TYSON CHANDLER might have the most controversial big toe in America. And he still doesn't know why. He doesn't know why when he jumps to block a shot, there are Hornets fans who worry that he'll accidentally kick the shooter on the way down. He doesn't know why when he rises for a dunk, they're nervous about the impact he'll make when he lands. It's easy to imagine New Orleans, behind Chris Paul and David West, giving the Lakers a hard time in the playoffs. But what about ... Chandler's toe? "My toe is fine," says Chandler. "It doesn't bother me at all. I don't know how many more times I have to say that, but it's true."
The concern started last month, when the Hornets traded Chandler to the Thunder for forwards Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox, only to have Oklahoma City void the trade when the 7'1" center failed his physical. Upon learning that he had flunked, Chandler assumed it was because of the left ankle injury that had kept him out of the lineup since Jan. 21 (and that caused him to sit out three games last week). Instead, he was told that the problem was his left big toe.
Chandler had the digit surgically repaired after the 2006--07 season and says it hasn't bothered him since. Last summer he saw another specialist who detected no abnormalities, though he told Chandler that he would have to monitor the toe for the rest of his career. Yet the doctor that flunked Chandler, Oklahoma City--based surgeon Carlan Yates, was the same one who performed the operation in '07. "It's frustrating," says the 26-year-old Chandler. "When I talked to [Dr. Yates after the trade], I felt like he wasn't telling me the truth. It was like talking to a lawyer." (Yates declined to comment.)
Chandler's New Orleans teammates were happy to have him back. "The locker room was like a morgue the day he got traded," says coach Byron Scott. Indeed, the trade quickly became joke fodder. In his first practice after returning to the team, Paul noticed Chandler, a 57.3% free throw shooter, knocking down several in a row.
"You're shooting them pretty good," said Paul.
"I know," Chandler replied. "My old team hired a shooting coach."
Beyond being well-liked, Chandler is also the anchor of the Hornets' defense. When he is in the lineup this season, New Orleans allows 92.2 points per game and has a 30--14 record; when he is out, opponents average 95.3 points, and the Hornets are 14--11. "Not only is he a presence with his rim protection," says Wizards coach Ed Tapscott, "he's the traffic cop. He's great at reading plays and communicating them forward."
But Chandler doesn't feel entirely at home. He didn't like that Hornets G.M. Jeff Bower publicly described the trade as a basketball decision, even though it was viewed throughout the league as a salary dump. (Chandler is owed $24.6 million over the next two seasons, while Smith and Wilcox have expiring contracts.) "That was insulting," says Chandler. "Don't attack my abilities by saying you are making the team better by trading for two guys who weren't playing for the worst team in the league." Scott acknowledges, "At times, feelings get hurt. But you have to put them aside and do your job."
Chandler has indicated he may opt out of the final year of his contract after the 2009--10 season. But he adds that the failed trade has given this season a sense of urgency. "CP, David [West] and myself, we used to talk about how we were the core of this team," says Chandler. "We were pretty secure with our future. That's just not the case anymore."
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On 7'3" Connecticut junior Hasheem Thabeet, a projected lottery pick:
He's not just a big guy out there. His shot blocking is special. He has great anticipation, he blocks shots both on and off the ball, and he can do it with either hand. He's not a refined offensive player, but he runs well for a giant, is an excellent free throw shooter, and can catch and dunk. Don't minimize that last one. If a guard gets into the lane [and dishes to him], his hands are good enough that he can make a catch in traffic and put it in. Not every big man can say that. The best comparison is Dikembe Mutombo. How many plays were ever run for Mutombo? Not many, but he was able to score around the rim, and he changed games with his defense.
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
CORE STRENGTH Chandler's inside D was welcomed back by Paul (3) and West (30).
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[See caption above]
AL TIELEMANS (THABEET)