On Thursday morning, the Charlotte Hornets and their fans were riding high. The team had just welcomed Steve Clifford back to the bench after he’d been sidelined for more than a month by severe headaches spurred by sleep deprivation, and celebrated their head coach’s return by (almost literally) pummeling the Washington Wizards behind a franchise-record 77-point first half before finishing with 133, the highest-scoring performance by any Charlotte team in more than 11 years.
Come Friday morning, though, Hornets fans got one hell of a buzzkill, courtesy of ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski: Charlotte’s reportedly making point guard Kemba Walker available in trade talks.
You might be asking: Why, exactly, would Hornets owner Michael Jordan and general manager Rich Cho want to ship out a 27-year-old point guard in his prime, who’s one year removed from an All-Star berth, who’s an elite ball-handler and pick-and-roll playmaker that leads the Hornets in both points and assists, and who’s under contract through the end of next season at a steal of a rate (just $12 million for 2018-19) that makes him arguably the biggest bargain in the NBA? Well, it’s because he’s good, cheap and secure … and because you need to dangle an enticing asset if you’re hoping to clean up a mess.
In the summer of 2016, the Hornets were coming off their best season since dawn of the new millennium, a campaign in which they went 48-34, made the playoffs for the second time in three years, and pushed a tough Miami Heat team to seven games in the first round. They’d found some magic in the playmaking partnership of Walker, who had taken a quantum leap forward as a 3-point shooter that helped unlock an offensive game predicated on snare-drum-tight handles and a lightning first step, and Nicolas Batum, imported from the Portland Trail Blazers one year earlier.
The French swingman had proven a hand-in-glove fit for a team in dire need of a facilitator on the wing, but he was about to enter unrestricted free agency at the same time as two other important pieces: Marvin Williams, a versatile stretch power forward vital to unlocking Charlotte’s four-out offense, and Jeremy Lin, a starting lead guard masquerading as a sixth man who ensured Clifford could keep an attacking pick-and-roll star in the game at all times. Jordan and Cho elected to let Lin walk while ponying up to keep both Batum (on a five-year, $120 million deal) and Williams (four years, $54.5 million).
Once those contracts were tacked onto a salary structure that already included a $52 million extension for defensively gifted but offensively stunted wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist … and followed by another $56 million for plus-minus god center Cody Zeller … and supplemented by a trade to add the remaining $47 million owed to Dwight Howard over this season and next … the Hornets had all of a sudden become one of the 10 most expensive teams in the NBA, and are slated to shell out just as much next year. Paying a premium for a contender is one thing, but the Hornets missed the playoffs last season and, as fun as Wednesday night’s white-washing of the Wiz was, it only bumped the Hornets up to 18-25, four games out of the East’s eighth and final playoff spot.
Charlotte’s defense has remained stout — the Hornets enter Friday’s action tied for ninth out of 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession — but what was once an egalitarian, shooting-heavy offense (ninth in offensive efficiency during the ’15-’16 season) has regressed, ranking 17th on that end thus far this season. One major issue: a lack of shooting, with the Hornets ranking 19th in the league in 3-point accuracy, 24th in 3-point attempts per game, 25th in 3-pointers made, and 26th in the percentage of their points that come from beyond the arc. Barring significant internal development from a number of sources — a breakout from 2017 lottery pick Malik Monk could solve some problems, but he’s a 19-year-old rookie who’s going to be searching for a while — this is the team Cho built, and even with the middle of the East in a state of flux, it’s tough to see the Hornets breaking through with this roster mix, this year or next. Nearly $120 million is an awful lot to spend for one lottery team. It’s an unthinkable amount to spend on two.
And so, Woj reports that Hornets managment — and not Clifford, according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer — hopes to use a spoonful of sugar (a very good point guard in his prime) to get a suitor to swallow something tough (paying some of their underwhelming other dudes for the next two to four years, which Woj reports has been a non-starter when Batum, Williams, Howard and MKG have been floated on their own). They do so knowing that it’ll mean taking their own bitter medicine: beginning a full-tilt teardown-and-rebuild after sending away one of the most popular players in the franchise’s recent history.
To begin demolition, the Hornets will need to find a taker before the Feb. 8 trade deadline; Woj reports that Charlotte’s looking for “a good, young player or a first-round draft pick” for Walker. As good as Walker is, that might be tough. Among teams with cap space to absorb any money, only the Indiana Pacers profile as a potential match that could be looking to fortify their playoff positioning with an upgrade at the point (no shade, Darren Collison).
Several other postseason-caliber squads loom as intriguing potential matches: the Cleveland Cavaliers, who seem very primed to make a big move, even with Isaiah Thomas back in the fold; the Detroit Pistons, who haven’t gotten what they need from Reggie Jackson; the New Orleans Pelicans, rolling with Rajon Rondo and Jameer Nelson; the Denver Nuggets, whose young point guards have waxed and waned all season (and who probably regret shedding Nelson just before the start of the campaign); the San Antonio Spurs, who continue to face KawhiLeonard uncertainty and could use an immediate infusion of prime playmaking rather than relying on the aging Tony Parker and the green Dejounte Murray. But it’s tough to see any of those teams jumping at the chance to take on significant salary without sending whatever multi-year albatross they’ve got back, which a post-Kemba rebuilding Hornets won’t want, or involving a third team, who’d likely want a taste of whatever young talent or draft assets Charlotte’s angling for as the cost of greasing the skids. These things are complicated.
As we learn every year, though, that doesn’t mean they’re impossible. Where there’s a will in the NBA, there’s often a way, and it sounds like in Charlotte, there’s a will to move on from a player who struggled through some of the darkest on-court times any franchise has ever had to turn himself into an All-Star. That’s a bummer for Hornets backers, but it could mean something awfully exciting on the horizon for fans in a few other NBA cities as the deadline approaches.
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