Fresh start, and a bright future in New Orleans, right? There's that new owner Tom Benson, ready to make it so that opposing teams know exactly who they're negotiating with when they pick up the phone. There's Chris Kaman, done for the season, off the books in the summer. Plenty of cap space, especially once the team passes on bringing back Carl Landry (coach Monty Williams: "We've been evaluating older guys, even when they're not on the floor."), and possibly uses the amnesty clause on big man Emeka Okafor. And the draft picks — O, the draft picks. Slated to mathematically rank third and 10th entering mid-May's draft lottery, with a few games left to lose go in the season.
The hope in New Orleans, we're assuming, is that general manager Dell Demps quickly takes to rebuilding with actual and available cash on hand, filling his roster with free agents and possibly using a draft pick to finagle some sort of rotation-aiding deal. Should Eric Gordon split, the team could see a cap space number in the mid-$30 million range, enough to pull in all sorts of superstar goodness. After one year in the abyss, the Hornets would be right back in that Western Conference playoff bracket.
Possibly. There are other options, though. And fans of the team should not be upset if Demps and Benson don't race out to lock down every in-prime star that accepts their pen and paper. And until the rebuilding plan reveals itself, the team's fans should revel in the organization's true franchise cornerstone in coach Monty Williams.
That's not something fans want to hear, but it's an attitude that needs to be embraced. Gordon will play single-digit games this year.
Landry played about half a game for half the season, and Kaman will end up working in exactly half of the team's 66 contests. And yet Williams has somehow squeezed 20 (and counting; though fans of more ping pong balls hope this isn't the case as the Hornets fight loss-for-loss with the Sacramento Kings) wins out of the Hornets. The offense, it's been awful. But to develop a mediocre defensive team (the Hornets are 14th in defensive efficiency, seemingly made up entirely of skinny wing players) out of a roster built to sit out an entire season?
This is your franchise guy.
And with the way the NBA's rookie salary structure is set up, teams aren't allowed the ability to hire a series of youngsters in the free-agent market. If the Hornets want to make life interesting for Brook Lopez or Nic Batum (whom Williams worked with for two years while he was an assistant with the Portland Trail Blazers) this offseason, fine. But building around two likely lottery picks while filling up your cap with players that are a few years older and cost three times as much? I'm not saying you slough off the idea and give up on the 2012 market, but you do attempt to think on your feet.
That includes the handling of Okafor. The former Rookie of the Year is due just under a combined $28 million over the next two seasons, and though he is a competent performer in the middle, he would seem to be a perfect candidate for the amnesty clause that the NBA established last year. The Hornets would still have to pay Okafor's salary if the team elects to use it on him, but his numbers would come off the team's cap figure. An easy call, right?
I'm not so sure. This is a competent center, in his prime. He's clearly overpaid, but unless the opportunity presents itself for the Hornets to make a clear upgrade with the cap space taken from Okafor's departure, why jump the gun? Especially when you have another chance to use the provision to knock off the last year of Emeka's deal in the summer of 2013, or curtailing Trevor Ariza's $7.7 million player option around the same time?
There is a very good chance that the franchise could strike quickly, adding a vet in the offseason to go along with a franchise-type in the lottery, and move up the ranks accordingly. But there is just as good a chance that the Hornets could adapt on the fly, given the ever-changing options, and the landscape potentially created by a few stray ping pong balls. Remember, it was the Los Angeles Clippers' pick that the Cleveland Cavaliers used up to grab Kyrie Irving last June, in an incredibly lucky draw for a terribly unlucky Cavs franchise. Strange things can happen even given limited probability (the would-be 10th selection, referenced above, is the Minnesota Timberwolves' pick), and the possibility of going very, very young might preclude NOLA from going after every talented guy with a qualifying offer to top.
It wouldn't be because the team is going cheap. That's our hope, at least. The hope that Benson is willing to spend for a winner.
It would be because the team is going smart. Rebuilding takes time, and sometimes Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva aren't the answers. Hopefully the fans, Benson, Demps and Williams understand this, as they prepare to pounce.
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