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The Hornets: A Quick Look Back and an Optimistic Look Forward

This morning I awoke with every intention of having breakfast and sitting down with a cup of coffee to write an assessment of the Charlotte Hornet’s draft picks and moves from Thursday night. While I managed to get the first two items crossed off my list, I just couldn’t bring myself to write a post-draft review. That just isn’t enough. This team, and particularly its general manager, deserve much better. The journey the fans of Charlotte basketball have been on the last five years has been, to use an overused term, epic. Last season, the final season for the franchise known as the Charlotte Bobcats, gave us a glimpse as to why the pain and heartache of a true NBA tear-down/rebuild project is worth going through. That momentum has continued, and  the beginning of the first offseason of the newly rechristened Charlotte Hornets has shown us all that, much like Allstate customers, we are in good hands. The front office can be trusted. The plan is working.

For those who don’t know or care to remember, the deconstruction and rebuilding project officially began in the summer of 2010, following the Bobcat’s first ever playoff appearance. Owner Michael Jordan and then General Manager Rod Higgins realized that the roster, as constructed at the time, consisted of overpaid quasi-stars only good enough to be a bottom seed in the playoffs. The front office then proceeded with the talent purge that saw the departures of, among others, Raymond Felton, Tyson Chandler and Gerald Wallace. The 2010-2011 season ended with a record of 34-48. 2011 saw Rod Higgins moved to President of Basketball Operations and General Manager duties turned over to Rich Cho, the man responsible for building the Durant/Westbrook/Harden/Ibaka-led Oklahoma City Thunder teams. Cho continued the talent purge, trading away Stephen Jackson and waiving Boris Diaw, all in a concerted effort to spend two years collecting young talent in the draft and attempting to attract bigger and better free agents. In his first NBA draft as acting GM, Cho selected Kemba Walker and orchestrated a trade that brought in rookie Bismack Biyombo and veteran Corey Maggette. The strike-shortened 2011 season saw the Bobcats put up the worst losing percentage in the history of the league as they went a horrifying 7-59. The summer of 2012 saw Maggette traded to the Detroit Pistons for Ben Gordon and a future first round draft pick as the Bobcats front office continued to quietly collect young talent, draft picks and assets. The draft saw Michael Kidd Gilchrist selected with the 2nd overall pick with Jeff Taylor selected 31st overall. Role players such as Brendan Haywood, Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adriens were brought in on team friendly contracts. The team traded Matt Carroll for Hakim Warrick and later sent Warrick to Orlando for Josh McRoberts. Later that season, then head coach Mike Dunlap was fired and the Bobcats finished with the second worst record in the league at 21-61. That’s when things began to turn around.

On May 21st, 2013, following an impressive grass roots campaign by the fans, Michael Jordan announced the organization had submitted an application to change the name of the franchise back to the Charlotte Hornets. The league announced that the organization would be able to start the 2014-2015 season as the Hornets. In the middle of the rebrand excitement came the announcement that long time NBA assistant coach, and Stan and Jeff Van Gundy prodigy, Steve Clifford had been hired as head coach. Clifford vowed to put a tenacious defensive team on the court in his first season. The draft saw Cody Zeller selected with the 4th overall pick and the team entered the free agency period with a ton of cap space and one item on their agenda: find a star, and find a star they did. Al Jefferson was signed for 3 years and $41 million. Many fans scoffed at the contract, citing Jefferson’s reputation as a poor defender as a bad fit for Coach Clifford’s defensive minded scheme. Both Clifford and Jefferson flourished, however, as Clifford’s coaching saw the team climb from the basement of the league’s defensive rankings to a top 5 defensive team while Jefferson finished the season as an All-NBA Third Team selection. 2013 continued with Kemba Walker and Josh McRoberts showing a lot of growth as players with Cody Zeller and MKG showing flashes of potential. Cho pulled off another cap savvy trade of role players, sending Sessions and Adrien to the Bucks for Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour, and the team continued to gain momentum and confidence in Clifford’s system, finishing with a record of 43-39 and returning to the playoffs for the second time in franchise history. The Bobcats were promptly swept by the Miami Heat and the Bobcats franchise officially came to an end. At the conclusion of the season, the Charlotte Hornets were reborn.

Due to the team making the playoffs the previous season, an old trade forced them to surrender their first round pick to the Chicago Bulls. However, the combination of some other past trades and some fortunate and unlikely ping pong ball bounces in the NBA Draft Lottery saw Charlotte entering the 2014 offseason with the 9th, 24th and 45th overall picks in the draft. The team was entering the draft with nearly $15 million in cap space, three draft picks and all the core players who contributed to the team’s playoff run the previous year. Then came the news that Josh McRoberts had decided to opt out of his contract. While losing an underrated starter who was a key contributor to the team’s success was disappointing news, the front office expressed confidence that he could be resigned, especially with the realization that they now had over $17 million in free salary cap space with which to pursue him and others. In addition, the team’s two biggest stars, Walker and Jefferson, along with all the young talent were under contract for the next season.

That brings us to the present. Entering last Thursday’s NBA Draft, many analysts and fans, myself included, expected the team to target a shooter with their first overall pick. The team’s biggest weakness the previous year was scoring from the perimeter and most people, myself again included, thought Creighton sharp shooter Doug McDermott was the obvious choice at #9. Cho and Clifford had said all along that their main priorities were to get bigger, however, and they used their first pick on Indiana power forward Noah Vonleh. Thought by many to be more of a project player, Vonleh was projected to go between the 4th and 7th pick and is widely considered to be a steal for the Hornets at #9. Compared by some experts to a young Chris Bosh, Vonleh stands 6’10” and 240 pounds with a massive 7’5” wingspan. He averaged 11 points and 9 rebounds as a freshman at Indiana last year while shooting 52 percent from the field and an impressive 49 percent from three point range. Vonleh immediately becomes a fascinating option to pair with Al Jefferson as his production from outside opens up the inside-out game for Jefferson to get more looks in the post. His arrival also creates some friendly competition with the other young Indiana standout at the power forward position. Vonleh and Cody Zeller should push each other to get better as they both hope to win the starting job and show the front office that they don’t need to worry about bringing back Josh McRoberts.

The Hornets then surprised everyone by selecting UConn point guard Shabazz Napier with the 24th pick. For a brief few minutes the Hornets fans were left split over this selection with many loving the idea of a Napier/Walker combination backcourt while others felt it was another player with the exact same size and skillset as Walker. Before the fans could even come to a verdict, however, the news broke that Napier had just been traded to the Miami Heat for the 26th and 55th selection in the draft as well as a future second rounder. The fans were again split, many shocked and appalled that we would lend a helping hand to the hated South Beach rivals, as Napier was widely known to be the favorite incoming rookie of Lebron James. With the speculation being that the Heat were using the pick to help entice James and the other Miami free agents to return on team friendly contracts, many Hornets fans were understandably upset over the trade. Others, myself included, felt it was a more than worthwhile risk for what we received in return and, in my opinion, that train of thought was quickly proven to be right.

With the 26th pick the Heat selected, and promptly traded to the Hornets, former UNC and NBA Developmental League sharp shooter PJ Hairston. The 6’5”, 228 pound wingman averaged 22 points per game in the D-League last year while shooting 45% from the field and 36% from NBA 3 point range, all while facing stiffer competition than what he faced in college. Marred by off the court issues and questions about his maturity, Hairston was a bit of a wildcard, projected to go anywhere from the 10th pick to the top of the 2nd round. I was personally thrilled with the selection, as he was the player I was hoping to land with the 24th pick.  I feel he offers tremendous value that deep in the 1st round, addresses a serious need for perimeter scoring and is setup for stability in Clifford’s system surrounded by talented veterans and young up-and-comers on a team owned by the greatest player of all time, but I digress.

In what proved to be another brilliant salary cap saving move, the Hornets then selected Dwight Powell, the 6’10” 240 pound power forward from Stanford but immediately traded him and Brendan Haywood to the Cleveland Cavaliers for small forward Alonzo Gee, a move which saved another $2 million against the salary cap. In addition, Gee’s $3 million contract for the coming season is nonguaranteed and it is widely believed that he will be released, meaning Charlotte would go into the summer’s free agency period with over $19 million in salary cap space. Looking to the future, both Bismack Biyombo and Gary Neal’s contracts come off the books next year, saving an additional $6 million. The Hornets also selected Semaj Christon, the 6’3” point guard from Xavier with the 55th pick in the draft, and then promptly traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder for cash considerations. So while many fans were upset that the Hornets’ front office would orchestrate a trade with the Miami Heat, the end result was the Heat getting a point guard they desperately wanted and the Hornets getting the sharp shooting wingman they desperately needed while freeing up an extra $2 million in cap space and securing an extra 2nd round pick for next season. On a personal note, I’d also like to point out to the upset Hornets fans that it has been an extremely long time since the Miami Heat showed that they had any idea how to correctly use a point guard in their system, making the risk of the trade that much more worth it.

So what does this mean for the future of the franchise? One word: FLEXIBILTY. The Hornets have considerable trade assets and a ton of cap space. The only unaddressed position, according to Coach Clifford, is backup point guard. Outside of that minimum expense they have the flexibility to go in any direction they like. They can chase a free agent star like Lebron James or Carmelo Anthony. They could choose to target a key contributor like Trevor Ariza, Eric Bledsoe, Gordon Hayward, Lance Stephenson or Luol Deng. They could choose to bring back Josh McRoberts and save their money for a big time Kemba Walker extension or another free agent signing for next season. They could look for big time sign and trade deals for other stars, such as Kevin Love, using the assets and players currently on the roster (Jefferson is rumored to be the only untouchable player on the roster). The front office has a wonderful problem on their hands when it comes to choosing the direction of the franchise.

As it stands, the team boasts a new brand that has created quite a fan buzz (pardon the pun). They have a newly branded arena and a purple and teal throwback color scheme that is sure to rival the popularity of the Charlotte Hornets of old. They have an owner, VP and GM who have put them in a position for success now and in the future. They have a head coach who far exceeded expectations in his first season and finished 4th in the Coach of the Year voting. They have 2 young stars, an impressive group of youngsters and rookies and the flexibility to go after any player or address any need they deem important. They have the support of the local fans and community, including fans who couldn’t be bothered with the Bobcats but are thrilled to be cheering for the Hornets again. In my admittedly biased opinion, they have one of the brightest futures of any franchise in the NBA at this moment. This could prove to be one of the most significant off seasons in the history of the franchise. There is no doubt that Hornets fans everywhere are holding their breath as we count down to the start of free agency, beginning a mere two days from now on July 1st. Regardless of the direction the team chooses, the journey to get here has been long and tedious but we, as fans, are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. That light began to shine last season and has grown brighter the farther we’ve gone. If at any point along this journey you begin to doubt those leading the way, just remember what I’ve said since June 14th, 2011:

 

#InChoWeTrust

 

Thomas Wiggins

06/28/14

 

 

 

 

 

 

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