The Darren Collison Conundrum: Does he belong on the Trading Block?

Published: March 1, 2010

I was trying to keep from addressing this until the off-season, but the kid from UCLA just won’t let it rest.  With every amazing comeback he leads, with every poised fourth quarter, with every explosive foray to the hoop, he’s forced the issue.  So here’s the question:

What do you do when your team’s best two players play the same position?

One answer, and the easiest, is to trade one of them this summer.  There’s only 48 minutes available to a point guard, the Hornets have immediate needs in the front court and at the wing.  Both Chris Paul and Darren Collison would demand a major return on the trade market.  The Hornets could move Collison with a bigger contract to pad his outgoing salary, and probably get back a good rebounder or multi-faceted wing.  They could move Paul and would be certain to get a platter of solid talent and draft picks that could shore up a couple positions.

It does sound enticing.  And the grass is always greener, right?

I think it would be a terrible mistake.

The Hornets are currently in the midst of a two-year rebuilding plan.  Sure, they haven’t said as much, because in the NBA, “rebuilding” is a euphemism for nuking the team and starting over.  Regardless, they are trying to rebuild while still staying good enough to keep fan support while they do so.  That subtlety may not have served them well, as it has triggered, once more, a set of myths that make it seem imperative for the team to trade Paul, West, or now, Darren Collison.  It’s a bit like last summer, in fact, when everyone was certain the Hornets would have to trade David West or Chris Paul to get under the tax line.  Surprise!  Not necessary!

So let’s take the time to knock down some of those myths:

Myth 1: The Hornets have no room to breathe under the weight of all their bad contracts

This isn’t even close to true.  Next season all the contracts that were so difficult to work around this season transform from dead weight into valuable assets.  Stojakovic, Peterson, Songaila, and Wright are all expiring.  David West is also essentially expiring  since the last year of his contract is for a piddling $7.5 million and it’s his choice if he comes back at that salary or if he goes for a new contract.  That means the Hornets will have between $30 and $38 million worth of tradeable contracts that are inherently valuable in addition to, or in spite of, the owner’s talent level.

Myth 2: Paul, West, Thornton and Collison are the only tradeable pieces on the team

Due to the answer to Myth 1, there actually is no reason to trade any of them.  In fact, why should the Hornets trade away talent to get more talent, when they can trade old, washed-up veterans for talent?  Houston did it this year, sending out McGrady for picks and Kevin Martin.  Cleveland sent out Ilgauskas for Jamison, and will even get Ilgauskas back.  Dallas did it with Josh Howard for Butler and Haywood.  Why can’t the Hornets try for Igoudala and Dalembert(or even Brand) for Stojakovic and Peterson?  Or make an offer to Golden State to take Biedrin’s and maybe Maggette’s long term deals.  All it takes is two or three franchises deciding to blow it all up(something that happens every year) and the Hornets are primed to capitalize.

Myth 3: Collison and Paul are too small to co-exist together

There may be truth to this on the defensive side of the ball.  Still, having seen the offensive impact these two players can have, I really want the Hornets to give their young backcourt more than a month’s worth of playing time together to figure out if they can work together.    I’d particularly love to see Collison get minutes next to Paul in an Allen Iverson-like shooting guard role.  The kid has shown something akin to the explosion and confidence of Iverson – and is probably already a better shooter.

In an ideal world, I’d like to see Bower give Paul 36 minutes, Collison 34, and Thornton 26 at shooting guard with another 8-10 minutes running as a small-ball small forward.  It is an unconventional lineup, but one that takes advantage of the hand-checking rules and could create havoc. (The idea of that lineup running in transition makes me quiver with excitement)  If their defense, in the end, is so terrible that it overcomes the offensive nightmare this trio can generate, then make the decision on who to move as the last step of the rebuilding process – using the trade to fill in the last few holes.

Myth 4:  The Hornets are in financial difficulty and need to cut salary!

I don’t really agree with the premise that the Hornets are in as tough a situation as everyone claims.  The Hornets have certainly claimed otherwise, and to date, owners that are struggling have been free with complaining about it.  Still, even if it is true,  Collison(and Thornton) are exactly the type of cheap talent the Hornets need to hold onto. Collison will be under contract for the next three years with a salary that tops out at a measly $2.3 million in 2013.  I challenge you to find another young guard not named Marcus Thornton who will tear things up for that kind of salary. (Really.  Maybe Ty Lawson?)

Flight of Fancy

All of that said, there is one push I’d love to see the Hornets’ front office make that does include trading Collison.  Everyone thinks the Hornets cannot be a player in this season’s upcoming free agent bonanza, but with Collison’s emergence as a no-cost potential star, I think they can.  I’d love to see Jeff Bower make a hard sell to Chris Bosh to come and play next to Chris Paul.

Bower could put together an offer of David West(All-Star semi-replacemnt for Bosh/expiring contract), Peterson (expiring contract/returning home to where he was well-loved), and Darren Collison (exciting potential star) to the Raptors in a sign and trade for Bosh.  Hell, he could toss in Julian Wright if it helps.  Then, if the Hornets move Peja at the trade deadline for a starting small forward who can defend and slash, (like Igoudala) suddenly the Hornets have a scary starting lineup.

Yes, I did just refute everything I said above – but I do think that having the opportunity to get a top 2 or 3 talent at a particular position does override a lot of other considerations.  So there!

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