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Opinion: Four Lessons the Hornets Need to Learn

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As you may have noticed by way of a previously posted letter to the editor, people aren’t exactly thrilled about the direction of the Charlotte Hornets. The team’s big move of the offseason was to let its franchise star, Kemba Walker, slip away. And while there’s an argument to be made that this was a wise move as the team looks to rebuild itself into a contender, the manner in which it was done was wholly unproductive — not to mention deeply unsatisfying.

There’s some time yet to go in the offseason, but the overarching result for the Hornets seems to be that they’re still saddled with burdensome contracts, lacking a superstar and facing another season of obscurity and aimlessness. Surely it’s harder to handle an NBA team than most of us on the outside looking in assume it is. But given that the Hornets have become one of the worst-run organizations in the NBA (if not all of sports), I feel bold enough to suggest some lessons the front office ought to learn, and learn fast.

1 – A Single Second-Round Pick Is Better Than Nothing

Kemba Walker (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Hornets)

Somewhat lost in the shuffle of offseason movement and the headline news of Kemba Walker joining the Boston Celtics was the fact that the Hornets low-balled their greatest player. According to reports, the team offered Walker “significantly less” than a max deal — $160 million over five years, when he was eligible for $221 million. Now as stated above, there’s an argument for not maxing out Walker when the team isn’t close to contention and already has awful contracts on the books. But shorting Walker by $61 million feels borderline insulting, and suggests that Michael Jordan and Co. never really intended to hold onto him. So in that case, why not trade him during the season?

Yes, Walker wound up officially in a sign-and-trade for Terry Rozier, so in a sense the Hornets got a player back. This was basically a salary cap formality though, and frankly the Hornets may have been able to sign Rozier for less money on the open market. Knowing they were going to give Walker a low-ball offer, the Hornets ought to have traded him during the season for something. Teams may not have wanted to give up too much for a point guard who would be free to leave this summer — but even a second-round pick would have been better than nothing (and realistically it would have been far more than that even for a rental).

2 – College Hype Does Not Equal Pro Success

It’s not always possible to tell which college stars will pan out at the professional level. But the Hornets are developing an uncanny knack for drafting (or trading early on for) players who are hyped in college but don’t develop in the NBA. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist… Cody Zeller… Shabazz Napier (traded for the even-more-irrelevant P.J. Hairston)… Frank Kaminsky… Malik Monk… Miles Bridges. These are all players who were NCAA stars, and yet most of them entered the league with plenty of teams and analysts doubting their long-term potential. Zeller, Napier and Kaminsky in particular were widely pegged as potential busts; Kidd-Gilchrist and Monk, while longtime top prospects, undoubtedly skewed their draft stock with a few strong NCAA Tournament performances; and Bridges was simply overhyped (though in fairness lots of people bought in on this one).

The Hornets simply need to learn that not all NCAA All-Americans are built for the pros, and that a strong March Madness doesn’t mean much at the next level.

3 – The League Is Newly Open To Small Markets

Right now, it looks like big markets are reigning in the NBA. U.S. online sportsbook sites have taken the offseason into account, and those of them that are already posting futures odds on the NBA Finals for next season tend to have both L.A. teams and the Philadelphia 76ers among the betting favorites. Meanwhile, Toronto — somewhat sneakily one of the largest markets in the NBA — just won a title. This would all seem to bode ill for Charlotte.

However, looking at what’s actually happened this offseason, it’s hard to come to any conclusion but that the NBA is suddenly wide open. The relative breakup of the Warriors and the spread of stars (for example, Jimmy Butler becoming the lone star in Miami, or Kawhi Leonard joining the Clippers instead of the Lakers) have set the stage for about eight to 12 teams to feel they have a shot at the Finals. What this ought to mean is that for the foreseeable future a team like Charlotte could have a better shot at getting into the mix than it has for the last decade. This should lead the organization to stop acting like it has to cling to mediocrity by overpaying third-tier free agents, and instead build strategically toward contention.

4 – There’s A Reason No One Beats Your Contract Offers

Marvin Williams (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Hornets)

We need look no further than the Terry Rozier contract as the latest example of the Hornets overpaying a player no one else would pay as much for. Rozier is talented, and will have moments — moments — that make him look like he’s worth $58 million over three years. He simply isn’t though, and it’s a good bet that not a single other team in the league believed he was.

The Hornets’ justification will be that they needed a point guard, or that they had to get something for Walker. But there comes a point at which a cheap, replacement-level player is better than one you’re drastically overpaying, and the Hornets have been failing to learn this lesson for years now. As a reminder, the team still owes Nic Batum upwards of $50 million for the next two seasons; it owes Cody Zeller right around $30 million over the same length of time; and Bismack Biyombo, Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams will make a combined $45 million this coming season. Surely all of that money, agreed to years ago, could have been spread out among more affordable players to build a contender — or at least establish flexibility — around Walker?

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