The Phoenix Suns have a position battle brewing at Center, with both players at very different stages of their careers. Let us take a deep dive into each player and see how the Suns should be distributing their minutes.
Tyson Chandler is 33 years old and has a laundry list of accomplishments on the court, including winning an NBA championship in 2011 and an Olympic Gold Medal in 2012. He has been an All-Star, 3rd Team All-NBA selection, and NBA Defensive Player of the Year and is entering the 2nd season of a 4 years and $52 million contract.
Offensive Skills and Production
Tyson Chandler is 7’1 and has limited to no range on his jump shot, looking at his shot chart from last year.
To Chandler’s credit, he knows his strengths and weakness at this point in his career and he attacks his strengths and avoids his weak areas. For a man with very limited range, he shot 58.3% from the field last season which is down from his career average of 59.1%. The other numbers are not as impressive as he shot 62% from the line, handed out 1.0 assist, and scored 7.2 points per game, in only 24.5 minutes per game.
Defensive Skills and Production
Tyson Chandler is a rim protecting Center. He gobbled up 8.7 rebounds, 0.5 steals, and 0.7 blocks per game last season. The rebounds and block totals were down last season, but if you look at the numbers on a per 36 minutes basis, the rebounds were up with the blocks falling well below his career average. Below is his defensive shot chart from last season.
As you can see, Chandler did well in the restricted area holding opponents to 4.3% under league average. He struggles to defend in pretty much any instance where he gets pulled away from the basket. If you structure the team in order to let Chandler command the paint and not be forced to stray from it, he can be an above-average NBA defender.
In the advanced metrics, Chandler’s most recent season was his worst in recent memory. His offensive box score plus/minus was negative 1.9, his defensive box score plus/minus was 1.3, and his value over replacement player (VORP) was 0.6. All advanced metrics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
If you view his season in win shares, on offense, he created 2.1, on defense he managed 1.6, and in win shares per 48 (.100 is average), Chandler rated at .112. These numbers show that Chandler made a positive contribution, but his win shares per 48 were the worst since his 2nd season all way back in 2002-2003.
Chandler is 33 years old and this could be the start of the inevitable decline.
Tyson Chandler last played 80 games in 2004-2005, so he is no stranger to injuries. In the last calendar year, Chandler has had a concussion, missed time with a sore back, a right shoulder contusion, and a right hamstring strain (all injuries courtesy of Fox Sports).
Chandler is a player with a volume of injuries, but they are all over his body, so I don’t think any single previous injury raises a red flag. He has averaged 65 games per year in a 15-year career, so it would be hard to bet on a 33-year-old center to play any more games than that going forward.
Alex Len is likewise a 7’1 center, but he is only 23 years old and his greatest NBA achievement so far in his career is being the 5th pick in 2013 NBA Draft. Len is entering the final season of his rookie contract paying him $4.8 million.
Offensive Skills and Production
Alex Len played a career high 23.3 minutes per game last season. Phoenix made this possible by playing Len minutes alongside Chandler as the Power Forward, and the results of that experiment were not good for Len’s FG% numbers. Let’s look at his stat line from 2014-2015 NBA season where he played exclusively at Center. Len shot 50.7% from the field, 70.2% from the line, averaging 0.5 assist and 6.3 points in only 22.0 minutes per game.
Similarly to Chandler, Len is not a jump shooter, but is very effective at the rim. Below is his shot chart from the 2014-2015 NBA season.
As you can see, Len attacked the basket, scoring 3.7% better than league average in the restricted area. Len needs to play center and be in the paint to play his most effective offensive game.
Defensive Skills and Production
Alex Len posted 6.6 rebounds, 0.5 steal, and 1.5 blocks during the 2014-2015 season. Last year, the rebounding number actually improved to 7.6, but the blocks fell to 0.8. These numbers make sense as Chandler was able to box out his man allowing Len to grab a few more boards, but Len wasn’t patrolling the paint, so his blocks decreased.
The chart is from 2014-2015 when played exclusively at the Center position. He was great in the restricted area holding opponents to 5.8% below league average shooting. The chart furthers the point that if Len plays at Center, where he belongs, he can be a great rim protector.
Alex Len’s offensive box score plus/minus for his career is negative 4.0, his defensive box score plus/minus is positive 1.3, and is VORP is negative 0.7. If you examine that 2014-2015 season, he rated negative 3.3, positive 2.3, and 0.4. All advanced metrics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
If you look at win shares in that 2014-2015 year, he rates at 1.2 offensive, 2.1 defensive, and .107 win shares per 48 minutes. He rates as a well-above average on defense when he plays center and an above average player overall.
Alex Len’s injury history is almost non-existent. In 2015, he sprained his right ankle and broke his nose. He also broke his finger back in 2014, but that is it as far injuries go in his NBA career. Alex Len provides nothing to worry about in the slightest here.
So who should the Suns start at Center next season?
Undoubtedly, the answer is Alex Len.
First, he is in the final season of his contract, so it will be Phoenix’s last chance to see if he is worth the crazy amount of money he will receive next offseason. Second and most importantly, he rates as the better player defensively and is almost a decade younger. The Suns need a rim protector, especially if they plan on starting Dudley at 4 and Len is the better man at this stage of their careers.
If I am Coach Earl Watson, I give Len 28 minutes per night and let Chandler handle the remaining 20 minutes. This will hopefully allow Len to further develop and keep Chandler’s minutes in check, so he can have his first healthy season in quite a few years.