Mavs lucky Chandler's on their side

DALLAS -- The question was always asked with a smile and a laugh, but there was a lot of truth being told in this jest.

"How good would you guys be if you had me?" Chandler occasionally asked Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook during their time together on Team USA last summer.

The Oklahoma City Thunder had the big man for one day in February 2009, only to decide they didn't want Chandler.

How big of a mistake did the Thunder make then? They might find out in the Western Conference finals, when they face a Dallas Mavericks squad that suddenly has a dominant defense anchored by the athletic, 7-foot-1 Chandler.

Not that Chandler needs any extra incentive with an NBA Finals berth at stake, but he doesn't deny that playing the Thunder tends to bring out the best in him. He put up 12.7 points and 15.3 rebounds per game against Oklahoma City this season, numbers boosted significantly from his season averages of 10.1 points and 9.4 rebounds.

"There's always going to be some motivation," Chandler said, breaking into a wide grin that indicated he'd just made a massive understatement.

The trade with the New Orleans Hornets was rescinded a day later. Chandler can vividly recall getting a phone call telling him to go home as he was preparing to board a plane to Oklahoma City. He learned a few hours later that he failed his physical.

Chandler assumed that it was due to the injured left ankle that had sidelined him almost a month at the time. That wasn't the case. Oklahoma City team doctor Carlan Yates flunked Chandler due to the left toe that Yates himself had surgically repaired a year and a half earlier. It was a suspicious ruling, especially considering that Chandler had the best season of his career immediately after undergoing the operation.

It certainly wasn't a basketball decision by Oklahoma City, which was giving up little-used forwards Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox in the deal. It's hard to believe that finances weren't the primary factor, as the Thunder likely had second thoughts about paying Chandler the $24.6 million he was due over the two years that remained on his contract at the time.

"I honestly don't know why he didn't pass my physical, still to this day," Chandler said. "It just never seemed right. It just never seemed right."

Chandler's fit with the Mavericks, on the other hand, seemed perfect from the second he arrived in Dallas. Well, at least to Chandler and the men who decided to bring him to Dallas.

It was actually considered a letdown when the Mavs pulled the trigger on the trade July 13, days after the Charlotte Bobcats' deal to send Chandler to the NBA Siberia known as Toronto fell through. There had been so much hype, fueled by owner Mark Cuban's vow to swing for the free-agency fences, that the Mavs would use Erick Dampier's expiring contract as a chip in a sign-and-trade deal to land a superstar to pair with Dirk Nowitzki.

Chandler, a nine-year veteran who had never been an All-Star and was coming off two injury-plagued seasons, didn't fit that bill. However, with the ankle that had caused him to sit 68 games the previous two years completely healed, he did fill a major void for the Mavericks as a defensive-minded, athletically gifted big man with strong emotional and vocal leadership qualities.

"We knew he was capable," Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said. "We knew that he was almost the perfect fit. It's just, could he stay healthy? Once we got comfort with that this summer, and then he did the USA piece and that was another confidence builder, he just hit the ground running in training camp and never looked back."

Chandler gets the bulk of the credit for transforming the Mavs, who had been a mediocre defensive team under coach Rick Carlisle, into the league's eighth-ranked squad in terms of efficiency on that end of the floor. He finished third in voting for defensive player of the year and was the first Maverick to earn NBA all-defensive team recognition in two decades.

Plus, Chandler's intangibles are invaluable to the Mavs. He added major doses of toughness and passion to a team wounded by its recent history of horrific playoff disappointments.

"I think we were a little lucky," Nowitzki said. "If you get a guy who was basically hurt for two years, that's tough. I mean, we didn't really know what to expect from him. Is he going to be as athletic as he was before? But, I said it all year, he's been our MVP."

Nowitzki, a self-professed "slow-twitch muscle kind of guy," has never had a better big man complement than Chandler. And it's not just that Chandler's quickness and leaping ability allow him to cover up Nowitzki's defensive weaknesses. Chandler is also a rock-solid pick setter -- no wonder Nowitzki shot a career-best percentage -- and phenomenal finisher around the hoop.

"I think it's definitely a great combination because he picks up for the slack that I'm not capable to do out there and I pick up for the slack that he's not capable to do out there," Chandler said. "It's just a good basketball relationship. Sometimes you get two players that just work real well together."

While the Mavs are focused on the moment, the question relatively soon will be, how long will Chandler and Nowitzki work together?

Chandler will enter free agency after the season. The Mavs intend to do everything possible to re-sign him, but without knowing what rules will be in place because of potential labor upheaval, it's difficult to speculate on the likelihood of that happening.

The interest is mutual, but Chandler chooses his words on the subject carefully. After all, he once thought he'd spend the rest of his prime as good pal Chris Paul's teammate, only to be traded to Oklahoma City in a salary dump, have that deal rescinded the next day and get shipped to Charlotte months later.

"I love my [Dallas] teammates and I love playing with the guys," Chandler said. "But that's not to say that things always work out."

If things work out with a long-term contract, trading for Chandler will be Dallas' best deal since swapping Robert "Tractor" Traylor for Nowitzki and another first-rounder on draft night in 1998. That would arguably be the case if the Mavs can just punch a ticket to the Finals by beating Oklahoma City.

Give the Thunder's front office, which hasn't made many mistakes while basically building a contender from scratch, an unintended assist.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.