- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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For a choice that stems from such a simple concept -- the desire to play basketball -- Wilson Chandler's decision to sign with a Chinese team sure complicated issues.
Chandler said he has signed with the Zhejiang Guangsha (aka the Lions) and will head to China on Sept. 10 to begin training. It's much more than just a way to pass the time until the NBA lockout ends. The Chinese Basketball Association declared it would not allow players to opt out of contracts and return to the NBA in the event the American season is salvaged, so a commitment to China is akin to Chandler's waving goodbye to a potential year in the NBA.
"Maybe I'll lose out," Chandler said. "But I think it can be a great experience. I haven't been in any [labor negotiation] meetings. I can't call it. I'm just taking a risk, at the end of the day."
While Chandler's risk-tolerance level might not be the same as others', neither is his opportunity to play in China. The CBA will not allow players currently under NBA contracts to play in its league -- even if those NBA contracts are in limbo at the moment. That stipulation didn't apply to Chandler because he is a free agent.
One factor that led to Chandler's decision was that in July the Lions hired Jim Cleamons, Phil Jackson's longtime assistant with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers and former coach of the Dallas Mavericks, to be the head coach. If Chandler can't play for an NBA team, he can at least play for an NBA coach.
"If there's a lockout and we lose the season, I'll be over there playing, playing for Coach Cleamons," Chandler said. "I never had a close relationship with one of my coaches before. Maybe I can learn how to be a leader."
Chandler wants to grow. At 24, with four NBA seasons under his belt, he's seeking definition in the next stage of a career that has seen him play both shooting guard and small forward, in addition to spending time defending power forwards. His NBA status is in flux -- after heading from New York to Denver in the midseason trade that made Carmelo Anthony a Knick, Chandler will be a restricted free agent when NBA business resumes.
"It was tough," Chandler said of the abrupt shift to Denver after the Melo rumors finally became reality. "We had a lot of young players at the same position. It was kind of hectic. I like the city, I like the team. Great young team. Coach [George] Karl is a great coach. I like the management. Hopefully I'm there."
In theory, Chandler could rejoin the Nuggets for part of the season. Only the CBA finalists were still playing in April last season, so unless the Lions are among the last two battling for the championship, Chandler would be available for the end of the NBA regular season if the usual schedule is followed. As a restricted free agent, the Nuggets could retain Chandler by matching an offer made by another team.
Chandler's agent, Chris Luchey, would not say how much the Chinese contract is worth, but did say it was lower than the $3.1 million qualifying offer the Nuggets made to retain Chandler's rights. And that's one of the complications raised by Chandler's move: If players show that they are willing to play in lower-profile leagues for less money than their NBA salaries, doesn't that hurt the leverage of the union negotiators in their dealings with NBA owners?
"I thought about it," Chandler said. "I can't worry about that. That's up to the union and the owners to negotiate. They're going to negotiate what they negotiate. I don't think it's going to hurt at all."
Another concern is injury. There were reports Monday that Minnesota Timberwolves forward Michael Beasley broke his wrists while playing on a tour in China. What if the same bad luck happened to Chandler while he's there?
"It's a huge concern," Chandler said. "But as long as I take care of my body, I'll be fine. We've got insurance."
To play is to take on risk. Playing in China is an additional risk, since he's effectively wagering that the NBA collective bargaining agreement won't be resolved soon. It keeps getting back to Chandler's desire to play as much organized basketball as possible, while getting paid to do so. That's why he will end up in China, after reports initially had him signing with Olimpia Milano in Italy.
"The Milan opportunity was real strong," Luchey said. "The negative was he was only going to be able to participate in Euroleague games. He was looking at one game a week. The purpose is to play; in China he plays three games a week."
Luchey said China became an option after he was contacted by another Chinese team three weeks ago. The Lions, located in the city of Hangzhou, about an hour from Shanghai, proved to be a better fit. In addition to Cleamons there is also the presence of Earl Clark, who played with the Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic the past two seasons. There is still the matter of how it all fits in with the broader NBA labor issue, as seemingly every overseas move is viewed as either a bargaining chip or a sign of weakness.
"I've had intense conversations with the NBAPA," Luchey said. "We didn't want them to get caught off-guard, with how would it affect the negotiations. [Chandler] didn't want to feel like he was leaving his players high and dry or make a decision that affected the union in a negative way. Their response was they'd be supportive of it."
You're only in position to negotiate if you have options. Chandler used the loophole of his free agency to expand his options to China. Even if that option comes with a greater risk.