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Defending Bower and Looking Ahead
Back in October, I wrote a sunny piece about Jeff Bower, talking about how he’d worked with Byron Scott to build a great team. Though there are a few items in it that make me look a bit silly now(I trashed Denver’s GM) the central theme of the post was about Bower’s ability to juggle the salary cap and put together a young core that could remain together and contend over the next few years.
It’s still not a bad post. The core premise is correct, it’s just that two things occured to break up his plans that I don’t blame Jeff Bower for not predicting: The Economic Downturn, and Tyson Chandler’s disappointing season and the attempted trade it spawned. As a result, I’m going to spend some of this post on how those two items impacted the Hornets, and then briefly hit the financials so we can move on to player evaluations and the off-season.
The Economic Downturn
When I wrote that previous post about Bower, my estimate for next year’s Luxury Tax Line(which is the limit of the Hornet’s salary spending) was around 74-75 million. It was a number that most of the league was predicting, and Bower had designed his team so that by packaging a crappy late round draft pick into a trade that included Mike James(at the time), Peterson, Butler, or Armstrong, he could slip the team easily under that mark. Then the Credit Market froze like Erick Dampier trying to guard a Chris Paul crossover, the Stock Market crashed, Jobs vanished all over the country, and suddenly the NBA wasn’t predicting a 4-5% increase in its income, it was projecting a drop of about 3-4%.
What did that mean to Bower? It meant that he wasn’t looking at one easy move any longer. It meant that he was going to have to ship out about ten million dollars worth of salary before the end of next year if he wanted to get under the Luxury Tax line. That meant he had to ship Peja, West, Chandler, or some combination of other players out. And then a fairly easy answer presented itself:
The Chandler Trade
Chandler’s season had been surprisingly bad. Though he’s been given a pass because of his bad ankle, the fact remains he was healthy through the first two and a half months of the season, and he was producing only 75% of what he produced the previous season. Though it may not seem like a huge difference between 11.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game and 8.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, that difference is, quite simply, huge. NBA games are typically decided by only a couple possessions over the course of the game, and having that much of a dip from a starter can turn an good team into an ordinary one. That loss of production turned Chandler from one of the most efficient players in the game, posting numbers above an average center in a myriad of categories, into a purely ordinary player, rebounding and scoring at – or below – an average level.
Unfortunately, Bower’s gamble in the off-season compounded the problem. Bower had decided to rely on Hilton Armstrong, the team’s second year center, to make a leap in his third season and be able to adequately back up Tyson Chandler in the middle. Not only did that not happen, but Armstrong proved through the season that he’s, at best, a fifth big man in a four big man rotation. So Bower had a choice at mid-season. He could move Tyson Chandler to Oklahoma City for two veteran big men who also happened to have expiring contracts, or he could stand pat and . The scales were weighted thus:
- Tyson was injured – the Hornets knew it was a bad one, and he may not play at better than 80% again all season.(it ended up worse than that)
- Chris Wilcox and Joe Smith may be “B-” big men, but they’d replace Tyson and Hilton, two players playing at a “C+” and an “F” in the rotation.
- When the two player’s salaries expired, he could re-sign Wilcox to a reasonable deal – and go back to his plan of moving Peterson, Butler, Armstrong – or Daniels – with his draft pick, and slide under the Luxury Tax line again.
- Tyson is only 26 years old, and likely to bounce back to his previous “A” level.
- Tyson was extremely popular in the locker room.
I think it’s pretty obvious why he made the choice he did in trying to move Chandler. I also feel, from the moves for Morris Peterson, Daniels, Bonzi Wells and James Posey over the last two years, that Jeff Bower and the Hornets organization(read: George Shinn) feel that their team is right on the cusp of contending for a championship. Those signings aren’t the signings of a team trying to build – they are the signings of a team trying to nudge itself over the top. The trade of Chandler would allow the Hornets to perhaps continue to try to contend, this season. And why not? The rest of the team was nearly the same. The Spurs looked horribly vulnerable. The Nuggets didn’t look as daunting as they do now. The Lakers were missing Bynum, and the Hornets had played them very tough even without Chandler. Why not make the trade and try to win now?
It’s a tempting idea. I don’t agree with the idea that the Hornets were that close to a championship, and didn’t then, feeling the Western Conference Finals would be about our greatest possible ceiling this year, but I can see why the Hornets front office might feel that way. I don’t condemn them for that, nor do I suddenly think Jeff Bower is the worst GM on the planet because of one season that didn’t meet lofty expectation and an unfortunate conjunction of two bad events. The guy still shepherded an 18-win team to a 50-win team in just a few years – and I’m not going to let the “unforgiveable” misses on players like Bass and Chris Andersen and the overlarge Peja contract sway me into ignoring the fact that he traded for Chandler, signed West to his palatable contract, extended(and built the team that enticed) Chris Paul, and brought in Julian Wright and James Posey to form a pretty good team that still won 49 games this year.
So Where Are We Now?
Of course, the trade didn’t happen, so Jeff Bower is still in that sticky situation he was at mid-season.
With Paul’s extension kicking in, the team will have 10 players under contract costing 76 Million dollars. In order to get below the Luxury Tax line AND pick up players to fill out the roster, Bower needs to shed about 10 million dollars in salary. The only way to do that in the off-season is to trade with the teams that are under the Salary Cap: Toronto, Detriot, Memphis, Atlanta, and Minnesota(somewhat). Happily for those teams, and sadly for us, there are probably about eight teams that will also be looking to do the same thing. It becomes a bit of a buyer’s market for them, so Bower has his work cut out for him, but I don’t think it’s all bad.
With my next few posts, I’ll be evaluating the players the Hornets do have under contract and try and establish what I think their market value may be. And no, I don’t think it’s a darkness and doom. The Hornets do have some pieces that are both desirable and trade-able..
From there, I’ll go into what I think the Hornets need to remain contenders, and then I’ll go into rampant trade speculation – always fun – before touching the draft and free agency.