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A bust with Bulls, Tyson Chandler is now a must for Mavs

Dallas Mavericks center TysChandler blocks shot by OklahomCity’s Russell Westbrook Western Conference finals.  |  Christian Petersen~AP

Dallas Mavericks center Tyson Chandler blocks a shot by Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook in the Western Conference finals. | Christian Petersen~AP

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All games on Ch. 7

Game 1: 8 tonight, Miami

Game 2: 8 p.m. Thursday, Miami

Game 3: 7 p.m. Sunday, Dallas

Game 4: 8 p.m. June 7, Dallas

Game 5*: 8 p.m. June 9, Dallas

Game 6*: 7 p.m. June 12, Miami

Game 7*: 8 p.m. June 14, Miami

*-if necessary

Updated: September 3, 2011 12:33AM

MIAMI — The Bulls aren’t here. But Tyson Chandler is — a reminder of just how dark it was before Derrick Rose resuscitated a struggling franchise.

Chandler was a cornerstone of one of the worst rebuilding projects in NBA history. The 7-1 center represented everything that went wrong for the Bulls in the post-Jordan era. He was drafted too high. Paid too much. Rewarded too soon.

And he forced operations chief John Paxson into compounding Jerry Krause’s mistakes. When Chandler fizzled in 2005-06 after signing a six-year, $63  million contract, the Bulls signed Ben Wallace, then traded Chandler to the New Orleans Hornets.

And, of course, only then did Chandler play the best basketball of his NBA career.

The Bulls have recovered from that ignominy. And it’s good to see that Chandler has as well. Still only 28 after 10 seasons in the NBA, Chandler is a step away from an NBA championship ring. He’s the starting center for the Dallas Mavericks, who open the NBA Finals tonight against the favored Miami Heat.

Standing at a lectern along the baseline at American Airlines Arena on Monday, Chandler said those early years with the Bulls — they went 21-61, 30-52 and 23-59 in his first three seasons — still have an impact on him today.

‘‘It makes you appreciate where you’re at when you go through all the struggles that I’ve had to endure throughout my career,’’ said Chandler, who averaged 10.1 points and 9.4 rebounds and was named to the NBA all-defensive second team this season. ‘‘When you get to a moment like this, you’re not willing to take a play off or a night off or anything else because you know there’s a chance you many never get back here again.’’

The Bulls started taking steps toward respectability under coach Scott Skiles in Chandler’s final two seasons in Chicago. They went 47-35 in 2004-05 but dropped to 41-41 in 2005-06.

Chandler said he still thinks about his bad days with the Bulls, albeit wistfully.

‘‘I think about them often,’’ he said. “Whenever somebody talks about young players or whenever I see the Bulls, I just go back and think of what we could have been had we stayed together and had it been a better situation.’’

Fate has dealt Chandler and the Bulls a better hand since then. After struggling through a tough season with the Charlotte Bobcats in 2009-10 as he recovered from foot surgery, Chandler was nearly traded to the Toronto Raptors last summer. But the deal fell through and Chandler was sent to the Mavericks.

The Bulls and league MVP Rose nearly made it to the Finals, too. I asked Chandler if he felt bad that the Bulls didn’t advance.

‘‘No,’’ he said. ‘‘[I felt bad] for Derrick Rose and Luol Deng. I played with Luol [and with Rose on the world championship-winning Team USA last summer]. You want to see your friends and good guys in the league do well.

‘‘Derrick Rose, I felt bad for a little while. But then I didn’t because I know that kid is going to be there for years to come. He’s an amazing player.”

But Chandler knows how unpredictable the NBA is. When he came into the league as the No.  2 pick in 2001, he was expected to turn the Bulls into a contender, and it never happened.

When he was traded to the Mavericks, there was more disappointment than excitement. And now he’s a valuable ‘‘vocal leader’’ on a team playing for a championship.

‘‘We needed [his leadership], especially from a center position,’’ Mavs guard Jason Terry said. ‘‘People don’t realize it, but if you look at all the championship teams through the years, that center position has been key.

‘‘Look at Miami in ’06 with Alonzo Mourning. Look at Boston with KG [Kevin Garnett]. Those are vocal guys with a lot of energy. When your big man plays with the type of energy as Tyson Chandler, guys feed off it. It’s a real key to success.’’

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