Denver Nuggets restricted free agent Wilson Chandler is scheduled to return to the United States from China sooner than expected, according to sources close to the situation, with next week as his target.
It remains unclear, though, how quickly Chandler will be allowed to follow through on his stated intention to re-sign with the Nuggets even if he does leave China in the next few days.
Chandler's Zhejiang Lions team starts a five-game playoff series next Thursday, but sources told ESPN.com that Chandler received the blessing of Lions management to come back to the NBA as soon as he helped the team clinch a playoff spot.
Chandler, though, needs the Chinese Basketball Association to issue his FIBA letter of clearance before he can resume his NBA career. And it is not yet known whether Chinese authorities are prepared to grant Chandler that clearance or insist that he has to wait until the Lions' season is over -- as per the terms all NBA players who signed in China during the lockout had to accept -- before signing with his next team.
Either way, sources said, Chandler and agent Chris Luchey are expected to fly back to the States no later than next week while waiting for the CBA's ruling. Chandler was selected to play in China's all-star game this weekend, but his participation is up in the air.
The China Daily newspaper quoted Chandler's Chinese agent, Zhao Gang, as saying that Chandler "won't play" in either the all-star game or the Lions' playoff games. Luchey, by contrast, told the newspaper Thursday that "we have not finalized anything yet." One scenario, sources said, is that CBA officials would be more inclined to provide the letter of clearance if Chandler at least plays in Sunday's all-star game before leaving.
What is clear is that Lions officials are prepared to let Chandler come home. Sources told ESPN.com that Zhejiang management essentially promised a drifting Chandler that he'd be granted permission to skip the playoffs as long as he made sure the team didn't miss them. In the Lions' regular-season finale against the Beijing Ducks, Chandler responded with 41 points and 18 rebounds -- 25 of those points coming in the first quarter -- in a 114-94 rout.
"We prefer to let [Chandler] make the decision," Lions general manager Ye Xiangyu was quoted as telling members of the Zhejiang media on Wednesday night after the big win. "If he wants to continue with his duties here, we'll be happy. But if he wants to leave, we will release him, as he might play with a bad mood in the playoff if we keep him compulsively."
According to the China Daily, Ye added: "We understand his feeling right now and we know we couldn't keep his mind even if we retained him."
Sources say Chandler had been quietly hoping for an earlier-than-scheduled release to resume his NBA career ever since former Nuggets teammate Kenyon Martin -- bought out by the Xinjiang Flying Tigers in late December in a mutual parting -- unexpectedly received his FIBA letter of clearance Feb. 2, two weeks before Xinjiang's season had ended. Once granted his FIBA clearance, Martin was able to quickly sign with the Los Angeles Clippers.
J.R. Smith, another former Nugget, returned to the States this week after his Zhejiang Cyclones team failed to make the playoffs, leaving China as soon as the regular season ended even though he also was selected for this weekend's all-star game. The New York Daily News reported Thursday that Smith -- who has been weighing offers from the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers -- was close to reaching terms on a rest-of-the-season deal with the Knicks.
In an interview with the China Daily published Thursday, Chandler referred to his time in Hangzhou as "a lifetime experience."
"It has been a very good learning curve and experience for me and has helped me mature in some ways and develop parts of my game that I hadn't worked on in a while," Chandler said.
Luchey told Yahoo! Sports last week that his client intends to re-sign with the Nuggets upon his return after averaging 12.5 points and 5.0 rebounds in 21 games with Denver last season. The Nuggets acquired Chandler as part of the Carmelo Anthony trade with New York in February 2011.
Sources told ESPN.com that Chandler is weighing whether to sign a rest-of-the-season contract with the Nuggets that would make him an unrestricted free agent in July or sign a long-term deal with Denver immediately. He would have been a restricted free agent last summer if not for the lockout, and averaged 27.0 points and 11.8 rebounds in China for the Lions.
"My performance has been great at times and just OK at others," Chandler told the newspaper. "I have tried to do my best and to help my team win as best I could. Sometimes what the fans want and expect and what your coach wants are different. Hopefully, the people of Zhejiang province, as well as all of China, will say that I did pretty well while over here."
Chandler played in China for former Dallas Mavericks coach and longtime Phil Jackson assistant Jim Cleamons, who went to China to resume his career as a head coach after Jackson's offseason departure from the Los Angeles Lakers.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.