While I concede that the decision to trade James Harden (and pay Kendrick Perkins) may be the biggest ‘What If?’ moment for the Thunder, I would like to introduce another contender:
The Tyson Chandler no-trade.
This is the ultimate Butterfly Effect trade. The aim of this game is not to choose the greatest point of deviation between the life we have and the life we could have. Rather, it is to make a small change, an infinitesimal alteration to the fabric of the basketball universe, and watch chaos unfold.
In the middle of February 2009, a team with a 13-40 record made a trade with a team sitting at 30-20 for a 26-year-old big who was averaging just 8.8 points and 8.3 rebounds.
The following decision – one not made by a player, coach, executive or agent – swung at least 2 titles in the years immediately following, and maybe more in the years after. It directly altered the legacies of one of the top 20 players of all time (Dirk Nowitzki) and tangentially affected at least four others (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan) AND one of the great never-was teams (the young OKC Thunder).
One night in Oklahoma
A perusal of Tyson Chandler’s Wikipedia page reads about as you expect. An enormously tall child, Chandler dominated in high school and was drafted into the NBA as a teenager. Horrendously miscast as half of Chicago’s new Twin Towers opposite Eddy Curry, he found his calling as Chris Paul’s pick-and-roll partner in New Orleans. He had a stop-over in Charlotte, anchored the champion Mavericks (shockingly, only playing 149 games for them over two stints), won DPOY during a fun Knicks resurgence, and has now settled into a role as a veteran gun-for-hire. By all accounts, a wonderful resume befitting one of the league’s great role players.
This page reads as expected, with one exception:
“On February 17, 2009, Chandler was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Chris Wilcox, Joe Smith and the draft rights to DeVon Hardin…
…on February 18, the trade was rescinded and Chandler was sent back to the Hornets.”
Less than two years later, Chandler had gone from CP3’s buddy to the lynchpin of a reformed Dallas defense, transforming a notoriously soft and offense-heavy Dallas franchise into one capable of throttling the talents of the world’s best player and All-Time I-Can-Get-to-the-Rim-and-There’s-Nothing-You-Can-Do-to-Stop-Me first-teamer LeBron James, and saving the legacy of one of the league’s (now) beloved stars. But for a brief moment, Chandler was a member of the league’s premier up-and-coming franchise.
Why didn’t the trade go through?
The official reason: The Thunder were worried about Chandler’s turf toe. Tyson had a history of injuries to his left toe, bad enough to have surgery in April 2007. Chandler played all but three games in 2007-08, and although he had missed a good chunk of time in the lead up to the trade, it was due to a badly sprained left ankle, not the toe. In a cruel twist of fate, the same doctor who had performed the surgery, Dr. Carlan Yates (during the Hornets’ temporary post-Katrina relocation to OKC) was now administering his physical. In a February 2009 interview with Chris Broussard and March Stein, Chandler stated that “He [the doctor] told me, ‘I have no doubt you can play on it. I’m just saying it could take a turn for the worse if you come down on somebody’s foot or hyperextend it or something.’” Had Dr. Yates not administered the physical, with his prior knowledge of the injury, Chandler very well might’ve joined the newly relocated team.
The biggest retrospective shock in the trade is how little the Thunder had to give up. Wilcox and Smith combined to play 1,482 minutes for the Thunder that season, only 37 more than Chandler did by himself for the Hornets. Neither played for the Thunder after the no-trade. On February 19, Wilcox was swapped for the Knicks’ Malik Rose, whose rights were renounced by the team that December. Not even two weeks later, the Thunder bought Smith out and he signed with Cleveland. Devon Hardin never played in an NBA game.
The trade was a solid financial move, too. The Thunder might have considered his $11,350,000 salary2
too costly for a center who only managed half of a season, but it amounted to less than the Wilcox and Smith duo, who combined to earn $11,545,000 that season. Would you rather have Chris Wilcox and Joe Smith or Tyson Chandler and a spare $200k?
Were the Thunder worried that Chandler would have ruined their tank by reforming their defensive rotations? Even with a healthy Chandler, Oklahoma City’s first season of pro hoops wouldn’t have gotten off the Western Conference floor. Real life Chandler managed to suit up for just 13 more regular season games, plus four games in the Hornets’ abysmal first round showing against the Nuggets. In his final appearance that season, he went 0-2 with 4 fouls. The Hornets lost by 58.
The young Thunder core showed promise: Kevin Durant took big steps as a sophomore, Russell Westbrook made the All-Rookie First Team, Thabo Sefolosha was strong defensively, and we hadn’t yet seen through the Jeff Green mirage (he somehow never got better after dropping 16.5 points on 44.6/38.9/78.8 shooting splits in his age 22 season). But at the time of the trade, the Thunder were about 10 games away from being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
In the post-Process world, Chandler would have been the perfect pickup. A veteran presence in the locker room, making enough to lift the salary floor but too injured for the next few months to make a difference. His contract would come off the books at the end of the 2010-2011 season, just in time to clear cap space for Durant’s first extension. Worst-case scenario, Sam Presti could’ve written him off for the season and held him as an expiring contract or shipped him off to the Knicks for six first-rounders.
The Thunder had received a future Defensive Player of the Year for nothing. And they sent him back.
The 2009-2010 season
In 2009-2010 real-life Chandler eeked out 51 games, sharing starting duties with Nazr Mohammed (!!) and 36-year-old Theo Ratliff (!!!) on a Charlotte then-Bobcats team that somehow won 44 games before being swept by Orlando in the opening round of the playoffs.
Several states over, Durant became the youngest scoring leader in history and finished second in MVP voting. Westbrook stepped up in his sophomore season (particularly with his playmaking), scoring MIP votes. Rookies James Harden (that summer’s 3rd overall pick), Serge Ibaka (finally bought out from his contract in Spain) and Eric Maynor (a mid-season acquisition from Utah) aptly filled bench roles. Jeff Green stayed the same.
Their 50-32 record “earned” them the 8 seed (!!!) where they took that year’s eventual champion, the Lakers, to six games in the first round.
Chandler’s toe has not yet swung a title.
The 2010-2011 season
Despite a tough schedule to start the season, the real Thunder hit the ground running in 2010-2011, taking 55 wins and the opportunity to play for a spot in the Finals. They were potent offensively but had issues on the other end of the floor. This was in large part to the gap at center, which coach Scott Brooks tried filling with Nenad Krstić and Nick Collison. When this proved ineffective, Presti shipped starters Krstić and Jeff Green to Boston for Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammed and Nate Robinson at the deadline.
Perkins’ size, rebounding and size always made sense in the veteran, tough-it-out Boston system, to the extent that his injury may have swung the 2010 title. Ironically, Boston needed him this year more than any, where he would have proved useful in occupying the paint for LeBron and Dwayne Wade’s drives instead of those from an injured Shaq, Krstić and Jermaine O’Neal. But he was a negative in OKC, spending entire playoff series clogging up the paint and stifling his athletic young teammates’ attempts at driving into the paint. Instead of offensive freedom, Durant, Westbrook (not somebody who should ever take a pull-up three), Harden (possibly the league’s all-time greatest drawer of contact) and Ibaka (the perfect rim-diving big) sat in the midrange and beyond, doubled by Perkins’ man any time they penetrated.
Imagine Chandler positioned on the weak-side, ready to receive the lob from a doubled Durant. Imagine the Harden-Chandler pick and rolls. Imagine him doing anything other than standing there, in the way.
At the time, playing Perkins was indefensible. In the spacing and analytics era, it’s beyond basketball suicide.
Twilight zone Chandler joins a Westbrook-Thabo Sefolosha-Durant-Green starting unit with Harden-Ibaka-Collison-Maynor coming off the bench. The Chandler-anchored Mavs – a team whose crunch-time five featured Dirk (never a defensive stopper), an undersized Jason Terry (ditto), old man Jason Kidd (smart but old) and Shawn Marion (solid, but not a lockdown defender) – forced the Heat into long jumpers, walling off the paint and cutting off driving lanes with their hybrid zone-man defensive schemes. Image what he could’ve done with Ibaka, Durant, Sefolosha and company. At this time, even Thunder players who become notoriously bad defenders (Harden and Westbrook) were still young and trying.
The NBA timeline splits
Here’s where it gets interesting. The duality of Chandler alters the universe with his both presence and his absence.
The 2011 Western Conference had a definite top 4. The high-powered Nuggets offense leaked points on the other end. The Blazers and now Chandler-less Hornets were cute – Brandon Roy’s last great moment happened against the Mavs in the First Round, and a still-likable CP3 led the league in steals after an interrupted year prior – but neither had the strength or depth to challenge the Spurs, Lakers, Mavs, and Thunder.
We’re here. Brendan Haywood, Ian Mahinmi and an untraded Erick Dampier (Dallas’s frontcourt) are not enough to offset the cosmic alterations caused by the Tyson trade. What does Dirk do without his 2011 coronation? Does he ring-chase, ending up in L.A. or Miami or Oakland? Do we get a Dirk-Steve Nash duo for one final run?
Without Chandler, we still call Dirk soft. Without Chandler, and the defense that he anchored, Dallas doesn’t win the NBA Title.
With the Mavs out of the picture, the Western Conference falls wide open. The Spurs, sitting nicely at 61-21, still go down in the first round to a lovably ugly Grizzlies team. The real Lakers were the defending champs, but were clearly broken, bowing in a shameful flurry of flagrant fouls. Without the Mavs in their way, the Lakers’ talent flounders into a Conference Finals berth against the Thunder.
Our 2011 Western Conference champs are either the fragile Lakers or the inexperienced Thunder.
We were wondering if OKC was ready for the Finals in 2012. The year prior, with an average age of 23.7, the Thunder were the youngest team in the league. Maybe we get that final shot of the young big three embracing each other a full year early and have them return a year wiser in 2012. Maybe an earlier Finals appearance convinces Presti to KEEP THEM TOGETHER2
Maybe we get the Kobe-LeBron finals we always wanted. Maybe Kobe drags his waning dynasty to his 6th title and, having vanquished his greatest opponent – flanked by a star-studded supporting cast – garners legitimate GOAT buzz.
Maybe we get neither and the Heat roll to the title (most likely). Maybe the Heat, their offseason moves validated by an unchallenged championship, never evolve into the monster that rolled off a 27-game win streak two years later. Or maybe, with the pressure of climbing the mountain lifted, LeBron and the Heatles ascend to a higher form of basketball. Is LeBron, publicly perceived to not have ‘earned’ his ring, treated like Warrior’s Durant was in our world? Or is he revered without the 2011 “choke” staining his resume?
The 2011-2012 season
Chandler’s contract expired at the end of the 2010-2011 season, with Mark Cuban infamously choosing to break up the defending champs. Chandler signed with the Knicks for four years, at a salary around $55-58 million. According to Basketball Reference, that first year salary sat at a little over $13 million, a large sum. Particularly large for a small-market team like OKC.
But don’t forget, this is a universe where Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammed and Krypto-Nate’s salaries (about $15.37 million) sit elsewhere. In this universe, an “overpaid” Chandler saves them $2 million.
And yes, choices would have to be made. OKC would have to pay Westbrook the following season, and Harden and Ibaka the season after that. But the Thunder had them on rookie deals until then and owned their Bird Rights for an extension after that. Contending with Chandler, the Thunder can focus on taking the title, knowing that they could always reconfigure on the fly. Maybe with Chandler protecting the interior, they trade Ibaka instead. Maybe the Thunder let Chandler walk, but unanchored by his or Perkins’ salary, they’re able to retain Harden. Maybe the Knicks are dumb and bite on Chandler anyways. Maybe the Thunder pay the tax ahead of schedule. Is that too much to ask?
In 2011-2012 alone OKC could build the team around MVP runner-up Durant and All-NBA sidekick Westbrook, complimented by fellow starters Chandler (that year’s DPOY), Ibaka (All-Defense First Team), and Sefolosha. A bench rotation features Harden (Sixth Man of the Year), old man Derek Fisher (still capable of the biggest shot in a playoff series), Maynor, Collison (rebounder/chemist) and rookie Reggie Jackson. In later years they might fill that team out with buyouts and vet minimums guys.
A loaded team with the size and length to smother the Spurs and the speed to go small against Miami – what could opponents do? Would we have been treated to the Spurs Renaissance? What level does LeBron have to reach to beat them? Do the Warriors get over the hump against what is effectively a better version of the 2016 Thunder team that had them on the ropes – a long, athletic defensive team designed to challenge every shot and pound you on the defensive end? Does Steph Curry guard Russ or Harden? As Perkins sat on that bench for almost five years, wouldn’t they have been better off with Chandler, or at least a 260-pound pile of wet clay?
Maybe I’m giving Presti too much credit. Maybe it would’ve been a salary mess after 2012. Thunder what-ifs have been done to death. But I know this. One misguided toe assessment altered NBA history. If the trade is cleared, we look at Dirk in an entirely different way. Duncan, Kobe and LeBron are either elevated or demoted from pantheon status. And those Thunder kids – KD, Russ, Harden, Ibaka and Chandler – might just have climbed the mountain.