In 2009, prior to the trade deadline, Oklahoma City swung a huge trade which landed a quality centre on their roster for very little. Tyson Chandler was acquired by the Thunder for CJ Wilcox, Joe Smith and the draft rights to DeVon Hardin. The trade did not include any important young players or any of the Thunder’s draft picks. It was a steal.
The move made by Sam Presti was characteristic of Presti’s style early in his Thunder tenure. It was opportunistic, bold and focused on the future. Presti had taken advantage of the Hornets’ financial malaise to get one of the league’s foremost interior defenders for Oklahoma City's nucleus.
The trade itself had little opportunity cost, the players traded away had not played significant minutes for the Thunder. The draft rights included for DeVon Hardin was insignificant; Hardin was a prospect who bounced around the international circuit. Oklahoma City would add more salary to their books but salary would be added anyway when Kendrick Perkins was acquired from the Celtics.
The trade did not harm the Thunder financially and it made sense from a basketball stand-point so why was the deal rescinded?
Oklahoma City chose to back out of the deal due to concerns about an injury to Tyson’s left big toe. The toe had been worked on surgically two years prior to the trade but the Thunder’s medical staff deemed the risk of re-injury to be too great. Oklahoma City pulled the plug on the trade.
In hindsight, the decision taken by the medical staff seems foolish. Chandler had the best years of his career in the early 2010s, he won a championship with the Mavericks before earning DPOY in New York.
There is a big if placed over this trade. What if Sam Presti overruled the concerns of his staff and acquired Tyson Chandler regardless of his injury history. What would be the effects of the decision?
From a financial stand-point, Chandler’s contract would occupy a significant portion of the salary cap. Tyson's services were not cheap and Oklahoma City would have to negotiate an extension in the 2011 off-season. Oklahoma City were already laden with financial commitments during this time period; the Thunder had to sign young guys to contract extensions.
The extensions handed to Westbrook, Ibaka and Durant would not come cheap, there would be tax consequences incurred by extending Chandler further into the competitive window. The Thunder were reticent to pay the tax during the early years of the franchise, the ownership prioritised turning a profit.
I do not believe that the financial implications of signing Chandler to a long-term deal would be significant if Chandler made the Thunder being a better team. I firmly believe that Tyson Chandler would make the Thunder’s core better and would have been worth the additional financial outlay.
Tyson Chandler’s skill-set would have also fit nicely on the young Thunder’s roster. Chandler was a low-usage big man whose offence was derived from his activity around the rim, he would not impact the possessions that would be available to Durant or Westbrook.
Moreover, Chandler’s strong interior defence would hugely benefit Oklahoma City. Chandler’s rim protection would prevent Oklahoma City from being a leaky defence, a common trait of a young team.
The acquisition of Tyson Chandler would have brought a defensive presence to the Thunder that Sam Presti was keen to procure, Presti made a similar sort of move for Kendrick Perkins in 2011.
Perkins had a similar sort of profile as Chandler on defence, both players were elite interior defenders who had a proven history of contributing on play-off teams. In the trade for Perkins, Sam Presti traded away Jeff Green and Nenad Kristic. Green was one of the first picks made by Presti and a young talent.
The Perkins’ move is indicative of Presti’s desire to add that kind of player, Oklahoma City gave up a lot to make that deal happen. In Tyson Chandler, Sam would have got his rim protector at almost no cost.
In many ways, Tyson Chandler would have filled the role that Kendrick Perkins occupied on the Thunder. He would have made a strong impact on defence and his experience would have been invaluable for a fledgling Thunder team.
The importance of veteran leadership cannot be overstated, it is instrumental in developing young guys into elite level basketball players. A young player in the league can learn a lot about the game from a coaching staff but it is a vet who provides the helpful little details.
At that point in his career, Tyson Chandler had been around the league for a long time. He had played eight years in the league for two franchises, he would have understood how to maximise team chemistry.
Providing that the Thunder medical staff do not believe that the injury to Chandler’s toe is serious, Tyson Chandler would have joined Oklahoma City permanently. I cannot see Sam Presti turning down a deal in which he gets a quality role player for bottom end of the rotation guys.
The decision to make the trade deal permanent would have serious implications on the future of the Thunder. Kendrick Perkins is probably dealt by Danny Ainge elsewhere, the Thunder would have no need for Perk. The Dallas Mavericks likely do not win a championship in 2011 without Tyson Chandler.
Chandler’s defensive abilities were important in the Mavericks winning the 2011 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. In that year, the Mavericks were a well conducted orchestra that was led by Dirk Nowitzki. The team would have still been effective without Chandler on the roster but it would have missed a crucial element.
The intensity on defence that Tyson Chandler has displayed throughout his career meant that the Mavericks were a top-ten defence in the 2010-11 NBA season, a marked improvement on the prior season.
The effects for the Thunder are startlingly, Oklahoma City gets a quality big man to complement Serge Ibaka in the front court. The forward line would be nasty defensively, it would be incredibly difficult for opposing teams to score on two players who have such an understanding of interior defence.
Chandler would likely play closer to the rim in his preferred role as a rim protector while Ibaka would guard against other power forwards. Serge’s mobility and athleticism made him perfect for this role; he had the physical ability to contest a player like Pau Gasol who liked to spread out to eighteen feet for the mid-range jumper.
For the start of the 2009-10 Season, Oklahoma City would have a roster that balanced youth and experience. Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha and Tyson Chandler would have been the veteran voices in the locker room. The trio of stabilising presences who would not allow team morale to get too up or too down.
James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant would have been the vanguard of youth. The group of players bringing the Thunder into relevancy and competitiveness on a national stage.
The starting five would have been really strong and the same could be said for the bench. James Harden and Jeff Green as the sixth man and seventh man for the Thunder is solid. OKC would have had a deep team in 2009-10, there is no doubt about that.
I still feel that the Thunder would be a little too young in 2009-10 to make a serious run at winning a championship. While Kevin Durant was an impressive scorer, his co-stars were still learning their game at the NBA level. James Harden and Russell Westbrook were still finding themselves on the hardwood.
A veteran team like the Lakers or Spurs would have beaten the Thunder in 2010, I feel confident in saying that. However, it would be a different story in 2011. Oklahoma City were a really good side in 2011 without Tyson Chandler.
The 2011 was a really efficient offence and the pieces had started to click for the Thunder. Westbrook had ascended into the second star role that the Thunder needed. The improvement from the youth meant that Oklahoma City went 55-27 in the regular season, a gain compared to the previous season’s record.
The Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals with Kendrick Perkins as the team’s starting centre. Oklahoma City bowed out in the Western Conference Finals, the rising team lost in five games to the experienced Mavericks side that would eventually win the title.
Tyson Chandler being on the Thunder’s roster changes the complexion of that series. Dallas would be less effective defensively without Chandler, the interior defence would be more porous.
Oklahoma City would benefit from having a quality interior defender but also the bench depth provided by Jeff Green. Green’s ability to score the ball as a tweener at the power forward would provide Oklahoma City with a strong bench unit. Scott Brooks would be able to utilise two reserves who could go off for twenty on any given night.
That type of bench production can swing series, role players having big games are important when a series is decided by fine margins. Green was certainly capable of having big, efficient scoring nights from the field that were difficult to stop.
The combination of Oklahoma City being better and the Mavericks being worse would likely mean that the Thunder advances to the 2011 NBA Finals where they play the Miami Heat. It would be a close series between the Thunder and Dallas but the Thunder’s offensive firepower would eventually win out.
A Finals in 2011 against the Heat with Tyson Chandler at starting centre would be hard to call. This specific iteration of the Heat was less fearsome than the 2012 or 2013 team, it was a team gelling together. This does not mean that the Miami Heat in 2011 were a bad team, in fact it was a very good team.
I do believe that the Thunder would have been capable of beating the Heat in 2011 with Chandler. Chandler was not a defensive liability when Miami decided to stick Chris Bosh at centre, he had the lateral quickness to keep up with the faster man. It would mean that the weakness that cropped up in the 2012 NBA Finals did not even exist.
It would have been a close series, there is no doubt about that but the Thunder would have had a strong chance at winning. The Heat were vulnerable in 2011; the team did not have much depth. Spolestra had to play his core guys a lot of minutes during the regular season, fatigue can be a factor when a player plays over ninety games in a season.
It is pretty mad when you think about the fate of a franchise turning on one decision. The decision to rescind the Tyson Chandler in 2009 seemed relatively small but the ripple effects have been huge. Chandler being part of the Thunder organisation would have meant that Jeff Green was not sacrificed for Kendrick Perkins.
The additional depth available to Scott Brooks may have put the Thunder in a stronger position to win a championship in the franchise’s early years. The Thunder could have been champions if Chandler remained a Thunder player. History often moves on the margins, this rescinded trade is no different.