The Hornets had a transcendent superstar for six years, and had one playoff series victory to show for it. Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
About twenty games into his rookie campaign, every Hornets fan knew we had something special in Chris Paul. Coming out of college, Paul was expected to be a very good player, but by no means was he a sure thing- as evidenced by the fact that the point guard starved Atlanta Hawks passed on him for the immortal Marvin Williams. But after a Rookie of the Year campaign, the Hornets brass saw an opportunity to catapault themselves to the top of an aging Western Conference. Just two years later, they got there, but their stay at the top was short lived.
Now the Hornets have been granted a second opportunity to build a championship caliber team that can contend year after year for the rest of this decade and beyond, if Anthony Davis is as good as we all think he will be. They have won the right to take a true game changer in a sport where one player can have an enourmous impact. But even if he lives up to expectations, the Hornets have to put the proper pieces around him, not only to win championships, but just to ensure he stays here into and through his prime.
The name is still the same, but the regime has changed and it is on this current group to look to the past so that they don’t repeat it. Seven years from now, none of us want to read about Davis going to LA or New York. So let’s look back to ensure that we properly move forward.
Mistake #1: Missing in the Draft
I have been on record saying that Chris Paul was part to blame for the Hornets poor drafts during his tenure, and I will stick with that. PART to blame. Chris Paul was so good early on that the Hornets missed out on the opportunity to pair another high pick or two with him the way that Kevin Durant got Russell Westbrook and James Harden in subsequent years. The 2005-06 Hornets should have been one of the three or four worst teams in the league that year, but because of Paul’s brilliance, they almost made the playoffs. Instead of a top 5 pick in a draft that was very top heavy, they had picks 12 and 15 (from Milwaukee).
A top pick could have meant Brandon Roy or Rudy Gay next to him and David West, but instead the Hornets grabbed Hilton Armstrong and Cedric Simmons. This is why I say that it was only part Chris Paul’s fault- he didn’t draft those two. Thabo Sefolosha was a guy the Hornets actually liked, but passed on in favor of Hilton Armstrong. Paul Milsap was actually highly productive in college, but the Hornets took an upside guy in Cedric Simmons instead, and passed on him again in favor of Marcus Vinicius.
It didn’t get any better the following year when the Hornets took Julian Wright despite the fact that they never brought him in for a workout. As we later found out, Wright fell because of the immaturity he showed in interviews, but apparently the word never got back to George Shinn’s mom and pop operation, and the Hornets got stuck with one of the most frustrating players in the league. A world of talent, but no desire to refine it. How nice would Wilson Chandler have looked in teal instead? How about getting Jared Dudley to stretch the defense? Or even a combo guard like Rodney Stuckey?
The 2008 NBA draft is still talked about today, as Hornets fans watched Darrell Arthur (a projected top 15 pick) fall all the way to them at 27, only to see him traded for our old friend “cash considerations.” To this day, Mr. Considerations still hasn’t scored a point or grabbed a rebound. DeAndre Jordan and Omer Asik were on the board as well and went in the next couple of picks. Heck, Mario Chalmers (the guy I personally wanted that year) would have been a nice backup point guard for a team that desperately needed one.
2009 finally saw the Hornets turn it around with the selections of Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton, but by then it was too little, too late. The missed picks in the draft forced the Hornets to overpay veteran talent, and the team was saddled with too many bad contracts to put the talent around Paul that he needed. Eventually, both guys were traded by the new regime in an effort to keep Paul happy. Too little. Too late.
In short, the team reached for guys with “upside” as opposed to guys who were productive in college. They also ignored guys who were standouts in specific areas in favor of “jack-of-all-trades” kind of guys. When you aren’t drafting high, the proven formula is you take a guy who has at least one A+ attribute, even if they are deficient in other areas. A guy like JJ Reddick might never be a starter, but he will be in the league for 12+ years. When you already have your superstar, there is no need to swing for the fences. You take a double and simply don’t risk the strikeout. Look at the guys who panned out- Darren Collison, the definition of a safe pick, solid double if I ever saw one. And Marcus Thornton, a guy with an A+ skill (scoring) who was deficient in other areas.
The Hornets didn’t pay attention to this formula early on in the CP3 years, and consequently struck out too many times to ever recover.
Mistake #2: Rushing the Process
Armed with the Rookie of the Year and an improving David West, the Hornets headed into the 2006 off-season determined to round out their starting lineup. They shipped locker room leader PJ Brown and the often frustrating JR Smith to Chicago for Tyson Chandler, in a move that was simply a stroke of genius. But they followed that up by giving a declining Peja Stojakovic a $64 million deal that would cripple the franchise for years to come. They also handed multi-year contracts that combined to average $8 million per year to two below average players- Bobby Jackson and Rasual Butler. By the end of the summer they were at the cap and destined to stay there for the forseeable future, with a roster that was top heavy, but lacked depth.
The next off-season they knew that they had to add a shooting guard to complete their starting five, but instead of seeking out an athletic guy who could run with CP3, they found another slow spot-up shooter in Morris Peterson. In theory, surrounding Paul with shooters is a nice idea, but good defensive teams were able to stay on shooters or close out aggressively, knowing Mo and Peja couldn’t attack the rim. The result was an offense entirely built around one play- the pick and roll.
2008 was the last straw, as a Hornets team that appeared to be on the verge of a title run, completely disregarded the future in favor of a short term approach. Julian Wright, who was showing signs of coming along at the end of the previous year, was pushed aside in favor of James Posey- who signed for four years, despite the fact that he was on his last legs. When you consider the fact that the aggressive pursuit of Posey was in part the reason they sold their draft pick (Arthur), it was just a disaster. For Posey’s price tag, the Hornets could have kept Arthur, re-signed Birdman (signed for minimum in Denver) and signed Chris Duhon and Mo Evans that summer. Who would you rather have: Posey or Wright, Arthur, Evans, Birdman and Duhon? The lack of youth and depth killed them.
Again, there was simply no effort made to build a roster that was sustainable and that could withstand the injuries that are bound to occur in the NBA. They also didn’t maintain flexibility with the roster or the cap. On the court, the team was not able to play multiple ways because they failed to surround Paul with guys who could create on their own. Off the court, they clogged up their payroll, leaving them little to no chance of improving the roster via trade or free agency.
In the NBA, you cannot rush the process. Becoming a great team takes time, and it often requires adjusting at a moment’s notice. The Hornets quickly saw after the San Antonio series that they would need to take some of the offensive burden off of CP3′s shoulders, but lacked the flexibility to do what they knew needed to be done. Couple that with the fact that they weren’t developing any guys that could remedy the problem in-house, and you see why the Hornets success was short lived.
Mistake #3: Unevenly Allocating Resources
If you just look at the team’s payroll over the CP3 years, you can’t really fault owner George Shinn for not spending. But if you look behind the curtain…….
George Shinn ran a mom and pop organization that tried to do everything on the cheap. As Ryan correctly points out in this article (written in 2010, but seems like a lifetime ago), Shinn spent money for players. What he didn’t spend money on or allocate resources for where the other necessities that are the true foundation of your organization. Under-qualified employees where hired to run parts of the basketball operations, scouting departments where minimized, and nothing was ever done to add first class facilities or luxuries that premier organizations make sure their players, employees, and coaching staffs have at their disposal.
There is nothing wrong with being fiscally responsible when it comes to running a business, but the truth is that it made the Hornets a bit of a laughing stock around the league- and believe me, word gets around to players. When players hear about the conditions of your locker room and that your team’s GM often stays in a Motel 6 on scouting trips, they roll their eyes at the prospect of coming to that team. And why do you think every major Hornet player in the history of the franchise has asked to be traded? Is it just a coincidence, or has this franchise always been viewed a particular way by the players in the league? I have been told more than once it is the latter.
Monty and Dell have already done so much to change this perception, but now it is Tom Benson’s turn to step up to the plate. Maintain or increase front office staff and scouting, build a beautiful new practice facility, and connect with the community in such a way that we never have to worry about “attendance clauses” again. Building a roster is an inexact science, one that can never be mastered, so failings in that area might be somewhat forgiveable- but this is entirely within Benson’s control. Get ‘er Done.
Not since Kevin Garnett’s tenure in Minnesota have we seen such a talented players’ prime years wasted. Chris Paul was a top five player in this league for 3-4 years and finished his tenure with the Hornets with one playoff series victory. That is inexcusable. But maybe it was all just a test- a test we failed, but one that will prepare us for the next test. Let’s call this Hornets AD. This new opportunity is one that simply can not be wasted, and similar mistakes simply can not be repeated.
Because of Davis’s immense talents, the Hornets might never have another pick as high as ten, so they can not afford to strikeout in a year that has an above average amount of good, young players. Moving forward, they have to continue to surround him with quality players, even if they are drafting in the teens and twenties. Just look at Indiana, a three seed this year that doesn’t have a guy drafted higher than ten on their roster. If you draft as well as they did, but start off with Gordon and Davis, you are talking about a dynasty.
Patience is a virtue in free agency, and handing out a multi-year deal to any player over 26 should be met with a chorus of boos. Remember, depth and flexibility is key. And lastly, remember that players come and go, but franchises can maintain success if you create a proper infrastructure. If you can do that, you don’t have to rebuild, you simply reload.
When that happens, other teams start to learn from you, taking notice in a positive way.