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How the Mavericks lost the best center in team history ... twice

Dallas came to love Tyson Chandler in 2011 and it broke their hearts to see him leave the following year. Is this summer deja vu?

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[Ed. note: This feature was originally published on June 18, 2015 prior to Chandler's decision to sign with the Phoenix Suns.]

Tyson Chandler strolled to the podium in Interview Room 1, grinning with the swagger of a man finally home from a voyage abroad. He nodded in recognition of a familiar face in the crowd and then joked with the beat writers assembled around him. A time ago, before he left, he talked with them regularly. It was a time thought to be long gone.

Second chances hardly ever happen in sports, yet here Tyson stood, back in Dallas at Mavericks media day in early September, bringing with him the memories of a seemingly preordained 2011 championship. A surprising offseason trade had brought him here. He was home again.

"At first it was a little surreal, especially walking back in this building," he said then. "The last three years I've been a visitor, so coming in, getting in the locker room, seeing all the guys -- great feeling."

That was almost 10 months ago. The Mavericks' 2015 season climaxed with a Rajon Rondo trade in mid-December and slowly descended into petty drama that ended with his dismissal in the playoffs. Through it all, Tyson was superb -- averaging more minutes, points and rebounds than he did four years ago -- but the season's quick first round end was nothing like the postseason run that endeared him to the city of Dallas.

Like 2011, Tyson is a free agent again, sure to command a hefty contract. But the similarities end there. No championship accompanied this season, nor is Tyson in his prime anymore, not at 32. It makes sense to pursue another direction, but then there's the emotional burden of a prodigal son leaving for a second time. The Mavericks couldn't possibly let him walk away again -- could they?

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Pool / Getty Images

To understand how Tyson became so beloved in Dallas in a single year, you first have to understand the context in which he arrived. The 2011 season was Dirk Nowitzki's 13th in the NBA, and despite his transcendent talent, the Mavericks had only one unsuccessful trip to the NBA Finals to show for it.

Part of the reason for that was the ever-rotating turnstile at center. There are very few superstars easier to play with than Dirk, yet the Mavericks continually failed to find him a proper front court partner. Raef LaFrentz, DeSagana Diop, Pops Mensu-Bonhsu, Erick Dampier, Shawn Bradley all came and went. Brendan Haywood arrived by trade in the spring of 2010 and had plans to become the next name in that list, but something funny happened in the weeks leading up to the season. Tyson, acquired by trade in a barely discussed move that summer, took the starting position away from Haywood and quickly proved himself.

"Seriously, six weeks into his first run with the Mavericks and we were already comfortably referring to him as the best Mavs' center of all time," said Bob Sturm, a radio host for Dallas' 1310 The Ticket since 1998. "It's partially a compliment to Tyson that he's been the best center here, that he won a Defensive Player of the Year, that he fit so perfectly with Dirk that it's almost like he was genetically designed to fit with [Dirk]. On the other half, it does illuminate the issues the Mavericks have had at that position forever."

Tyson did everything that Dirk didn't. He pounded the ball inside while Dirk sniped from the perimeter; slid over to guard bigger threats, covering up Dirk's mediocre defensive skills; played with an outwardly aggressive, warlike temperament on the court and led with gregarious confidence in the locker room in a way that perfectly complemented the more subdued Dirk.

Leading up to Tyson's arrival, Dallas was growing desperate. Dirk had won an MVP in 2007 but he still didn't have the ring he deserved. Talk of whether he might leave in free agency to pursue a championship murmured louder than ever before. The disappointment of losing in 2006 to the Miami Heat in the Finals was only mitigated by the belief that a new dynasty was poised to emerge from Texas: one that would finally rival the state's ruling bloodline, San Antonio. Instead, each May, the Mavericks withered.

With Tyson's arrival in 2011, the Mavericks finally had a beating pulse. Between Dirk, the mercurial Jason Terry, defensive backbone Shawn Marion and the brilliant Jason Kidd, Dallas felt complete. As they swept through the playoffs and avenged the 2006 defeat, Tyson stopped feeling like an offseason addition.

"I spent one year and everyone thinks I spent my whole career here," Tyson said at media day. "Even guys around the league, they ask me how long I played in Dallas and I tell them one year and they said ‘what?'"

But that summer, the NBA endured a 161-day lockout that ended in early December. The reduced season resulted in an even shorter offseason, in which Dallas was suddenly faced with huge free agency decisions. Predicting a larger free agency splash down the road, the Mavericks chose not to court Tyson. He signed a four-year deal with the New York Knicks.

"The 2011 decision still hurts," Sturm said. "I understand why they made it, but if there's any guy you wonder what would this franchise have been like if you could have had him for basically the length of his professional career, and how would that looked next to Dirk if he had been involved early. ... it makes you wonder what we missed."

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Matthews Emmons / USA Today Sports

The Mavericks made their 2014 home debut on Oct. 30 and the roar for Tyson's introduction might -- might -- have equaled Dirk's. And in Dallas, that's saying something.

"At center, in his fourteenth season, welcome home! Tyson Chandler!" boomed the public address announcer, in the prolonged clarion call those in the American Airlines Center have grown accustom to. The Mavericks won 120-102 and Tyson scored 13 points, including three of his signature two-handed alley oops. It was almost like he had never left at all.

The addition of "welcome home" in the announcer's opening lineup schtick lasted for weeks, each time met with the same explosion from the adoring crowd.

"He's one of the most popular one-year players in the history of any franchise," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said before the season at media day.

Watching Tyson work in the middle of the floor was the amnesia needed to forget that Chris Kaman held the same role just two years prior, but it also recalled the still sore memories that it was preventable had he just been re-signed that summer. This Mavericks season wasn't destined to have the same storybook ending as 2011, something Tyson quickly realized. They needed much more from him. His role with the Mavericks had changed.

"[My role is] different. It's probably bigger," Tyson told Mavs Moneyball about two weeks prior to the playoffs. "That team was a ready-made team, just needed me in different areas. This team needs me more. ... So many curveballs we had this year, with changing the roster, and trades, and trying to adjust and all that. If anything, that was the adjustment that I faced throughout the year with this deal."

Ultimately, even though it was hardly his fault, the Mavericks' vocal leader couldn't bring a diverse roster together despite their evident talent.

"Personally, I took a lot of it on," he admitted at exit interviews after the season. "Just a lot of long nights trying to figure out how to push this team and really how to bring this team together."

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Jerome Miron / USA Today Sports

Now, another offseason begins in earnest, though no lockout will complicate this one. Tyson is 32 and playing a position that doesn't age well. Both seasons in Dallas, he's been remarkably healthy, missing a combined 15 games. But for his career outside Big D, Tyson has always struggled to stay on the floor, failing to hit the 70-game mark six times in eight seasons.

"I absolutely want him to stay and I want him to be part of the future here," Sturm said, echoing the sentiments of most in Dallas. But like 2011, Sturm admits, price has to be a key factor and the decision is complicated.

Any team would have qualms of signing a 32-year-old center who will likely want a four-year deal. Dirk only has two years left on his deal, and with retirement likely after that the Mavericks are already planning for the future without him. Whether Tyson factors into those plans is incredibly difficult to gauge.

Rumors have already circulated about other possibilities. DeAndre Jordan has expressed interest in Dallas, and some reporters have floated the idea of a sign-and-trade involving the two centers as mutually beneficial. Marc Gasol is also on the market this summer, though unlikely to leave, along with half-a-dozen other solid starting-caliber players.

If basketball was code and decisions were 1s and 0s, this one seems easy. Tyson could make the money he deserved while the Mavericks could find a younger player to build around for the future. But since basketball is ultimately a human game, emotions find their way into the crevice of every decision, just as they have this one.

"All of those things do come into play," Tyson said after the season, referring to emotion and loyalty. "It's just a balance, at the time, where you are in your career and what means most to you."

When asked before the season, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban admitted his own regrets about how 2011 played out, too. "Let's just say I learn from my mistakes," he told reporters in September.

Once a jilted lover, it seems impossible the Mavericks could spurn Tyson twice -- even if it makes sense from a business perspective. Dallas loves Tyson and he loves them back.

"Everybody in the city is so respectful and kind if you're walking down the street, restaurants and different things," Tyson said. "I appreciate the fans here. I think they're the best. It truly makes a difference. It makes coming and doing your job easy."

It's the fans. It's the championship he brought the city. It's the history of the position prior to his arrival. It's the way he works, striving to be the best every day while oozing charisma.

As he talked about his love for Dallas towards the end of the season, I asked Tyson who he thought was the best center in Mavericks history. He only paused for a beat.

"Me," he said with a smile.

And they could let him go again.