Defense has been a key problem for the L.A. Lakers during their 3-5 start. Will Tyson Chandler help solve that issue?
After agreeing to a buyout with the Phoenix Suns on Saturday, Chandler plans to sign with the Lakers when he clears waivers according to a report by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. At 36, Chandler is no longer the dominant defender who played a key role in the Dallas Mavericks' 2011 championship run. But does he have enough left in the tank to help the Lakers? Let's take a look.
Heading into Saturday's game against the Portland Trial Blazers, the Lakers ranked 21st in defensive rating — down nine spots from last season, undermining the improvement L.A. has made at the offensive end of the court with the addition of LeBron James.
The Lakers have in fact been strong defensively — with JaVale McGee on the court. During McGee's 27.1 minutes per game, they allow just 101.2 points per 100 possessions according to NBA Advanced Stats, a rate that would rank third in the league. When McGee sits, however, the Lakers' defensive rating has ballooned to 118.4 points per 100 possessions, which would be the league's worst defensive rating.
Some of that difference is surely statistical noise over a small sample. Opponents have shot 42.9 percent on 3s with McGee on the bench as compared to 34.6 percent with him on the court, a difference that can't be attributed to anything but randomness. However, the Lakers have predictably struggled to protect the rim without McGee, using Kyle Kuzma (a forward by trade) and undrafted rookie Johnathan Williams as backups at center.
The numbers are staggering. With McGee on the court, Lakers opponents shoot 59.5 percent in the restricted area according to Second Spectrum tracking. That would put the Lakers among the league's top five defenses in the restricted area, per NBA Advanced Stats. When McGee sits, the Lakers have allowed opponents to make a shocking 75 percent of their attempts in the restricted area via Second Spectrum. Over the course of the season, no team has given up more than 71.9 percent shooting in the restricted area.
So there's no question the Lakers could use a rim protector for the minutes McGee is unable to play. What's left to answer is whether Chandler is the right player for that role.
Back when he was voted Defensive Player of the Year in 2011-12, his first season with the New York Knicks, Chandler was one of the league's better rim protectors despite blocking relatively few shots. (Chandler last averaged more than 1.4 blocks per game in 2006-07 at age 24.) However, as he's aged, Chandler has no longer excelled in that regard. Via Second Spectrum, here is how opponents have shot in the restricted area with Chandler as the primary defender since 2013-14:
While the 2018-19 sample (15 shots) is not meaningful, Chandler saw his rim protection slip the previous two seasons. Among the 132 players who defended at least 150 shots in the restricted area in 2017-18, a group that includes many perimeter players, Chandler ranked 84th in terms of percentage allowed — not far ahead of Kuzma (67.9 percent).
More generally, Chandler didn't do much to help a Phoenix defense that was the league's worst on a per-possession basis last season. As highlighted by his on/off stats on Cleaning the Glass, the Suns were never even a point per 100 possessions better on defense with Chandler on the court as compared to when he was on the bench over the past three seasons.
It's certainly possible that Chandler will be energized by playing for a contending team in his native L.A. after spending the past three years in the wilderness with the Suns. Signed as part of the plan that Phoenix would also land LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency and return to contention, Chandler instead saw the Suns win a combined 69 games during his time in Phoenix, the league's lowest total. That said, if the Lakers are counting on getting the Chandler they remember as a feared defender during his time in Dallas and New York, they may be out of luck.
That raises the question of whether the Lakers might have been better off waiting for another center to come free on the buyout market. Robin Lopez, who's been demoted to third string by the Chicago Bulls, would be an obvious younger candidate, and Dewayne Dedmon of the Atlanta Hawks could be available if the Hawks can't find a trade for him by the deadline. Other centers will surely emerge as buyout candidates as their teams fall out of contention.
It's never been easier to find quality contributors at center, underscoring the Lakers' inability to do so outside of McGee. But the urgency of the situation amidst their slow start surely forced the Lakers to make a move sooner than they wanted.
Signing Chandler doesn't necessarily preclude the Lakers from targeting another center down the road, and they could waive little-used Michael Beasley to create another roster spot. If, however, the Lakers consider the position fixed with the addition of Chandler, they may regret that decision.