PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:
Will the Hornets’ short-term gains justify their long-term costs?
The most notable move of the Hornets’ offseason was one they didn’t even make.
Justise Winslow fell to Charlotte’s No. 9 draft pick, and the Celtics reportedly offered at least three certain first-round picks (including a very valuable unprotected Brooklyn first-rounder) to move up. Boston general manager Danny Ainge later expressed regret about how many assets he offered, but the Hornets declined anyway. They didn’t even take Winslow, who seemed to fall due more to circumstance than a hidden flaw.
Charlotte picked Frank Kaminsky – a polished four-year college player considered by many to be the draft’s most NBA-ready player.
The Hornets want to win. Now.
That was also evident in their two evident in their two major offseason trades – Lance Stephenson to the Clippers for Spencer Hawes and the since-flipped Matt Barnes, Noah Vonleh and Gerald Henderson to the Trail Blazers for Nicolas Batum.
Stephenson was by far the most talented and by far the most erratic player in his deal, and Charlotte clearly had enough his antics. Hawes is the safer, lower-upside contributor. Though Hawes will probably mostly play center, Charlotte surely hopes he can duplicate some of the floor-spacing/passing Josh McRoberts provided next to Al Jefferson in 2013-14.
The Hornets have been chasing a distributing wing like Batum for a while, signing Gordon Hayward to an offer sheet and signing Stephenson. The Jazz matched Hayward’s deal, and Stephenson busted in Charlotte. But the talented Batum, if he rebounds from an uncharacteristically poor shooting season, should help.
He’ll come at a cost, though. Vonleh was the third-youngest player in his draft class (behind Bruno Caboclo and Aaron Gordon), and I still like his potential. He’s under contract for three more years and then headed toward restricted free agency. Batum, on the other hand, will become an unrestricted free agent next summer. There are already reports, though Batum denies them, of Batum liking the Raptors. Regardless of whether he’ll end up in Toronto, more teams than ever will have major cap space. He’ll get offers. The Hornets gave up a lot for a potential rental.
But patience was clearly waning in Charlotte, where the franchise hasn’t won a playoff game since emerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Charlotte has reached the postseason just twice in that span, including 2014’s unexpected run. That breakthrough season was followed by last year’s 33-49 disappointment – leading to this re-commitment to the present.
To be fair, the Hornets haven’t completely sold out their future. Not even close. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (21), Cody Zeller (22) and Kemba Walker (25) remain, and Charlotte traded for Jeremy Lamb (23). The Hornets have all their future first-round picks, too.
They won’t be stuck.
It’s just that with Vonleh, a couple first-round rookies and a couple extra picks on the way, they could have been exceptionally well-positioned for a few years from now.
Instead, they’re focused on this season – which could totally work out fine.
Count me among the many detractors when they signed Al Jefferson two years ago. I thought they were too far from playoff contention to tie up money to a veteran like that. Well, Jefferson propelled them to 43 wins and a playoff berth. I was totally wrong.
I didn’t like their approach this offseason, either. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they prove me wrong once again. I trust Steve Clifford to tighten Charlotte’s defense after last year’s regression, and the front office clearly values a player like Batum. He could make a world of difference to the Hornets’ lethargic offense. It won’t take much in the East to reach the playoffs.
There’s value in winning immediately rather than building for the future. Players are happier, more willing to re-sign. Their trade value increases. Winning doesn’t have to be a late step in rebuilding. It can be the first.
The stakes are higher now, though.
The opportunity cost to assemble this roster was much bigger than the cap space and implicit draft positioning sacrificed to bring aboard Jefferson. Plus, Charlotte has tasted the playoffs recently.
The Hornets need to make the playoffs to justify this strategy and win a playoff game to really feel good about it. This year, probably. If they come close and re-sign Batum and Jefferson, they can put it off another year – especially if Vonleh and Winslow flop and Brooklyn flourishes the years its pick would have been conveyed.
That’s a lot of reason to second-guess this summer, though. And for what? A roster that, at its best, can win a playoff series?
That might be all the Hornets want, and if so, more power to them. It doesn’t have to be championship or bust.
But they sure gave up a lot for only a decent chance of meeting that modest goal.