Logic seems to dictate that the New Orleans Hornets should do something before Thursday afternoon's NBA trade deadline — the team isn't playing for anything this year and has to go about the business of planting roots for the future. The $64,000 question, though: What exactly should GM Dell Demps do?
More to the point: What can the Hornets front office do, with the sale of the team — perhaps to a California-based ownership group that includes former NBA coach and general manager Mike Dunleavy — reportedly close? Is the deadline about stockpiling assets or clearing up the books as best Demps can?
A season that was likely going to be lost anyway following December's Chris Paul fiasco has been totally doomed by injuries and apocalyptic offense, as a crawl-it-up Hornets squad that's been without Eric Gordon for 40 games, Carl Landry for 18 and Emeka Okafor for 15 has averaged less than one point per possession this season. The only team worse at putting the ball in the hole? The Charlotte Bobcats, who beat the Hornets in New Orleans on Monday night in a ghastly affair.
Despite game work from the likes of point guard Jarrett Jack, 26-year-old Mexican rookie Gustavo Ayon and head coach Monty Williams, the Hornets have struggled to the league's third-worst record through 42 games, and look like a sound bet to stay in the Western Conference's cellar for the duration of the 2011-12 campaign, casting their eyes skyward with a "wait 'til next year" gaze all the while. But what about next year?
Demps aimed to lock up Gordon, the centerpiece of the Paul trade and one of the precious few viable young scoring options at off-guard in today's NBA, with a four-year deal back in January. But the combination of the Hornets' stewards in the league office not approving a max deal for Gordon and the Indiana University product reportedly wanting to see if some other team would max him out led him to eschew an extension in favor of pursuing restricted free agency this offseason.
That could be a good thing for New Orleans in the long run, but it also puts the Hornets in a position where just about nothing is certain — a look at the Hornets' roster reveals relatively few assets worth hanging onto for the long term.
Looking into the future, New Orleans has four players on rookie deals — Ayon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Greivis Vasquez and Xavier Henry — who are under the team's control through the 2014-15 season at a total cost of $33,101,728, according to the ShamSports.com salary database. Ayon and Vasquez have both shown this season a capacity to contribute — the former, in particular, could prove to be a massive frontcourt bargain if the efficient work he's doing in the screen-and-roll and on the defensive end hold up.
On the other side of the coin, Aminu has mostly looked worse on both ends of the floor for New Orleans than he did in his rookie year with the Los Angeles Clippers, but he is putting up strong rebound rates for a swingman at age 21, so there may be something salvageable there. Similarly, Henry hasn't looked especially impressive in 22 games since coming over from the Memphis Grizzlies, but both player and team are still very much figuring out who he is after a right knee injury cost him more than half his rookie season and torn ligaments in his right ankle delayed his New Orleans debut until late January. His combination of size, athleticism, the rumor of a 3-point stroke and outings like his recent 19 points in 24 minutes effort against the defending champion Dallas Mavericks make the 20-year-old an intriguing low-cost option for Demps to nurture.
None of those cheap young things look to be world-beaters, though, which is why it would make sense for Demps to jettison as much veteran talent as he can in search of future draft choices. But while several of the Hornets' vets could help contenders on paper, it's difficult to see many teams lining up to, say, offer New Orleans draft picks and young players for the right to pay Trevor Ariza $15 million for the next two years.
The contracts of veterans Landry, Marco Belinelli and Chris Kaman all come off the books after this season, which could make them more appealing to teams looking for rentals, though it's unlikely that the former two would inflame opposing GMs' interest or return much in trade. (A healthy Landry might be a different story, since frontcourt scoring's always in demand, but he's been out for a month with a PCL strain, although he's reportedly close to return.) While several teams have expressed interest in Kaman as a frontline contributor on the offensive end, rumors that New Orleans could look to buy the big man out if no deal gets struck by the March 15 deadline may make it hard for Demps to get much of value for him.
As it stands now, New Orleans holds two first-round picks in the 2012 NBA draft — its own, which is likely to carry with it quite a few ping-pong balls, and whichever is "the more favorable" between the first-round selections of the Los Angeles Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves, a pick that came over in December as part of the Chris Paul trade. With the Paul-led Clippers battling for a top-four slot in the Western Conference, it always seemed like the Wolves' pick was the prize there ... and then Kevin Love became the best power forward alive, Nikola Pekovic became a center that nobody wanted to play against, Ricky Rubio became America's basketball sweetheart and the Wolves became a playoff contender.
Losing Rubio for the season to an ACL tear, however, figures to make it awful tough for Rick Adelman's squad to continue its postseason push, which could give New Orleans two lottery picks in what has frequently been referred to as a deep 2012 draft. The Hornets don't have a second-round pick this summer, though; they traded 2010 and 2012 second-rounders to the Miami Heat for the rights to Marcus Thornton following the '09 draft, and the Heat flipped the 2012 No. 2 to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of the sign-and-trade package that brought LeBron James to Miami. As a matter of fact, according to the future pick debt chart at RealGM.com, past trades will have New Orleans shelling out second-rounders until 2016.
If Demps can locate a team willing to pay a second-rounder for Landry on the chance that his knee comes back strong enough to provide toughness and scoring down the stretch, he should take it. If he can find one desperate enough for a spot-up 3-point shooter to give up a far-future No. 2 for Belinelli, he should say yes as fast as humanly possible and say three Hail Marys as soon as he gets off the phone.
While Kaman's a significantly more valuable player than Belinelli, and while sources have told SI.com's Sam Amick that New Orleans is considering extending the 29-year-old center's deal, it's hard to imagine the Hornets being able to bring Kaman back at a price he's worth to a team unlikely to be competitive until he's well into his 30s. Unless Kaman's willing to come back at a steep discount — and as a 7-footer who can score in the NBA, why would he be? — it probably makes the most sense for Demps to get whatever draft choices he can for the former Clipper and move on.
Sadly, the most intriguing option for the Hornets might be taken off the table by (what else?) injury. The prospect of Rubio's absence making the Minnesota first-rounder into a lottery pick could open the door to packaging a No. 1 with New Orleans' most onerous contract — the two years and roughly $28 million owed to Okafor, a defensive-minded big who could help any of the myriad contenders that seem to be one frontline rotation piece short — to sweeten the deal.
To be sure, a potential lottery pick would be an awful steep price to pay to send Okafor packing, but doing so would eliminate the last serious financial obligation on Demps' books without totally sacrificing the chance to import an elite talent in the 2012 draft, giving the Hornets' incoming ownership group (which is seriously like five minutes away, the NBA swears — they just called from the car, they're right down the block) as close to a clean start as they'd ever get. It would definitely make business sense; since Okafor figures to have no role on the next competitive iteration of the Hornets, you could argue it would make sense from a roster-building perspective, too.
Okafor's continued absence with a sore left knee, which is apparently undergoing even more tests, likely scuttles that option, though, putting the Hornets back in a holding pattern. Which, of course, is where they've been since George Shinn sold the team in December 2010. That's life over a barrel in the NBA, where for some of the sport's most diehard fans, even the promise of next year always seems out of reach.
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