LOS ANGELES — In all, the journey was six hours. Tyson Chandler knew there would be traffic, like any true Angeleno would.
He had filled his car during the few days he learned he would be moving from Phoenix back to Los Angeles, and he decided to drive rather than fly to save himself the hassle of having to go back later for more of his things.
After all, what’s six hours when he had been waiting 17 years for this to happen?
Chandler, 36, had been hoping somewhere in the back of his mind to come home his whole career, since he was traded by the L.A. Clippers on draft night in 2001. He had been waiting for the kind of reception he got when he checked into his first game Wednesday night with the Lakers with three minutes left in the first quarter. As he pointed to the sky, the Staples Center crowd cheered for his arrival – the native son finally playing for the team he grew up watching.
“I love this city the way they love me,” he said postgame, sporting a black Dodgers hat. “I’ve been on the other side and played the villain. Now it’s great to be on this side and actually rep ’em.”
There was a whirlwind of steps between the Tuesday morning Chandler set out on his road trip and the 23-minute debut he made for the Lakers on Wednesday night, when he closed out the 114-110 win with two critical offensive rebounds against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Not everyone could be expected to digest as much as Chandler did and still play a meaningful role in a win.
But it’s that skill set, the veteran knowledge and the intuition the Lakers felt they needed when they agreed to sign Chandler over the weekend, as the Suns negotiated his $13.6 million buyout. Phoenix would get cap space and move a veteran who had grown restless on a number of forgettable teams. The Lakers, however, would get rebounding, defense and a base of experience they felt was lacking in their locker room.
While it may be overstating the case to say Chandler’s addition is vital to the Lakers, it certainly was described in those terms by a number of key veterans and the one person who has been most embattled in the last week: coach Luke Walton.
“We needed the help now,” he said. “And I don’t know how that all works, but give Rob and Magic credit for recognizing that and going out and getting that job done for our squad. I think it helps stabilize us.”
How does a player go from arriving on a Tuesday afternoon and closing a game Wednesday night?
The Lakers took a lot of time with Chandler, even in the limited opportunities. As early as Tuesday, Walton squeezed in some court time with him. After Wednesday morning shootaround, Walton assembled a group of five (including himself) to help Chandler run through the team’s offensive sets.
But not everything is in a playbook. In the game itself, Chandler credited Rajon Rondo with helping him get up to speed with where he needed to be. Sometimes, Rondo would say so and point. Sometimes he would simply flick his eyes to a space where he needed Chandler to go.
All signals were picked up.
“He vocally was telling me where to be at all times, making eye contact with me,” Chandler said. “And I’ve seen a lot of the sets to pick up on ’em. I knew the basics, but clearly I didn’t know like second or third options.”
Still, there were times he could’ve fooled the casual observer. Rondo and LeBron James credited Chandler for having a basic familiarity with certain sets that go by many names on many different teams but are common throughout the NBA. The Lakers ran a “Chin” set with Chandler on the floor that resulted in an alley-oop by Lonzo Ball. Chandler’s intuition on such plays made it possible to keep him on the floor.
Rajon Rondo talked about some of the sets Tyson Chandler recognized and was able to contribute in. Here, for example, he sets a high pick for Lonzo Ball to get free for an alley-oop. pic.twitter.com/DvGl3kK76J
— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) November 8, 2018
Chandler was also vocal on a second unit that often hums with Rondo’s running dialogue. He was communicating on defense, pointing out vulnerabilities and trying to get positioning correct as the Lakers held the Timberwolves to just 33 percent shooting in the second half. James said every one of Chandler’s minutes was “impactful,” and his voice – telling the team to keep fighting – was welcome for a group that has lost a number of close games already this season.
During a late timeout, Rondo was uncharacteristically quiet. Walton was concerned his veteran point guard was upset. Rondo wasn’t – he just didn’t have anything to add.
“Coach asked what was wrong; I’m like, ‘When Tyson’s talking, I don’t need to talk as well,’” he said. “So having another voice in the locker room is big, especially for me and Bron.”
But even the most prepared veteran has weaknesses. For Chandler, it was his conditioning. Moving and going through medical exams had knocked him out of his routine, and he hadn’t played much in Phoenix before being bought out. In the up-tempo Lakers style, his only goal was to play good defense and let the younger players run.
He made good on those efforts, setting physical screens and playing tough defense on Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns, who didn’t hit a shot in the second half. With Chandler guarding him, Towns was 0 for 6.
As a couple people have pointed out, Chandler had a profound impact on the Lakers’ second-half defense on Karl-Anthony Towns. Part of it was just holding his ground, like he did here near the hoop. pic.twitter.com/WQbvhkOhuq
— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) November 8, 2018
While he wasn’t always arriving in transition with everyone else, that will come with time, Chandler insisted.
“Tonight, I was just trying to anchor defensively and let them run offensively,” he said. “As the weeks go along, I’ll get my legs under me and really start being able to be a help on both ends.”
One thing Chandler understands: There’s a lot more time. He was expecting to get bought out, but such deals are more common in the second half of the season, when teams have already gotten an idea about what their season will look like. Rather than spending a few weeks in March trying to blend in for a playoff run, Chandler has 71 more games to try to find his role on the Lakers.
Maybe he’ll take some time this week to finish moving in and getting settled. The next journey is just beginning.
“I was just happy to get this first one out of the way,” he said, “so I can get back into my rhythm and really just start building layers of what we’re going to try to accomplish.”