Having LeBron James doesn’t solve all of a team’s issues, but it does make them significantly less important. That’s the LeBron James effect. But when the LeBron James effect isn’t enough, front offices are forced to call in backup. Often that means additional shooting: Cleveland traded for J.R. Smith in January 2015, for Kyle Korver in January 2017, and for Rodney Hood, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. before the February trade deadline in 2018. The 4-6 Lakers couldn’t wait until the new year for change. And this time, LeBron didn’t need a shooter. Well, the Lakers actually could use another shooter, but not as urgently as they need size. Specifically 7-foot-1, 240 pounds. Tyson Chandler size.
The Lakers signed Chandler on Tuesday, two days after the Raptors out-rebounded them 49-38 in L.A.’s sixth loss of the season, after he was waived by the Suns. Luke Walton’s greatest limitation this season has been his frontcourt options. JaVale McGee is outdoing his past self, averaging career highs in points (14.5) and blocks (3.1), but he can only do so much. McGee hasn’t played more than 20 minutes a night since 2012; he’s averaging 26 through 11 games this season. Once McGee is gassed, the options shrink. Literally. Centers Ivica Zubac and Johnathan Williams (on a two-way contract) aren’t ready to play substantial minutes in a high-stakes game—all of L.A.’s games are crucial this season—forcing Walton to go small. There’s little LeBron can’t do, but there are things he shouldn’t do; banging around in the post and grabbing boards as he plays the 5 is one of them. Kyle Kuzma and Michael Beasley don’t have the height to check dominant centers, and Brandon Ingram doesn’t have bones big enough to.
Chandler’s impact was immediately apparent in his first game with the team, a 114-110 win on Wednesday over Minnesota. Like the Lakers, the Wolves have an “anything goes, as long as it goes fast” approach on offense and a defense most eloquently described as ass—but they also have size. Chandler brought the strong-arm aspect the Lakers needed to handle Minnesota. He’s always been a bodyguard of a screener, but he’s also a regulatory force defensively where Los Angeles has little presence now. Chandler’s presence on the court helped nullify Karl-Anthony Towns, who opted for the perimeter (he shot 1-for-6 from deep) and was held to 13 points on the night. Towns went 0-for-6 when Chandler guarded him. It might be overly critical to say KAT is fake-it-till-you-make-it tough, but Chandler would call it a fair assessment:
Karl Towns tried to post up Tyson Chandler pic.twitter.com/Y5MHrHFmsA— The Render (@TheRenderNBA) November 8, 2018
In the final minute, Chandler bailed LeBron out of two cringeworthy, contested pull-up 3s—the iconic, rarely successful LeBron shot in a close game—as he barrelled through a crowd of Wolves players to grab or tap the rebound out. The second-chance shot clock is 14 seconds this season instead of 24; without Chandler, it would’ve been zero for the Lakers.
Even at 36, Chandler is a force L.A. was missing. The young Lakers can get hot from the field, they can run up and down the court, and they can get up, but they can’t become a wall on screens or a bully on the boards. Chandler plugs only one hole in a dam full of them, sure—he’s a backup center who will play 18 to 25 minutes a night, not another star to hang on the wing. But the Lakers can trust him to hold firm.