By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
The meeting was already awkward enough, and then the phone wouldn't stop ringing.
Only a few hours after the Oklahoma City Thunder rescinded a trade for Tyson Chandler because he had failed his physical, Chandler sat with Hornets General Manager Jeff Bower to fill out paperwork and discuss his unexpected return to New Orleans. Two hours still remained before last month's NBA trade deadline, and the phone kept ringing in Bower's office.
Already feeling angry, rejected, elated and confused, Chandler was also growing increasingly impatient with the incessant calls. He knew people weren't calling Bower just to chit-chat. "It was phone call after phone call, teams trying to make a deal and get through," Chandler recalled. "I was like: 'Should I be going to the plane or stay here and wait? Because I don't want to go through this again.' "
Bower never answered the phone, and he understood Chandler's anxiety. "I remember I wasn't real comfortable either," Bower said in a recent phone interview, "but the phone rings."
The phone will likely ring again this summer for the 7-foot-1 Chandler, who nearly joined the Thunder for the low, low price of the expiring contracts of Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox and rights to second-round pick Devon Hardin.
"That was a financial deal," said one NBA general manager who requested anonymity because he was discussing another team. "Jeff Bower did not become stupid all of a sudden."
Denver made what seemed to be a startling trade last summer when it dumped Marcus Camby to the Los Angeles Clippers for the right to swap second-round picks. But the deal was the first of many cost-cutting moves that have followed, with the crippling economy affecting overall revenue, season-ticket renewals and corporate sponsorships and placing a greater financial burden on NBA owners. Some teams are looking at downsizing payroll over upgrading talent.
Chandler, 26, is owed $24.6 million over the next two seasons -- assuming he exercises his player option for $12.8 million in 2010-11 -- and Hornets owner George Shinn is set to pay a steep luxury tax penalty next season, when his team's payroll is scheduled to reach about $76.5 million -- $5 million over this season's luxury tax threshold -- and the salary cap is expected to decrease.
"It's always out there," Chandler said of the trade rumors. "I figure I'm going to have to be the guy to deal with it. I don't mind it, because it's a business. I'm just hoping that things will be able to change. I know I'm the one that teams are calling for."
Given a second chance to make good on the promise of last season, the Hornets have gone 7-1 since Feb. 23, when Chandler returned to the lineup and started blocking shots and catching alley-oops from Chris Paul. And, as they prepare to face the Washington Wizards tonight at Verizon Center, the Hornets (39-23) are in a tight race in the Western Conference for home-court advantage in the first round.
"When he left, that day, I was sad," Paul said. "I don't even think about that trade no more. We're back to our old tricks -- throwing lobs and running the court. It's almost like it never happened."
The trade initially stunned and saddened the Hornets, whom Coach Bryon Scott described as a close-knit group. That the deal appeared to be fiscally motivated was equally troubling, considering the Hornets are 28-12 with Chandler in the lineup and 11-11 without him this season. "Ultimately, your goal should be to win games, but we understand that it's a business," Hornets all-star forward David West said. "Sometimes those things trump basketball."
Although there were financial incentives to move Chandler, Bower insists that the trade was not made to save money. At the time of the deal, he said, the team ranked last in the league in rebounding and wasn't living up to expectations after winning 56 games and pushing the San Antonio Spurs to seven games in the conference semifinals last season. "We felt we needed a change," Bower said.
The transformation occurred, though not as Bower originally planned. Before the ill-fated trade, Chandler was averaging just 8.8 points and 8.3 rebounds, down from his 11.8 points and 11.8 rebounds last season, and had missed 12 games with an ankle injury. In the past eight games, Chandler is averaging 9.9 points and 10.1 rebounds and the Hornets have outrebounded their opponents by an average of 46.4 to 39.1. New Orleans has been outrebounded in only one of those games -- in its lone loss, against Atlanta on Monday.
"When I came back, I was like, 'This is going to make me play even harder, because they tried to break this up.' This is a special thing that we have here,' " said Chandler. "That's the thing that hurts, to be taken out of that, because I know that without me, or without David or without Chris or without any of us -- you take one of those pieces away and that's our championship shot. I was upset because you take away from my brothers when you do that."
Chandler learned he had been traded in his hotel room in Oklahoma City, where the Hornets were going to play their first game after the all-star break. A limo picked him up and drove him to the Thunder's headquarters, where he met with team management and took what he believed was a perfunctory physical. He flew back to New Orleans to pack and make plans to move his family. As Chandler headed to the airport the next day to fly to Oklahoma City, he was beginning to envision his role as a leader for the young Thunder.
Then he got a phone call telling him the deal was off.
Chandler had exercise-induced asthma diagnosed five years ago, and he sprained his left ankle in the second game of this season. So he was stunned when he heard that Thunder physician Carlan Yates had called off the trade because of a toe injury he had been playing with the past three seasons. Yates performed the toe surgery in 2007.
"When they said the doctor is not going to pass you on the physical, I asked, 'Is my ankle that bad?' " Chandler said. "That was the last thought in my mind. When it was the toe, I was like: 'Toe? Huh?' "
Thunder General Manager Sam Presti said he wasn't going to overrule the medical staff: "They had some concerns, and for those reasons, we were not able to move forward with that trade."
When Chandler returned to the Hornets' locker room the next day, he made his teammates laugh as he shouted, "Y'all can't get rid of me!"
Scott said the toe was not a concern to the Hornets or the fans when they welcomed back Chandler. "When it was rescinded, I think there were a lot of people in New Orleans jumping up and down for joy," Scott said. "I told him: 'That's God working. Your work is not done here in New Orleans.' "
Chandler said he doesn't "get into the management thing" but he feels that the Hornets need to win a championship or make a deep playoff run for him to stay beyond this season. "I think that's highly presumptuous of him," Bower said. "We understand the emotions of it. No matter what you want to say, he's a human being who has strong ties with his teammates. But that's a long way away, summer time. A lot of different things can happen. I don't make any assumptions at this point. I would encourage him not to as well."