Wilson Chandler is still waiting

Dec 19, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler (21) during the game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 109-106. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 19, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler (21) during the game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 109-106. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s a rare, cool night in Orlando and just over an hour away from tipoff as Wilson Chandler casually leans back in the plush leather chair in front of his locker. The carefree breeze is carried further by the black v-neck sweater and matching jeans he’s wearing instead of his usual uniform. Coming off his worst game of the short season, a hip injury will keep him out of the lineup against the Magic.

As it turns out, he won’t be needed that night. Orlando’s usually staunch defense (good for fifth-best in the league) is more sieve than wall on this occasion and the Denver Nuggets escape central Florida with a 121-113 win. Those wins have been particularly hard to come by, especially without Chandler to help add consistency to a lineup that has been anything but.

His production comes off the bench these days and it’s no wonder that, while averaging a career-high 17.2 points per game, there have been some early murmurs that he’ll be in consideration for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. When asked about the talk, he clucks his tongue, dismissing the talk as overblown. “Individual accolades really never been my thing, man,” he says. The breeze blows on.

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He lowers his head and his voice follows suit, a muffled whisper among the chatter and peripheral noise of the locker room. “I don’t have any individual accolades so it’s not a priority for me.”

He’s right in his assessment. A 10-year career in the world’s most exclusive league is an accomplishment of substantial merit but his efforts have been largely unheralded. “I mean, it’s cool to be recognized as a good Sixth Man candidate,” Chandler concedes. “But, at the same time, we not really pulling in the wins and I think right now, for this team, for this organization, I think winning is the priority so…you don’t get accolades unless you win.”

The delivery is reflective of his shooting this season; confident, unexpected and hitting the mark. Chandler may be the team’s most consistent player but his success hasn’t translated into anything close to winning. And so, while another lost season falls like snow among mile-high peaks, he continues toiling away in nonchalant anticipation of whatever happens next.


The Nuggets seem to occupy a longstanding space as a team-in-waiting, never too bad to be terrible nor ever good enough to be truly great. Their last playoff appearance was in 2013, a team that bonded together in the two years following the deal that shipped Carmelo Anthony to New York in 2011; Chandler was one of the players sent to Denver by the Knicks. Three years isn’t long in actuality but it’s a virtual eternity in this context. That team featured Andre Iguodala, who feels like he’s been a part of the Warriors forever and won the 2015 championship with Golden State. Timofey Mozgov, also part of the deal for Anthony, was a young up-and-comer then but has since been traded to Cleveland, faded into a reserve role while winning a title and has undergone a rebirth this season with the Los Angeles Lakers. The NBA is a league that rarely sleeps.

The Nuggets have, in the interim, made several moves in the post-Anthony era, but none of them have netted a player of nearly that caliber. The team is a combination of veterans that can be considered one-dimensional or past-their-prime, as well as youth that is simultaneously frustrating and tantalizing with unfulfilled potential. Their most versatile players, Danilo Gallinari and Chandler, have been bogged down by injury since both were acquired from the Knicks. Both have been healthy this season, yet winning remains just beyond the team’s grasp.

Still, count head coach Michael Malone as a fan of what Chandler has done for Denver this season. A conversation with Malone is like watching a grainy interview from a bygone era; one half expects to see a background of harangued men in suits yelling in a smoke-filled arena as Malone barks orders from the sideline. An inescapable New York accent colors his speech and his background — as both a scrappy, undersized collegiate star and the son of longtime NBA coach — adds to the throwback familiarity. When asked about Chandler, he brings up a comparison that reminds you of those defining qualities.

“I go back to my father [when he was coaching] in Detroit years ago with the Detroit Pistons,” says Malone. “He had Vinnie Johnson.” Nicknamed ‘The Microwave’, Johnson could heat up quickly and score in bunches as a reserve. Nostalgically remembered as “The Bad Boys”, those Pistons teams thrived because of their defense (and a few well-placed elbows) but Johnson’s offense was a significant part of their championship success.

But Malone is not stuck in the past and quickly points out the advantage that Chander, at 6-foot-8 and 225 pounds, brings to the Nuggets. “To have a guy that can come into the game, that you can go to right away, [and] change the complexion of the game — we play him at the four, we play him at the three, sometimes he plays as a two — he’s a matchup nightmare for other teams.”

This versatility is a much-needed element that defines the best lineups across today’s league. It’s part of the reason why Chandler’s name has annually been linked to trade rumors during his tenure in Denver. As an athletic player that can score from the perimeter or in the painted area, Chandler is high on several wish lists. He’s an abstract desire, the one piece that transforms a playoff hopeful into a legitimate title contender. Somehow, he is now in his sixth season with the Nuggets.

Asking Chandler about a potential trade would be an exercise in futility. The talk is bothersome for a player that wants to stay, while the ones that want to move to greener (and winning) pastures can’t publicly say so without facing a backlash. Any response would likely be the rote standard of trying to “focus on what I can control” or something similar. Instead, talk shifts to his numbers this season, which are among the best of his career. Aside from the aforementioned scoring, Chandler is posting a career-high in rebounding (7.3 per game) as well as his second-best 3-point percentage (36.4 percent) and effective field-goal rate (50.9 percent) since he entered the league out of DePaul University .

He’s similarly dismissive about the statistics — “I’m not really big into the numbers”– but has some sense of how they rank among the rest of his career, saying he read them in an article earlier this season. When asked why the bump in production, he responds immediately, “Just health…for the first time, being fully healthy since I’ve been in Denver, since the trade.”

He missed all of last season due to a season-ending hip injury, so every step back has been a positive one for him and for the Nuggets. As Malone explained, “He was a huge loss for us last year. So, having him back and bringing him off the bench — he closes nearly every game for us — that guy off the bench that you can call his number and give you 18 points a night, 6 to 8 rebounds a night, is invaluable for our team.”

Chandler labels his offseason as a “pretty hard-working summer” and offers details as evidence of why his comeback has been so successful. Daily physical therapy was followed by shooting and mobility drills. As he regained his strength, 5-on-5 scrimmages at UCLA helped him regain a feel for the game he hadn’t played in months. “My days were pretty long,” he adds.

If there’s an underlying theme in these responses, it’s a slight unwillingness to focus on what he’s accomplished this season. Eye contact is averted while the voice cracks just so. It’s unusual as Chandler is, by all accounts, a willing and open speaker. One can’t help but wonder at how difficult it is for professional athletes to address what the rest of the world never has to: individual success in the context of continued team misfortune. Revel in what you’ve accomplished for too long and you’re labeled a selfish malcontent. The inverse, to concentrate only on the all-too-familiar despair of losing, is counterintuitive to a person hardwired to the winning that is a natural component to becoming one of the elite few capable of playing at this level.

Perhaps Chandler sees the dreaded tightrope that others among his peers remain blind to. A stint in China during the 2011 NBA lockout provided him with a unique perspective. “To be able to go over there and see how different cultures live,” remembers Chandler, “ was definitely very humbling, when you’re away from your family and the stuff that you take for granted. I had a great overall experience.” When asked to pinpoint the impact the brief time had on him, Chandler answered, “I would say just my whole outlook on life.”

Putting aside any notion of how difficult it is to thrive while things collapse around you, Chandler is obviously committed to improving even at this late stage of his career. He’s even gone so far as to embrace veganism to maintain the body that has betrayed him at times. While he admits to eating fish earlier during the season to combat a bout of fatigue, he’s done his best to maintain it, explaining that it’s been a huge help for him and that “just cutting meat out, in general, and dairy is just amazing for the body as far as reducing the buildup of acids and recovering faster.”

Irish-born author Adrian McKinty once said this of the Mile High City: “The winters are brutal in Denver; it snows from the end of October to April.” It’s too great a coincidence to ignore that this assessment falls right in line with the length of the Nuggets’ regular season schedule. The past few seasons have been rather bleak, which underscores Chandler’s success all the more. He’ll likely continue toiling in relative anonymity unless the long-rumored trade takes place or the young players around him suddenly find their groove.

In the meantime, it’ll still be snowing across Denver and Wilson Chandler will still be biding his time until his success can contribute to something greater.