Tyson Chandler missed the New Orleans Hornets' last 12 games before the All-Star break with a sprained left ankle. But that had nothing to do with why he failed his physical with the Oklahoma City Thunder and was thus sent back to the Hornets on Wednesday.
After examining Chandler's left big toe, Dr. Carlan Yates, Oklahoma City's team physician, determined that the risk of reinjury was too great to give Chandler a clean bill of health. He therefore advised the Thunder to rescind Tuesday's trade that landed them Chandler for Joe Smith, Chris Wilcox and the rights to DeVon Hardin.
"This is absolutely crazy," Chandler said in a telephone conversation Wednesday night. "I'm super shocked. This is nuts."
Chandler, 26, was baffled by Yates' ruling in part because Yates performed surgery on Chandler's big left toe in April of 2007 when the Hornets were playing in Oklahoma City. Chandler played 79 games the following season and while he's missed 19 games this season, none has been because of his toe.
"He said he doesn't know how long I'll last," Chandler said in reference to Yates. "He told me, 'I have no doubt you can play on it. I'm just saying it could take a turn for the worse if you come down on somebody's foot or hyperextend it or something.'"
Chandler was bothered by the toe in last season's playoffs and withdrew from Team USA over the summer.
While Chandler, who said he feels no pain in the toe, was disturbed by the Thunder's decision, his Hornets teammates will undoubtedly be excited by his return. The players, most notably All-Stars Chris Paul and David West, did not hide their disappointment over management's decision to trade Chandler, especially in a move that was clearly about finances rather than basketball.
"I was really disappointed too when I was traded," Chandler said. "I felt like if we were healthy we had a championship team in New Orleans. But I didn't want to sulk so I started to get excited about the new challenge in Oklahoma City. I felt I could help turn that team around."
Chandler will meet with New Orleans GM Jeff Bower on Thursday and said he has no ill feelings toward the Hornets, who traded him solely to rid themselves of the two years and $24.6 million remaining on his contract. He laughed when asked if he thought the Hornets might trade him somewhere else before Thursday's 3 p.m. deadline.
"I'm not going to worry about that," he said. "But if it happens, it happens."
Chandler said he initially planned to return from his ankle injury within the next three games because he felt the Hornets were slipping in the standings without him.
"But after all this, I'm not rushing back," he said. "I'm not 100 percent yet, so I think it's best just to get healthy."
Voiding the deal wipes out the long-term financial benefits that prompted New Orleans to make the deal.
"We were pleased to add Tyson to the Thunder roster," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said in a statement. "During the course of the physical examination and outside consultations, some questions arose that gave us cause for concern. We felt that this course of action was the best for our organization."
Chandler had surgery on his left toe shortly after the 2006-07 season and injured it again in April 2008 in New Orleans' regular-season finale at Dallas. He then reinjured it during the Hornets' second-round series against San Antonio, complaining of "turf toe" after he bent the toe backwards by stepping on Ime Udoka's foot. Chandler was named as a Team USA alternate in July and invited to a pre-Olympic training camp but had to pull out because of the ongoing toe trouble.
Chandler took part in some of the Hornets' practice Monday on the day before he was traded after missing time with the sprained left ankle. Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com on Wednesday night that concerns about the long-term stability of Chandler's toe were sufficient to scare Oklahoma City off.
"We welcome Tyson back with open arms," Hornets general manager Jeff Bower said. "We went into this trade to garner more frontcourt depth to add to our team as we continue our push towards the playoffs. We expect Tyson and the rest of our big guys to step up to the challenge."
After word of Chandler's imminent return reached Hornets players following their resounding win Wednesday night over Orlando, Paul told reporters: "I'm excited to have TC back. I think it will give us a huge lift. Hopefully it will bring us closer together."
Presti is known as a longtime admirer of Chandler dating to his days with the San Antonio Spurs. So when the Hornets let teams around the league know that Chandler was available -- mostly because of owner George Shinn's mandate to reduce a payroll approaching $67 million this season and scheduled to reach nearly $77 million next season -- he pounced.
And the trade was widely hailed as a coup for Oklahoma City, given that Presti was able to land an accomplished center to add to his promising young trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green without surrendering any major draft considerations. The Thunder possess numerous draft picks to sweeten trade packages, including five first-rounders in the next two drafts, but the Hornets' financial straits were such that the expiring contracts of Smith and Wilcox were enough to clinch Chandler's acquisition.
With the Hornets unable to generate trade interest in Peja Stojakovic and unwilling to part with either Paul or West, New Orleans' only money-saving option was shedding Chandler's $12.3 million salary next season from its books. Chandler has the right to become a free agent after the 2009-10 season in the unlikely event that he chooses to walk away from his $13.2 million salary in 2010-11.
The Hornets insisted after the deal that the opportunity to replace Chandler with two dependable veteran forwards was their motivation as much as the payroll benefits. But Chandler's teammates -- particularly Paul and West -- were stung by the trade, as was Hornets coach Byron Scott, since neither Wilcox nor Smith has the size or the impact as an interior defender that Chandler has when he's at his best.
Scott described the trade as the toughest he's ever had to stomach as a coach, saying of Chandler: "He's a coach's dream. He'll do whatever you ask him to do, and he'll do it to the best of his ability. ... I told him I was sick. I was sick about it. I said, 'From a personal standpoint, I'm sick to see you go.' But from a professional standpoint, this is our business and this is what happens in the business."
Said West on Tuesday night: "This move has nothing to do with basketball. It was strictly a business decision. Using some common sense, that's what it came down to. I was hoping that all of it was a rumor. We have now become one of the smaller teams, and we really have put ourselves back in the situation we were in two years ago when we had a big hole in the middle."
The Hornets were widely projected as a dark-horse title contender entering the season but hit the All-Star break as the No. 6 team in the West at 30-20 after a variety of injuries and struggles to cope with raised expectations. Chandler has been bothered all season by a variety of ailments and is averaging just 8.8 points and 8.3 rebounds, compared with 11.8 points and 11.7 rebounds last season when he helped New Orleans unexpectedly trump San Antonio, Houston and Dallas to win the Southwest Division with a 56-26 record.
Chandler, 26, is scheduled to re-join the Hornets in Los Angeles before their game Friday against the Lakers.
"I still think the sky's the limit for Tyson," Scott said Tuesday. "He has had an injury-plagued season, there's no doubt about that."
It remains to be seen if there is enough time before Thursday's 3 p.m. trading deadline for Oklahoma City to regroup and find a new trade or two. Interest around the league in Wilcox ($6.8 million) and especially the veteran Smith ($4.8 million) has been considerable this season with both players carrying expiring salaries.
Chris Broussard covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.