Every Wednesday, Pick and Popovich will dive down the rabbit hole and explore a different NBA “What if.” The only rule is that the scenario must come from a place that is somewhat realistic and grounded in at least somewhat believable rumor or hearsay. Otherwise, anything goes.
A war rages in Oklahoma City’s front office on February 18th, 2009. On one side sits the Thunder medical staff, imploring general manager Sam Presti to vacate a trade with New Orleans to acquire center Tyson Chandler due to concerns over his left big toe. On the other is coach Scott Brooks, arguing that the risk is necessary, as all great teams must take one at some point or another. Brooks eventually wins out. Tyson Chandler is traded to the Thunder for Joe Smith, Chris Wilcox and DeVon Hardin.
Chandler’s impact is immediate, but the late-season surge he helps instigate ends up costing Oklahoma City significant draft position. The 27-win Thunder end up picking sixth, and are faced with a decision between two promising guards. The idea of pairing Davidson’s Stephen Curry with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is tempting, but Presti decides that Curry’s size would create too many issues on defense and instead chooses USC’s DeMar DeRozan.
DeRozan grows slowly, but Chandler’s defense and leadership help the Thunder make their first trip to the playoffs in 2010. They are swept by the Lakers, but the experience proves vital in their shocking playoff run the following season. After Dallas knocks out Los Angeles with a barrage of three-point shooting in the second round, the Thunder take advantage of their poor defense to make it all the way to the NBA Finals.
There, they lose the first game to the heavily favored Heat, and Game 2 looks to go in much the same fashion before Durant leads a furious comeback that ends in a game-winning layup. The Heat collapse from there. Chandler’s rim-protection scares LeBron James away from the rim, and his meltdown dooms Miami’s chances. In six games, Oklahoma City completes one of the biggest upsets in NBA history. Kevin Durant is named the Finals MVP, and the Thunder are faced with a major dilemma.
As a small-market team, it would be virtually impossible to keep the entire core of their championship team together. Chandler is a free agent, one of the hottest on the market, and extensions for Durant and Russell Westbrook are set to kick in with DeRozan and Serge Ibaka’s free agencies looming. So, to create the flexibility to keep those core five in place, the Thunder trade Jeff Green to Boston for a package of draft picks.
Things don’t end up going quite so smoothly. The Thunder march their way back to the Finals, but LeBron’s Heat don’t go down as easily as they had a year earlier. This time, it’s the ascendent DeRozan who collapses in the Finals. The Heat steal Game 2 on the road and sweep their three home games to win the series in five games. Once again, the Thunder face the grim financial realities of playing in Oklahoma.
Both DeRozan and Ibaka are due for contract extensions, and with Durant, Westbrook and Chandler locked up, only one will be able to stay long-term. Ultimately, the Thunder settle on DeRozan, as Chandler’s defense makes Ibaka relatively redundant. He is traded to Houston, who hopes that an increased role can turn Ibaka into a star, and DeRozan signs a four-year, $44 million extension to stay in Oklahoma City.
They may not be as deep as they once were, and Chandler is eventually replaced with Steven Adams, but the Thunder remain on top of the league for over a decade. In fact, many view the Chandler trade as the inflection point that led to Oklahoma City winning their four championships.