DALLAS -- This is certainly not what Tyson Chandler thought he was signing up for when he made his contribution to the NBA’s infamous summer emoji war: a bright orange sun and a hand forming the peace sign.
The big man had been given second-fiddle treatment once before by the Mavs, leading to his departure after playing such a critical role in Dallas’ 2011 title run, and wasn’t willing to wait it out as anyone’s fall-back plan. He’d find another team that wanted him unconditionally and use his talent and intangibles to help that squad compete for a playoff spot.
Finding a team that really wanted Chandler was no problem. He committed to signing a four-year, $52 million deal with the Phoenix Suns on the morning that free agency officially started. But not much has gone as planned for Chandler since that point.
The injury-ravaged Suns, who thought Chandler’s veteran leadership could help a talented young core make major strides, rank among the NBA’s biggest disappointments this season. After folding in the fourth quarter Sunday night, they left the American Airlines Center with a 14-35 record and a 14-game road losing streak.
“I’m not jumping ship,” Chandler said before putting up 12 points and 13 rebounds in the Suns’ 91-78 loss to the Mavs. “If the organization decides to move me or something like that, then clearly that’s something that’s out of my control. But I came here and I came here for a reason.
“I thought it was a young, promising team, and I wanted to be a part of helping turn this around and go to the next level. I still feel like I’m capable of doing that, and I feel like this organization is capable of doing that. It’s just clearly some things have to change.”
The 28-22 Mavs managed to move on quite well despite being left with extremely limited options after Jordan reneged on his oral commitment to come to Dallas. They found a center to fill the production and intangibles void left by Chandler’s departure in Zaza Pachulia, who was donated to the Mavs in a salary-dump deal by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Chandler acknowledges that he still keeps track of the Mavs, especially title teammates Dirk Nowitzki and J.J. Barea, but he insists that he doesn’t allow what-ifs to enter his mind. He has his hands full trying to help Phoenix salvage something from a horrendous season.
That means Chandler, 33, must attempt to minimize his personal frustration. His production has slipped to 5.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game -- his worst numbers since 2009-10 in Charlotte, when ankle injuries made him so expendable that the Bobcats gifted him to Dallas in a cap-conscious deal that summer -- in part because of a nagging hamstring injury and in part because the young, injury-ravaged Suns can't throw even elementary lob passes.
“I don’t know if it’s demoralizing, but it gets in your head that it’s an easy bucket and it got missed,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “But he’s still doing the same stuff. He’s still playing hard and trying to lead our young guys, trying to help Alex [Len] out the best he can. It’s probably tough, because he’s been a guy that’s won a championship. He’s hanging in there.”
It’s not that bad in Phoenix, Chandler claims. He lived through NBA misery on lousy Chicago Bulls teams after starting his career as a teenage No. 2 overall pick. He says this situation doesn’t compare, simply because he’s surrounded by quality people.
Chandler likes the young players he’s trying to mentor, as tough as it can be to play with kids learning on the fly. He considers it part of his job to make sure that the Suns never accept a losing mentality, no matter how many losses pile up.
But Chandler has had to alter his leadership style. Blunt and direct doesn’t work with teammates whose skin hasn’t been thickened by years of NBA experience. He’s trying a kinder, gentler, more patient approach.
“When I was in Dallas or even in New York, I could be vocal,” Chandler said. “Get on guys, guys could take it. Guys being a little older understand it. Here, you know how badly things are going. I personally feel like it’s not the place.
“You start getting on guys after every game, it’s just making things tougher. It has to be a little more encouraging. And when things are rough and tough with losses, have to turn to the guy to kind of come around, ‘It’s all right. It’s all right. Keep your heads up.’”
The Suns have had plenty of reasons to hang their head. That, however, isn’t the DNA of a dude who helped hang a championship banner from the American Airlines Center rafters.
“His competitive will is unbending,” said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, who is on record with his belief that Chandler’s No. 6 should hang near that title banner someday. “That’s the best compliment I can give a competitor. He’s going to be who he is and he’s going to compete how he competes regardless.
"I know they’ve had a tough year, and injuries have had a lot to do with it. You don’t want to see a guy you love and care about go through that.”