with fellow high school lottery pick Eddie Curry to form a Twin Towers lineup the Bulls thought could rival David Robinson and Tim Duncan in San Antonio, but after year three, it appeared the experiment had gone off the rails.
Chandler’s scouting report told of a beanpole with excellent defensive instincts and unlimited potential. The comp that came up over and over, was to a young Kevin Garnett. Scouts noted, astutely, that Chandler had designs to stretch the floor and play from the perimeter on offense, as KG did, but lacked the fine motor skills. At the same time, there were questions about his ability to add weight and definition to his slim frame that might preclude him from a career banging downlow, on the block with early aughts post savages like the aforementioned Duncan, Yao Ming, Jermaine O’Neal, or, you know, Shaq. Would Chandler find the maturity scouts believed was lacking? Would he be able to carve out a marketable niche with his body and skillset in the league? After the 2004 season, in which he hurt his back and played in just 35 games, which would be the fewest of his career until his final season, it was a question Bulls fans, and the Bulls front office, were bearish on.
When you consider the table above, comparing Mitchell Robinson and Chandler’s third seasons, it becomes easier to understand why the insane Mitch people in your life — and if you’re a Knicks fan or know somewhere in the vicinity of five Knicks fans, you have at least one — won’t shut up about his potential. For us in the cult of Mitchell Robinson, hope spring eternal, blooming anew every fall as the temperature drops and the beguiling Instagram videos of Mitch splashing step-back threes at an undisclosed gym in Westchester flood our timelines.
He came to us like a vision, gift wrapped deep in the second round, the province of former Knicks uncut gems like Trevor Ariza, Landry Fields, Damyean Dotson and...Phil Jackson. He dropped as far as he did because the morons and fools who assess NBA talent were scared off by Mitch giving up on playing college ball at Western Kentucky, and I mean, would you want to live in Western Kentucky?
And really that’s about all you can find to dissuade any team drafting in the mid 30s that they would have been better off taking Mitchell Robinson below anyone else. Once again, though NBAdraft.net has come a long way since 2001, his lengthy scouting report compares favorably to a young Tyson Chandler’s. Here is a kid with claymation measurables, a catch radius closer to an orbit, who plays nearly exclusively above the rim, and posits the questions: “What if…Dikembe Mutumbo? But not just at the rim, what if Dikembe Mutumbo, everywhere, all the time? What if Dikembe Mutumbo with hands on offense?” The main drawback in the scouting report seems to be, much like Chandler, Mitch suffered from the lack of a polished vocabulary of offensive moves. He can’t get around a stiff challenge on the floor on offense, he’s not a shooter. There seems to be little to no acknowledgement, from the scouting report or the Knick fans who gripe about Mitch’s shortcomings, that the Knicks have changed, and the game has changed.
Tyson Chandler never “unlocked” his game. Not really. The Bulls gave up in 2006 and traded him to New Orleans, in return for P.J. Brown and J.R. Smith (So they could go after...washed Ben Wallace), where Chandler’s career, and in some ways, basketball itself, was changed by his pairing with a sophomore point guard from Wake Forest named Chris Paul. There are few, if any players in the history of the league who read defenses and control a floor like Paul does, and with Chandler, he showed his incredible talent flipping ability for the first time (a feat he would repeat again and again, most notably with DeAndre Jordan and Deandre Ayton).
What Paul and Chandler unlocked was the modern roll man. A lengthy, agile center that doesn’t need to root themselves down low and jockey for position with wider and stronger traditional centers, who doesn’t need to dominate the ball and develop a spin move and a baby hook, whose long, slight frames are gifts because they can slip into tight spaces, leap high and reach lobs most other NBA players, let alone terrestrial beings, can’t. All players with Chandler’s frame and skillset needed is a once in a generation talent to draw defenders, unlock their ability, and show a way forward for NBA offenses the league over. With Paul at the wheel orchestrating New Orleans’ graceful and devastating waltz between the two men, Chandler could focus more of his energy on becoming his generation’s pre-eminent quarterback of team defense. The rest is history.
The greatest ability is availability, and beyond any of the nits fans pick in P&T comment threads, it’s what’s always made Mitch a beguiling and ultimately frustrating prospect. In the beginning, it was fouls. There are two ways of looking at this issue, which might be a bug, or might be a feature of his game. The generous would say Mitch is an active and eager defender, with his heart in the right place, who takes pride in his defense and doesn’t want to let a single shot pass him. The other perspective is he’s been undisciplined and hunts for blocks. When he’s good, he’s an impossible vacuum machine who can guard 1-5 and block Steph Curry on the perimeter, four feet behind the line as he fights through a screen. When he’s bad, he fouls Domantas Sabonis twice in the first five minutes of the first quarter and you won’t see him again till damn near halftime.
But now that he’s fully earned a starting position and doesn’t seemingly play with the weight of the world focused on every moment he’s on court, we’ve seen some developing restraint. And just as he finally achieved that maturation, now it’s his body betraying Mitch, and his team. Below his waist, particularly his ankles and feet, have been persistent red flags for a player of his size, who relies so much on his agility and ability to play above the rim. The Mavs have this guy Kristaps Porzingis, a glorified 3 & D floor stretcher who happens to be 7’3’ and no longer plays very good defense. He didn’t always play like this. It’s crazy what a bad wheel can do to a big man whose game relies on athleticism. There’s no real historical lessons for Mitch when it comes to those wheels, it’s on the training staff, Mitch, and God. Chandler’s third year got fucked up by his back, an injury that has ruined or shortened the careers of many big men, and he survived and eventually thrived. Hopefully, Mitch will too.
This offseason the Knicks went from a team with many holes to a team with only a few, but one place where weakness is still glaring is the five. They now have a potentially disastrously well-compensated backup center, and a Thibs HOF veteran who will play about five minutes a game more than he should regardless of what condition Mitch is in. But Robinson is their one and only true starter. If he can put a full season together, he’d be a center any team in the league this side of the Lakers would be thrilled to have. This is a contract year for Mitch (at 1.8 million! 15th-highest-paid player on the team!), and you would assume, he will dedicate every ounce of desire and talent in his body, and it couldn’t come at a better time.
The time for fawning over potential and dreaming about what might be has passed. It’s time to show and prove. I, and many others, have proposed that in Mitch, the Knicks have evolutionary Tyson Chandler. And rather than try to remake Mitch as a stretch five, or post presence, it may be time to relish that the team has what just might be the best roll man in the league, able to plant himself off ball while Julius Randle is controlling at the elbow, or one of their ball dominant guards runs another set they will ultimately control the fate of, in much better position with Mitch as an easy lob release valve, or offensive rebound suctioning pneumatic tube, keeping defenses honest and making them pay for any mistake or lapse in judgement on rotation.
What the Knicks learned in the regular season last year is going forward, Julius Randle sets their floor, but in the postseason they learned it’s Robinson who sets their ceiling. His absence was the one felt most acutely as Trae Young dissected the half court defense again, and again, and again. It was his absence that allowed Clint Capella to channel Wilt Chamberlain. The Knicks needed the length, the instincts, the fast twitch athleticism Robinson would’ve brought to disrupting those accursed Hawks Spain sets. To spike a few of those limp wristed floaters off Trae’s tiny, static electricity-shocked dome. He’s the player who the Knicks will need most to improve on 2021’s five game first-round embarrassment.
Nine years after that disastrous 2004 season, a 31 year old Tyson Chandler, two seasons removed from an NBA Championship in which he was arguably his team’s second most important player, won Defensive Player of the Year, in the midst of what became a decorated 19-year career. He hadn’t transformed his game so much as he had learned how to lean into it, equipped with the lessons taught by Chris Paul, and life, and time. The very next season, he helped lead his team to 54 wins, taking the division, and a second-round out that easily could’ve (and probably should’ve) been a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. As you may recall, he did it in New York. For the Knicks to improve on their somewhat miraculous success last season, Mitchell Robinson needs to learn from Chandler’s example.