Tales of the City

How Tyson Chandler and J. R. Smith made it to New York.
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Photo via MSG

Tyson Chandler left Dallas for the Knicks because he could. Free agents of Chandler's caliber are almost never truly free. All CBA twists and turns aside, someone like Chandler usually has to contend with basketball's cultural exigences. To validate his career, he's expected to pick up a ring; that means either shopping for a contender or, if his team already has one, sticking around to try and fashion a dynasty, no matter how modest.

Chandler has no such hang-ups. After Dirk Nowitzki, he was the most important, and most consistent, contributor to the Mavericks' loopy championship story. Magical shooting may have carried the day, but Chandler's interior presence provided the team with a backstop. At the same time, the Mavs were never expected to repeat. Last year's team was aging and uneven; their title run, just shy of miraculous. Dirk, who has spent much of his career fending off criticism for larger trends like the Euro Invasion or pervasive softness, deserves the general amnesty that comes with a ring. He's always been more than someone else's symptom. The bare fact of a title, as well as its effects, are unimpeachable. In the Mavericks' case, what lies behind the curtain is briskly circumstantial.

It's hard to begrudge Chandler for moving on. He delivered a title to Dallas, full stop, and then switched teams in the face of latent uncertainty. What makes his situation so unique is that Chandler was by no means chasing a late-career ring. At 29, he's very much in his prime, and should remain valuable for some time—several years ago, injury wiped away much of the volatile athleticism that made him Chris Paul's favorite alley-oop target in New Orleans. This has only made Chandler a more sustainable, and daunting, player. When he entered the league with Chicago, a squiggly high schooler subject to Scott Skiles's endless berating, Chandler was all eager reflex. With the Hornets, he learned to anticipate; today, Chandler earns his keep by anticipating opponents' anticipations, or anticipating their attempts to anticipate his anticipation. It's an infinite regress unfolding mid-possession, cerebral and refined in a way that the trashy "veteran tricks" can never quite do justice to.

Maybe Chandler thought that the Knicks could contend. After his experience in Dallas, you could excuse him some scattershot optimism. That frontcourt is imposing as hell on paper, and the league's hierarchy remains in a state of slushy flux. But no one ever comes to New York just for the basketball. If nothing else, Jeremy Lin has reminded us of that city's immense power as a platform. Amar'e has already used it as a launching pad for a second career in fashion, and a chance to rub shoulders with Anna Wintour. Chandler is a clothes horse; he is also probably the most crush-able NBA player in existence, and he's smart enough to know it. Chandler is also gradually inching toward the gallery scene; He paints and has had an especially artsy zine dedicated to him. With plenty of time left to remain relevant, Chandler has nothing left to prove. The Knicks offered him the chance to take advantage of all New York has to offer, while his resume shields him from the risk that usually comes with that city's form of athlete (over)exposure. Chandler is a proven winner. It's not him, it's them. Even if the team falters, Chandler has space to make his brand boom. What do you give the NBA player who has everything? A guilt-free New York.

Chandler is positively unimpeachable. He is also unmistakably mature, the kind of athlete who once blogged about the welcome hassle of going to see Britney Spears with his wife and the emerging dynamic between his two kids. If savvy NBA players know that their long-term earning potential lies in their ability to establish themselves as ideas, not mere pitchmen, then Chandler is simultaneously ahead of and behind himself. He’s never been given the market necessary to really impress himself upon the world, but he’s already got his persona down. To put it less cynically, Tyson Chandler is an interesting dude. New York is the ideal career move.

The newest Knick, J. R. Smith, is almost Chandler’s opposite. He’s an unpredictable, fitful, flame-spitting mess, and that’s on a good day. Fun fact: Smith’s 2005-06 rookie season, when he started frequently alongside Chris Paul (before Chandler’s tenure, incidentally), may have been the most solid term any preps-to-pro guard has ever enjoyed. Then, Smith was buried on the bench by Byron Scott, who resented having to play any rookie in the first place, and trauma set in. By the time he arrived in Denver, Smith’s bright future had been stomped on and warped; as one would expect, his response had been to redouble his egoism and bad habits. The Day-Glo junkyard of the Nuggets suited him, and in some ways, he became their patron saint.

Chandler allowed the Mavs to stop making excuses. For the Nuggets, Smith was a permanent excuse. He was beyond the control of George Karl, and as crazy as he drove the coach, ultimately, this mercurial play became a central part of the team’s identity, maybe even its defining feature. Sure, Carmelo was always better, and it’s hard to argue that Smith ever matched Iverson’s regal dysfunction. But J. R. Smith in mature form turned a wispy sketch into a rarefied abstraction. Chandler is decidedly concrete. Smith has taken the league’s potential fetish and made a career of its second-to-second implications. He could explode for double-digits in an eye-blink, as he did on Sunday, or contort himself around the basket with a strange mix of violence and nuance that leaves spectators gasping. Or, J. R. Smith might blankly launch off three-pointers, missing until he’s yanked; mix it up with the opposing team; or sulk on the bench. He was sometimes focused enough to man the point for the Nuggets, with admirable results.

Most of time, his entrance of the game is waited on with something between awe and fear, possibly tinged with farce. Smith can be a savior; he can just as readily choke the life out of a team’s night without even meaning to. Mostly, though, he ends up hurting only himself, bombing away ineffectually before he’s stuffed back into his containment unit. And that’s not even getting into the perils of his off-court life. When Smith decided to join the Knicks, he was back from China… and already in Las Vegas.

J. R. Smith waited out the lockout playing ball. He put up unspeakable point totals, but his time overseas will be remembered mostly for his sister’s fight in the stands. Smith is by no means a conquering hero coming home. If anything, he’s a perennial oddity who has yet to really capitalize on what pretty much everyone agrees is All-Star-level ability. The Nuggets, all smooth control and hungry young disciples, are no longer the team he left behind. As that squad vanished, so did his cushy, if self-limiting, niche as supreme godhead of chaotic basketball. Somehow, Smith found himself eagerly pursued by the two most talked-about teams of this season, the Clippers and the Knicks. Both needed all the things that, in theory, Smith brings to the table: piles of scoring, depth, and long-range shooting; and he has strong ties to both. Anthony was his mentor in Denver, but Chris Paul was there first—for the most solidly coherent part of Smith’s career, no less. The Clippers also have Kenyon Martin, formerly the Nuggets’ resident pensive tough guy. In Los Angeles, Smith was promised a chance to start; and with, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, The Clippers are poised to rate high out West for years to come. The Knicks have no such path ahead of them. Mike D’Antoni has been largely indifferent to Smith’s arrival, perhaps seeing that J. R. would only exacerbate the perception of his teams as jittery and disorganized. Note: Anyone who has watched one second of Jeremy Lin can tell you that high-speed deliberation, and the ability to creatively iterate a fairly simple structure, is what makes for a smooth D’Antoni system.

Chandler was free to choose New York, unapologetically, because of his professional accomplishments. Smith, more than anyone, needs to define himself as something other than a snake-fisted dervish who can either exalt a game or bring it crashing down to his level (try and tell the difference, in practice). The Nuggets years have arguably done him a disservice, at least as far as making sense of his immense capabilities is concerned. He exists in a state of arrested basketball adolescence—notice, I’ve carefully avoided bringing in his off-court issues—and for a while, he’d found a home for this shtick. It was alluring, and appalling, but in the final analysis, it didn’t work for Denver or work out for Smith. That was his time to make a play for legitimacy, or at least the first gesture toward it.

There was certainly a sense of duty built into Smith’s pick of teams. It’s not quite right to call it “existential” since strictly speaking, Smith’s refusal to make sense of himself could be basketball’s answer to “a cinema of action and violence.” But to the extent that players make their living as commodities, not pagan demi-gods, some definition is eventually in order. Smith has spent his career dodging these judgments. With no Nuggets in sight, and 26 as good an age as any to discover a sense of purpose, Smith’s free agency decision was, in fact, not free at all. He had to choose the Clippers. It was the better team, the one that wanted him, and the one most likely to meet him halfway—at least on a personal level.

Instead, he chose the Knicks. After his first game, Smith tweeted about playing for the Knicks at the Garden as “Greatest basketball feeling Ive had” [sic]. He tagged a photo from Sunday “#homesweethome”. He is a product of North Jersey, and close to his parents. Sentimentality aside, though, it seems like Smith made his choice based on New York, not basketball. It would be ghoulishly fun, if it weren’t also a little bit sad.

Smith wants to see and be seen as a Knick, be on the tip of every New Yorker’s tongue. Never mind that Los Angeles is itself a not-too-shabby market. He wants the Garden glamor. We can cast aspersions on Smith’s decision, even his common sense. One thing is for sure: Smith is dead-set on, in some very important way, remaining unreal as a basketball player. He took the court Sunday with the same haircut Tupac’s sociopath Bishop wore in Juice, not so much careful branding as batshit statement of purpose: Back in the Tri-State like a motherfucker. You can’t hope to contain J. R. Smith, only to package him.

Larger-than-life and highly performative, Smith wants to reinforce all that is spectacular, and just plain spectacle, about him. New York will reward that like no other market; it will also destroy it. Chandler wants to leverage his success into a cult of personality. Smith already has one, and he wants it on display. Unfortunately, his is hopelessly bound up in what he brings to the Knicks. Expecting to be spared in the name of style is perhaps the strongest possible mark of immaturity. Smith’s stint with the Knicks could end up grueling, and utterly devoid of levity, power, wit, or even fun. It could signal the end of the party, not the roof raised up unto the heavens. But J. R. Smith came to the Knicks because, in his mind, he was just as free of obligations as Chandler. He didn’t need to make a case for himself. In a way, it’s admirable. It’s also almost heroically stupid.

Then again, maybe that’s the point. With no strings attached and no misgivings, Smith brings electricity, buzz, a sense that there’s something worth talking about on the Knicks. He’s #Linsanity razed and stripped of all narrative pretense. Chandler was a need, Smith is that unnamed lust. J. R. Smith may be sacrificing his career. He still may end up getting something right. 

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