With Bill Simmons’ paperback release of The Book of Basketball that included a new “What If?” section on Portland taking Kevin Durant instead of Greg Oden, let’s play the “What If?” game for the Thunder.
There are a number of good Thunder “What If’s?” out there like “What if Oklahoma City/Seattle had drafted Brook Lopez fourth overall in 2008?” or “What if Sam Presti hadn’t fired P.J. Carlesimo as early as he did?” or “What if Robert Swift hadn’t randomly tattooed his entire body?” We could go on for a while with those and the team’s only been here three years.
But really, the best “What If?” for the Thunder is about the big trade that wasn’t. Feb. 17, 2009 Tyson Chandler was traded to Oklahoma City from New Orleans for Chris Wilcox, Joe Smith and the rights to DeVon Hardin. I was excited. And then 24 hours later, the trade was off. Chandler didn’t pass a physical and suddenly Dr. Carlan Yates was the most famous NBA physician in the league.
The issue at hand was a big toe on Chandler’s left foot that Yates had operated on when Chandler was part of the Hornets in their last season in OKC. Yates determined that re-injury was too great of a risk for OKC to go through with the deal. So it was off and we call cried into our pillows that night as Chris Wilcox remained a part of our team for at least another day.
Conspiracy theories were tossed around about the trade being rescinded, the most popular one being that co-owner Aubrey McClendon had second thoughts about taking on Chandler’s contract since McClendon reportedly lost close to $2 billion in the Wall Street crash. Another was that the league didn’t like it since it was obvious that the Hornets were giving up on the season and since the league invested so much into the Hornets in New Orleans, they were pissed about them watering down their product. But I’m pretty sure we all agree that’s awfully darn far-fetched, even if the trade was a little too good to be true for the Thunder.
Before injuries started sidelining him, Chandler was a premier defensive center, a true seven-footer and a player that had the ability to handle any opposing 5 in the league. He’s never been a strong offensive player, but he’s a great rebounder – most specifically on the offensive glass – plus he’s one of the best shot-blockers in the game. That’s what OKC thought it was getting. Which was something the Thunder desperately needed at the time. Keep in mind, this is pre-Serge Ibaka. When this deal was originally made, Chandler honestly was exactly the thing the Thunder were missing.
But what if Yates hadn’t found anything to question? What if Tyson Chandler had passed his physical and was part of the Thunder in 2009 with two years and $24.5 million left on his deal? Where would Oklahoma City’s team be? It’s something to at least mildly wonder about, especially with Chandler playing so well with the Mavericks.
One thing we can go ahead an assume is that Chandler would’ve still be battling the toe for a lot of 2009 and 2010. He only played in a handful of games for the Hornets in 2009 after the trade was rescinded and then was traded to Charlotte for Emeka Okafor over the summer. With the Bobcats in 2009-10, he played in just 51 games and his averages dipped to just 6.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in only 22 minutes a night. So he wouldn’t have been completely right for the 2009-10 50-win playoff run. He would’ve been able to contribute, no doubt, but not completely himself.
(Unless of course you’re assuming that if Chandler passed his physical that means he would’ve been healthy. But that’s getting a little too speculative for my tastes. And I love to speculate. So let’s just go with how he actually was.)
Would he have helped that team, or hurt it? Interesting question I ask myself here. He probably would’ve started in front of Nenad Krstic, which gives OKC actual center depth for the first time ever. (Etan Thomas probably isn’t part of last season’s team too. A tragedy, I know.) But one thing having Chandler would’ve done was stunt the growth of Serge Ibaka. In fact, I’m not even completely sure that Ibaka would’ve been brought over had OKC had Chandler. The Thunder may have stored Ibaka for another season at least in Europe, while Chandler played here.
So does trading Serge Ibaka for a hobbled Tyson Chandler make last season’s Thunder better? Potentially. There are games where Ibaka made an impact, but I know there are a few games where having Chandler on the glass would’ve probably made a difference. More than likely the team wouldn’t have been a lot better but I bet they would’ve won a game or two more, meaning they would’ve had the six or seven-seed instead of the eight. Which means a more favorable matchup in the first round (either the Mavericks or Suns, two teams OKC matched up fairly well with), which of course means a better opportunity to move on to the second round. Not a guarantee, but at least a possibility.
But at the expense of that, again, Serge Ibaka might not even have been here and definitely wouldn’t have seen 20 minutes a game. Sam Presti is entirely devoted to development and in Ibaka, he’s found a player that has a ceiling most of us can’t see, and he’s rapidly headed upward. In the postseason against the Lakers, Ibaka made a massive impact, highlighted by his block party in Game 2. If Chandler’s with OKC, Ibaka never gets those minutes. He never progresses. And even if he’s brought over for this season, we’re essentially starting all over with him. Bad help defender, overzealous defensively, no sweet mid-range game, raw as can be.
We’d have the 2010-11 version of Chandler for this year. The Chandler that’s healthy and playing as well as he ever has. The guy that blocks, rebounds, rules the paint and runs the floor. It’s not like the Thunder wouldn’t have Ibaka, he just probably wouldn’t be as big a part of the rotation right now. So on the inside, OKC has Chandler, Krstic, Collison, Green and Ibaka. Pretty good, right? Talk about length and athleticism. The Thunder could match anyone on the inside and would have two of the best paint protectors in the league together in Ibaka and Chandler. (Again, not the more polished version of Serge, but still.)
Plus, Chandler is expiring after this season so his $12 million would come off the books. It’s not like OKC used that cap room to sign anybody, but Nick Collison obviously wouldn’t have been extended (yet). KD most definitely still gets his extension, but the question becomes whether or not the Thunder lets Chandler walks after this year.
There are other logistical things that would’ve been affected like Byron Mullens wouldn’t have been taken in the 2009 draft, meaning the Thunder might’ve hung on to Rodrigue Beaubois or drafted a backup for Russell Westbrook (A.J. Price, Patty Mills?). As a result, the Eric Maynor deal isn’t made and the Thunder hangs on to the rights to Peter Fehse (woo!). Potentially too, Cole Aldrich might not have been traded up for and taken last draft meaning that either the Thunder has three first rounders to use again or they move up for something else. This is all getting very confusing.
So what if Carlan Yates didn’t find anything to make him question Tyson Chandler’s toe? What if Chandler had spent the last season and change in OKC? Would the Thunder be a title contender this season? Would they have been one last season?
In the end, I don’t think much would’ve changed. Maybe OKC gets a little better seed in last year’s playoffs and maybe they get out of the first round. Maybe this year they have a little better interior rebounding and defense. Hard to really know for sure.
But if there is anything we can know for sure, it’s definitely fun to ask the question.
(Hat tip to friend of the program Patrick from The Lost Ogle for the idea.)