DALLAS — Tyson Chandler figures it must have been about the money.
More than two years later, the big man who is now energizing the Dallas Mavericks still has no other explanation for why his services weren't welcomed on the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I honestly feel it had more to do with the salary,” Chandler told The Oklahoman on Wednesday. “Because when I looked at it, it just didn't make sense.”
On Feb. 17, 2009, the Thunder traded Joe Smith, Chris Wilcox and the draft rights to DeVon Hardin to New Orleans in exchange for Chandler. Roughly 24 hours later, the deal was dead. The Thunder had pulled out, rescinding the trade because of health concerns. Chandler's problematic toe troubled the Thunder's medical staff.
“I just didn't see that being that big of an issue,” Chandler said. “It all seemed fishy to be honest with you.”
While the Mavs sit two wins shy of claiming their first NBA championship, Thunder fans are left wondering what if. Despite this year's trading deadline ultimately netting the Thunder another bona fide big man in Kendrick Perkins, it's become clear that Chandler is the center that got away.
On another team, Chandler is performing like the perfect match the Thunder thought it had obtained for its super young and supremely athletic stable of talent. In these playoffs, Chandler has forced Thunder fans to remember the regret they felt upon learning the deal was nixed. And the remorse level only rises with the passing of each series.
Chandler has increased his points, steals and blocked shot averages in each round of the playoffs. He's also gone from averaging 28.8 minutes against Portland in the opening round, to 31.3 minutes against the Lakers in the semifinals, to 31.8 minutes against the Thunder in the conference finals to 38.8 minutes against Miami in the finals.
In 74 regular season games this year, Chandler averaged 10.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and shot a career-high 65.4 percent in 27.8 minutes. It was his best season since 2007-08.
But the Mavs, led by deep pocket owner Mark Cuban, obtained Chandler as he was entering the final year of contract. He earned $12.75 million this season.
Had the Thunder gone through with the trade two years ago, the team would have been on the hook for the remainder of Chandler's $11.3 million salary in 2009, as well as his $11.8 million contract last season.
“We have to listen to the people (conducting) our medicals,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said after rescinding the trade. “We feel the right decision for us was to move in another direction. We're disappointed it did not work out.”
Chandler's inspired play has made it easy for many to forget how the Thunder dodged a 7-foot-1 inch torpedo. Before this season, Chandler missed 67 of a possible 164 games due to injuries over the previous two seasons. A staggering 62 of those missed games came after the Thunder pulled the plug on the trade.
Even if the payoff eventually came two years later, the price to pay in the meantime would have been incredibly steep. And so much about the Thunder likely would have been different.
With Chandler, the Thunder might have left Serge Ibaka overseas rather than bringing him over from Spain, where Ibaka was stashed for one season following the 2008 draft. Eric Maynor and Thabo Sefolosha were both acquired via trade — and Sefolosha and Nick Collison were later re-signed to cap-friendly deals — only because of the salary cap space the Thunder had remaining after backing out of the Chandler deal. And if Chandler was healthy enough to usher in just a few additional wins, the Thunder could have seen its luck change in the NBA Draft Lottery and lost out on the No. 3 overall pick in 2009, which turned into James Harden.
Watch Chandler in the NBA Finals, though, and none of that seems to matter. He just looks like he belongs on OKC's roster.
But Chandler admitted his injuries two seasons ago were so agonizing they led him to question his place, his skills and his future.
“It's been a tough couple of years for me,” Chandler said. “I remember coming off surgery and just really asking myself what is this all about, and not knowing the future and not knowing my capabilities on the court, how effective I would be.
“So going through all of that, going through rehab, going through last year, it's amazing to be here. And it's important that you seize the moment. You take advantage of this opportunity, because I've been on the other end and looking like it would never happen.”
Mavs forward Peja Stojakovic, a teammate of Chandler's for three seasons with the Hornets in Oklahoma City and New Orleans from 2006-09, remembers seeing Chandler constantly in the training room. But he never heard Chandler discuss his ailments.
“Tyson is always a fighter,” Stojakovic said. “When he steps on the court, he's giving everything. He'll never tell you that he's hurt.”
Now that he's healthy, Chandler has revitalized his career.
Thunder fans are just forced to watch it blossom in a different city.