NBA Season Preview: New Orleans Hornets

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Last season: 37-45, after Byron Scott started the season and was bounced for Jeff Bower, they still finished out of the playoffs. Of course they played half the season without Chris Paul and right now he is everything to that franchise.

Head Coach: Monty Williams comes over from being an assistant in Portland and steps into a tough spot as a first year, man. On the court he’s asked to get blood from a stone (the Hornet bench, the starters will be pretty good). Also, he was brought in to try and form a tight relationship with CP3, to help keep him around. We’ll see how that plays out.

You can’t really mention Williams without talking about new GM Dell Demps. Demps is a well-respected guy around the league who is going to have to find a way to get talent in the door while not going into luxury tax range. Unless the new owner, should he ever arrive, change the rules.

Key Departures: Darren Collison, who came into his own when Bower trusted him in a way Byron Scott never did. The Hornets needed to trade Collison — he was the one guy they could move that would bring in talent to put around Paul at other positions (Collison just would have backed him up). Whether they got enough for that trade chip is up for discussion.

James Posey and his oversized contract were shipped out to save money, tied to the Collison trade. Mo Peterson was shipped out mostly to save money, Julian Wright went out to bring in some depth at guard.

Key Additions: Trevor Ariza, who is now Chris Paul’s wingman and should bring some better defense on the perimeter to a team that could use it. Marco Belinelli and Mustafa Shakur will try to prove they can be quality players off the bench. Aaron Gray, Craig Brackins and Quincy Pondexter also all come over, but may not play much.

Best case scenario: Everyone stays healthy, the bench comes together well enough and they make it back into the playoffs in the West.

For that to happen: Distractions and health issues can’t get in the way of a decent roster, and the bench needs to come togehter.

I never trust teams that that are undergoing an ownership change, and as we passed along this morning the sale of the Hornets is still alive and well. This sale could be good for the team and franchise long term — Gary Chouest could come in and invest in players and really turn the feel of the franchise around. But that has yet to be proven. Or for him to even get the team yet.

And ownership changes will just fuel the CP3 trade  rumors and distractions — with New York papers fanning the embers of whatever is there. Same is true if and when this team hits a rough patch this season (everyone does). Paul is not talking publicly about going, he has done the right things lately, but this fire will not die out this season. The team will have to learn to play and ignore all the talk.

On the court, this team could be pretty good. The starting five is good — Paul is a game changer, one of the elite guys in the league. Marcus Thornton stepped up last season and showed he can play the two, Ariza will bring defense and better energy that Peja has in years, David West remains a quality four and Emeka Okafor is solid at the five. That’s a nice group that can run or play in half court.

For this team to really make the playoffs, it will be about the bench — Peja Stojakovic is your designated gunner off the pine, but he has not been a great gunner in recent years. (Also, as he is in the last year of a big deal, look for his name to come up in a lot of trade talks.) Mustafa Shakur will be CP3’s backup and could be another D-League success story, but he’s going to be challenged to prove it. Marco Belinilli is going to have to play better. Then it’s guys like Aaron Gray that are hard for coaches to trust.

More likely the Hornets will: Be a good team that is a bit inconsistent — they’ll go out and beat the Lakers one night then drop one to the Clippers the next because their bench gets outplayed. The 54-point preseason loss to the Magic may typify that — the Hornets are not that bad but they don’t have the depth of talent to take a night off. They’ll most likely be in the mix but just miss out on a playoff spot.

This is not a bad team, in fact it has the makings of a good team in it. If it can get there some day comes back to the new brain trust of Williams and Demps, and beyond that if they get new ownership that gives them more latitude. More needs to be done to build this team, the question is will the new front office can do it and if the owner gives them the latitude to do it.

Prediction: 45 wins, leaving them 9th or 10th in the West. Then the real Chris Paul speculation will get started

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.