Wilson Chandler does not view himself as a trail blazer or trendsetter. His decision to sign overseas was sparked solely by a desire to play basketball, something that won’t occur in the NBA until at least mid-October.
Chandler was a restricted free agent with the Nuggets, meaning his status was more tenuous than most. Under the old collective bargaining agreement, the Nuggets had the right of first refusal to retain him, but he likely would have drawn offers from clubs interested in a talented and improving swingman.
He ended all speculation about his immediate future last month by agreeing to a one-year deal with Zhejiang Guangsha of the Chinese Basketball Association, which mandates that players who sign are committed for the full season.
Chandler is living in Zhejiang now, becoming more comfortable with his new surroundings and culture. The Benton Harbor, Mich., native spent his first three-plus seasons with the Knicks but was shipped to Denver in the Carmelo Anthony deal. He said he had no desire to languish in the States playing pickup up and all-star games.
He wanted structure.
Jim Cleamons, a former Lakers assistant who was not retained by the new staff, is the new head coach with Zhejiang. That offers Chandler some familiarity.
“It’s going great for me,’’ Chandler said by phone. “I’m just learning some different things, trying to learn the new people. Practice is cool. Coach Cleamons is a great coach so it makes things easier for me. He’s been a successful assistant coach in the past and I think I can learn a lot from him.’’
Former Nuggets teammates J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin also have agreed to Chinese deals, making the possibilities more intriguing. The CBA has hosted several former NBA players in the past few years, including Stephon Marbury and former Boston College standout Sean Williams, but they were NBA outcasts. The Denver trio would most certainly have been welcomed back to the league the moment the lockout concludes.
“I just wanted to play,’’ said Chandler. “I couldn’t wait around to see what was going to happen. I just wanted to play and be able to get that game rhythm.
“I think [coming here] is good for the [Chinese] league and it’s good for [Smith and Martin] to get the same game rhythm. I talked to J.R. and he said he wants to play, so he was feeling the same way I was feeling. I’m comfortable with this right now. I am just living and playing.’’
Chandler lives in a four-bedroom apartment in Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang, with a population of 8.7 million.
“Wilson’s instruction to me as his agent was, ‘I want to play,’ ’’ said Chris Luchey, who negotiated the deal. “And ultimately, China’s is the closest season to the NBA from the standpoint that they play three games a week, and it is a shorter season and he has an opportunity to go back to the NBA once the season is over. And we knew when he decided to come, it would set the trend and that more guys would come over.
“By being the first one [coming to China], you get to choose the best scenario. So based on the teams that could pay Wilson, we felt like we went to the best overall basketball scenario.’’
Chandler left DePaul after his sophomore season and was a draft gem discovered by Isiah Thomas in New York. He has averaged 13.9 points per game in the NBA.
The fact that a player entering his prime made such a commitment to the CBA raised eyebrows around the NBA.
“Several guys called Wilson once he made that decision,’’ Luchey said. “And his text message was blowing up from people, all inquiring about his decision.’’
Because Chandler could return to the NBA before the end of its regular season, he would have to agree to a pro-rated contract or a long-term deal with the Nuggets, or accept a qualifying offer from another team if Denver does not match.
But those decisions will come in March. For now, Chandler appears content with his choice of spending a critical year of his career outside the NBA.
“Wilson’s at a crucial stage, a stage where his game is still developing,’’ Luchey said. “So for him, missing two months, three months just wasn’t worth it for him. It would have stunted the growth of his game.
“It’s difficult to simulate the game experience and that’s his big thing. It was just about hooping.’’
Ainge unable to fill holes
Danny Ainge was intent on having a productive summer that would reinvigorate the Celtics for perhaps one more championship run.
This summer has produced nothing but silence from the Celtics. Owner Wyc Grousbeck fears the $1 million fine for discussing any aspect of the lockout so much that he shivers when asked about the weather.
Ainge is not so fearful, but he offers little besides the fact that he is working hard, preparing for the moment when the league and players reach agreement, and he has the freedom to boost an undermanned roster.
The Celtics have nine players on their active roster if you include rookies JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore, both of whom have been exiled from the team since late June because of the lockout. Ainge has to add six players, including a more productive center than Shaquille O’Neal was during his final NBA season.
But the season is in limbo and so are the Celtics. The bosses have no idea what the finished product will look like. It remains to be seen whether Ainge will have a mid-level exception or a soft salary cap with which to work.
Under the old rules, the Celtics would have been able to attract a solid free agent at $5.7 million despite being over the cap, the same deal signed by veteran center Jermaine O’Neal.
But the league owners want to eliminate the mid-level exception and are demanding a hard salary cap, meaning the Celtics would have to place a group of minimum-salaried players around the Big Four - the way the Heat were constructed last season.
So at the team’s golf tournament last week in Weston, Ainge didn’t have much of an update on his roster retooling.
“We’re just getting organized,’’ he said. “This gives us some time to step back and really reevaluate the entire league, European players, worldwide, and anticipate the draft. We’ve been doing all the little things and getting organized in our staff.’’
The Celtics were scouting the recent European Championships in preparation for what is certain to be a frantic free agent signing period similar to what the NFL went through after its lockout concluded. Until then, Celtics fans will have no idea what effect Doc Rivers’s five-year commitment to the team will have on potential free agents. Rivers, who has spent some of his summer in China and Dubai, is also apprehensive about speaking during the lockout.
The only thing Rivers could openly discuss was his coaching staff and the addition of Mike Longabardi to the staff after Lawrence Frank left to coach the Pistons and took assistant Roy Rogers with him.
“Defensively, Longo will be the leader,’’ said Rivers, who will be dealing with his third defensive coordinator in three seasons. “Everyone will have the input they had before.
“If you’ve noticed, I’ve changed that [defensive] position a lot here and in Orlando; I kept looking for the right one. [Tom Thibodeau] was that guy. He loved doing it and it really allows you to coach the team.’’
As for the roster, the Big Four are set to return along with Jermaine O’Neal, Avery Bradley, and Jeff Green. Johnson and Moore remained unsigned, and expectations are low for them this season, so the Celtics desperately need more impact players to compete with the Heat.
“We have seven signed players,’’ Rivers said. “But we still, as a staff, have watched players. We’ve prepped. We’re meeting in a week again as a staff.
“I know some staff have gone on with business as normal, like they have been in the office every day. I made a conscious choice not to do that. The tough part is not knowing the rest of your roster.’’
With the starting five cemented and Green entering his first full season as a Celtic, Rivers promised stability, but that’s all he can assure for now.
“We pretty much know who we are,’’ he said. “We’re not changing much as far as our identity defensively. But there are areas where we want to improve on, on offense and defense, and we’re going to do that. We’ll be ready.’’
Signs are not looking good
With the NBA canceling the first week of preseason games and the start of training camps, the situation appears bleak as far as saving the beginning of the season. According to media reports, the Players Association offered to lower its share of basketball-related income beyond its initial offer of 54 percent, and commissioner David Stern responded by saying it would take well below the 50 percent level to get owners listening.
Despite the dire talk from both sides, negotiations have not become contentious. There are no negotiations scheduled this week because of Rosh Hashanah, but union executive director Billy Hunter will meet with players Tuesday in Miami. The turnout for his Las Vegas meeting was disappointing, and there are perceptions that the players’ unity is losing momentum.
Some premier players, such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade, have remained eerily quiet the past three months.
Meanwhile, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith talked with his NBA counterparts in Las Vegas to encourage them not to decertify, which doesn’t appear close to happening despite powerful agents urging them to do so.
Hunter is waiting on a decision from federal court in New York on whether the lockout violates antitrust laws. Two months ago, the NBA filed two lawsuits against the union, one with the National Labor Relations Board claiming the players were not negotiating in good faith.
The union had until Friday to give a final response before the court deliberates.
Smith discourages decertification because antitrust lawsuits against sports leagues have been unsuccessful, resulting only in settlements, not rulings in favor of the plaintiff.
There is a wide perception that the union is going to have to sacrifice a great deal to procure an agreement. But because of ill feelings that emanated from the 1998 lockout, Hunter and the players are remaining steadfastly committed to their plan of an agreement without a hard salary cap.