Good Charlotte? The Hornets and the Sliding Scale of NBA Mediocrity

AP Photo/John Raoux

No team knows how hard it is to draft a star with the ninth pick better than the Charlotte Hornets. That’s why the draft slot that produced D.J. Augustin, Kemba Walker, Noah Vonleh, and now Frank Kaminsky became the pivot point for two curious moves last month — one deal made, one rejected — that have rival executives questioning whether Charlotte has any plan beyond chasing the no. 8 seed this season.

In the days before the draft, Charlotte peddled that no. 9 pick and Vonleh to some of the teams ahead of it — an attempt to vault into star range. The Hornets found no takers before ultimately giving up and sending Vonleh to Portland for Nicolas Batum the day before the draft. As the drama unfolded the next night, Boston put Charlotte on the other end of a quantity-for-quality pitch. The Celtics offered four first-round picks for the chance to move up from no. 16 to no. 9: that 16th pick, no. 15 (acquired in a prearranged contingency deal with the Hawks), one unprotected future Brooklyn pick, and a future first-rounder from either the Grizzlies or Timberwolves, per sources familiar with the talks.1

Some members of Charlotte’s front office liked the Boston deal, but Michael Jordan, the team’s owner and ultimate decision-maker, preferred Kaminsky to a pile of first-rounders outside the lottery, per several sources. That’s justifiable, if you think your guy at no. 9 has a chance at stardom. The talent gap between no. 9 and no. 15 is real; ask Boston how it felt to squeeze into the playoffs, get demolished by a Cavs team in chill mode, and watch Justise Winslow fall right where it could have picked had it won three fewer games.

But Kaminsky is not a star, and the players Charlotte could have grabbed with those four picks will almost certainly produce more combined over their careers than Kaminsky. And the Hornets know they cannot afford to screw up the draft. “Almost every top free agent stays with his current team,” says Curtis Polk, the team’s vice-chairman and a longtime member of Jordan’s inner circle. “The best way for us to build is through the draft.”

The team is too good, for now, to expect a pick toward the top of the lottery; the East is so bad that teams outside the elite almost naturally gravitate toward mediocrity. Charlotte would be toast in the West, but it’s hard for the Hornets to bottom out in the East without trading away core young players — a pointless exercise.

There are two ways to escape the netherworld of a single pick in the no. 9 range: move up or get more picks. Boston’s offer wasn’t quite Godfather-level, but it represented a road map for a team that has cycled through an alarming number of young big men — including one, Vonleh, that it flipped for a veteran in Batum who can bolt after this season.

Team higher-ups defend taking Kaminsky over any draft-day trade package — even after acquiring Spencer Hawes, another shooting big man.

“You have two minutes to decide: ‘Do I want to do this trade?’” says Polk, one of five men atop Charlotte’s decision tree.2 “You don’t have a day. You don’t have hours. After all the intelligence we’d done, we were comfortable with Frank. But now you have two minutes to decide if you make this trade, who you’re gonna take at no. 16, or maybe no. 20, and we haven’t been focusing on that range. In fantasy basketball, it sounds great: ‘Oh my god, they could have gotten all those picks.’ But in the real world, I’m not sure it makes us better.”

Adds Rich Cho, the team’s GM: “If it was such a no-brainer for us, why would another team want to do it?”

Polk argues drafting extra players might have cramped Charlotte’s roster space. “We didn’t have enough spots after picking up Spencer Hawes, Jeremy Lamb, and Batum,” Polk says. “Even if someone wants to give me first-round picks, what am I going to do with them?”

Some of this doesn’t quite hold up. Charlotte had 12 players on its roster before picking Kaminsky, meaning it could have drafted two players and still had room to sign either Jeremy Lin or Tyler Hansbrough — both of whom are in Charlotte on great contracts, by the way. A well-prepared front office has enough intel on every first-round prospect to make snap decisions in the heat of the draft. Cho and his staff have the goods to pivot.

Charlotte faced almost the exact same draft-night dilemma a year earlier, when Vonleh unexpectedly fell to no. 9 and another team bugged the Hornets about moving up. The Hornets started that night hoping for Doug McDermott, Cho’s pet choice, and they rejected Chicago’s offer of nos. 16 and 19 for that ninth pick — the same deal Denver ultimately received in exchange for the no. 11 pick, where the Bulls picked McDermott. The Hornets had interest in Rodney Hood, sources say, and could have nabbed him with one of Chicago’s picks.

When Vonleh fell, Jordan concluded the team could not pass him up. Jordan ordered a last-minute vote, and a majority of the draft room favored Vonleh, sources say. Jordan was also pro-Vonleh. (Cho would not discuss the vote, or whether he stuck with McDermott.) Taken together, Charlotte has rejected a total of six first-round picks over two drafts to select Kaminsky and Vonleh.3

An optimist would point out Charlotte turned Vonleh into Batum, who brings the combination of ballhandling and 3-point shooting the Hornets desperately need on the wing; Steve Clifford, the team’s coach, envisions Batum as a quicker version of Hedo Turkoglu from Clifford’s days as an assistant in Orlando. Vonleh was going to ride the bench again, meaning Charlotte may have dealt him at the peak of his trade value. Batum is just 26; he can grow alongside Kemba Walker, Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Kaminsky.

But Batum can be a free agent after this season, meaning the Hornets might have sacrificed Vonleh, still just 19, for a rental.

“Sure, there’s risk,” Cho says. “If Nic were in his thirties, I could see how people might be skeptical. You try to balance winning now with winning later, and we felt trading for Nic gave us the best of both worlds.”

Polk says other teams have gambled more to acquire talented guys on expiring contracts. “It’s standard procedure,” Polk says. “We’ve seen it recently with Enes Kanter, Reggie Jackson, Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Love — all in trades that happened with those players on expiring contracts.”

But those situations are different. Anthony and Williams went to mega-markets they wanted to play in. Love landed on a title contender. Kanter and Jackson were restricted free agents, meaning the teams that acquired them knew they could have them for a half-decade.

Batum is an impending unrestricted free agent on a borderline playoff team, diving into an unprecedented cap frenzy in which two-dozen suitors could offer $20 million per season. Batum’s people have already made noise about how much Batum would like to play in Toronto, a city that appeals to his international roots, per several league sources. He is a flight risk, even though both Cho and Chad Buchanan, the team’s assistant GM, know Batum well from their days in Portland. “We are very comfortable given that Chad and Rich know Nic well,” Polk says.

“We’ve seen over the last few years that players want to be here,” Cho says. “Free agents want to come here.”

The Hornets have Batum’s Bird rights, and the ability to offer him more years and money than anyone else. Charlotte might have to choose between losing Batum or maxing him out, and that looks like a lose-lose — even with another cap spike likely coming in 2017-184 that will make a potential max deal for Batum a little less painful. The Hornets should try like hell to extend Batum now, as the Nuggets just did with Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari, but they don’t have the cap space to offer Batum a raise this season as the carrot to coax him.

They may face the same choice with Al Jefferson, who can barely get through a season on one leg. Lose both, and Charlotte will be back almost where it started when Jordan bought the team.

When Jordan scooped up the Bobcats in 2010, he inherited a capped-out roster trapped in mediocrity. His goal, Polk recalls: get Charlotte into the East’s top four, a process that would take “five or six years.”

Charlotte stripped away Tyson Chandler, Gerald Wallace, Boris Diaw (fat version), Raymond Felton (skinny-ish version), and Stephen Jackson in a painful two-year teardown that culminated in the Anthony Davis lottery — which Charlotte lost. The team was hemorrhaging money, and Jordan decided it was time to veer off one path and lunge onto another. The Hornets splurged on Al Jefferson, and emerged in 2013-14 as a feel-good playoff team behind expert coaching and career seasons from Jefferson, Josh McRoberts, and others.

Charlotte had scraped out a path to relevancy in the weak East. The Hornets would never entice LeBron or even Love in free agency, but perhaps they were appealing enough to attract a B-level free agent — someone like Gordon Hayward, their initial target, or Lance Stephenson. If that worked, the Hornets might transform into the sort of rising 48-win team that could persuade the next B-level free agent. From there, you’re at 50-plus wins, a break or two from playing in the conference finals.

It wasn’t the cleanest process, but building from the middle is messy. Stephenson’s epic one-season disaster in Charlotte revealed how fragile that process really was. The Hornets took on Hawes’s contract just to exorcise all traces of Stephenson, and they view Batum as Stephenson’s replacement. But Stephenson’s contract offered the upside of having him around for three seasons as at least one keystone to build around.

If Batum explodes in Charlotte and decides to stay, the Hornets may end up executing the same plan on a one-year delay: keep the guy brought in from another team, hit some midround draft picks,5 nab sub-star free agents, and work smart trades like the deals that turned Matt Barnes into Jeremy Lamb. If you’re going to build from the middle without a homegrown star, the only way up is to pile together little hits — especially since Charlotte can’t compete with Philly, Boston, or even Phoenix in putting together trade offers for disgruntled stars. Hell, even a team that nails every step of a clearly delineated plan from a pure value perspective, like the current Celtics, can get stuck in the middle just as long as a team with a murkier blueprint. “There’s no magic wand,” Cho says. “You just incrementally piece together good players with upside.”

If Batum and Jefferson leave, Charlotte will be left to search again for that first building-block free agent. And, holy hell, does this roster need at least something that looks like a keystone. Polk’s mention of Deron Williams is instructive. Trading Williams for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, and two first-round picks was the opening salvo in what looks now like a wildly successful rebuilding job for the Jazz. Utah later gobbled up two extra first-rounders from the Warriors, including the pick they used on Hood, and a few weeks earlier had landed Rudy Gobert, the 27th pick in 2013, in a draft-night trade with the Nuggets.

The Hornets never drafted a Williams-level player that could kick-start a rebuild down the road. Three straight top-five picks in the mid-2000s yielded Emeka Okafor, Felton, and Adam Morrison. The draft haul in this second go-round of rebuilding has turned out better, but not well enough. Bismack Biyombo, the no. 7 pick in 2011, is gone — even though the Hornets haven’t used a cent of their midlevel exception this summer.6 This team could use Biyombo’s rim protection; almost every rotation big man, save for Zeller, is a clear minus on defense, and Biyombo signed in Toronto at a good price. The 25-year-old Walker — selected two spots later — shot below 40 percent for the third time in four years and looks like a bottom-12 starting point guard. Houston just re-signed Patrick Beverley, another below-average starting point guard, and who may have just lost his job to Ty Lawson, for the equivalent of Charlotte’s chambered midlevel.

Zeller and Kidd-Gilchrist are solid players, but for now, they don’t project to produce at levels at or above expectations for no. 2 and no. 4 picks; Charlotte has been willing to discuss Zeller in trade talks with several teams, sources say. Vonleh wasn’t ready last season, and the trouble he and Biyombo had adjusting to the NBA has Jordan swinging back toward proven college players. “That was our focus on Frank [Kaminsky],” Polk says. “He’s 22. He’s mature. With a lot of the one-and-done guys, you don’t know what you’re getting.”

Luck plays a huge role in the draft process, but you can’t have this many shots in the top 10 and not come away with even one player who looks like a plus pick. And these are Jordan’s picks in the end, even though his confidantes insist the GOAT wants employees who will push back. “He’s not a dictator,” Polk says. “He likes healthy debate.”

“If you canvass the league,” Cho adds, “pretty much every owner has final say.” He’s right, but there are still degrees of involvement. Few owners are as active as Jordan in the basketball aspects of player-related debates.

Skepticism remains among rival teams about Jordan’s stewardship. There are questions about how much college basketball he watches until a cramming session in the week before the draft. His family increasingly dominates the organization; his brother, Larry, is the team’s director of player personnel, and Jordan last year hired his daughter, Jasmine, to serve as coordinator of basketball operations. She has been in the team’s crowded war room on draft night, along with Estee Portnoy, a marketing executive who more than a decade ago emerged as one of Jordan’s closest allies — and now serves as a full-time Hornets employee.

Agents have at times sidestepped Cho to chat directly with Jordan, according to league sources. The team has turned over almost its entire scouting and analytics departments in the past year. (Though the Hornets recently hired Mike Born, a well-regarded Cho ally from Portland, to a key scouting position.) The relationship between Cho and Clifford has been cool since the team dismissed Rod Higgins, a Jordan ally with whom Clifford felt he could talk hoops, per sources familiar with the matter. Cho, Clifford, and Polk all downplayed the idea of a rift, and the two wings of the organization worked well together this summer to upgrade the team’s shooting across all positions — a goal they shared. Lin especially looks like a nice fit as a drive-and-kick player on a second unit stocked with spot-up guys.

“I would say it’s a good relationship now,” Cho says. “I value his input. We’re not always going to agree, but I wouldn’t expect to.”

“None of these relationships are going to be perfect,” Polk says. “There are bumps in the road. We try to challenge each other.”

The Hornets will have to fight for the no. 8 seed next season, and if they fall short, it could cost Clifford his job; he’s on an expiring contract himself. Clifford has a sterling reputation, and even if next season ends in a worst-case scenario, he’ll land on his feet fast.

But this franchise could use some stability. The Hornets had cobbled together a track toward that coveted top-four status, but when injuries and Stephenson’s implosion derailed them, Charlotte’s front office rushed to repair things with win-now moves that forfeited potential pieces of its future. Maybe it won’t matter. Maybe Vonleh will bust, Batum will live up to a mega-contract that takes him through his prime, and Kaminsky will make everyone forget about the Boston offer.

That’s a lot of uncertainty for a franchise that looked like it had finally found something to hold on to.

Filed Under: NBA, Charlotte Hornets, Michael Jordan