Last updated: 2:00pm, July 16th, 2014
NBA head coaches and general managers are on slightly different timelines. The coach’s job is to win on game nights and he can’t do that without NBA ready talent. A GM’s job is sustain said coach’s ability to win for as long as possible, over the course of many seasons, upgrading the roster along the way.
There can be special arrangements of course. Philly’s Brett Brown and Boston’s Brad Stevens were head coaches hired last summer by win-later teams more interested in building culture and developing young talent than adding W’s in the standings. But by and large, coaches want to compete now and they can’t showcase their stuff if they’re forced to rely on guys who are easily bested by their competition.
Which brings us to the first six weeks of Charlotte’s summer. The team built a tremendous amount of momentum last season by adding an All-NBA center and qualifying for the Playoffs. Steve Clifford proved to be the coaching world’s best kept secret – a defensive maestro who garners tremendous respect from his players and peers. The rebranded Hornets were set to enter the offseason with an immensely popular new coat of paint, two first round draft picks, massive cap space and subsequent expectations for improvement.
The franchise’s goals are two-fold: make the Playoffs in their rebrand year but don’t mortgage the farm to do so; the Hornets name change will bring a ton of new fans to the arena, sustained success will keep them there.
How have they done? Let’s take a look at the roster moves in chronological order:
ADDITION: Noah Vonleh, PF/C
First Round | 9th Overall Selection
Charlotte lucked into Detroit’s number nine pick after Cleveland miraculously won the Lottery and pushed the Pistons back a slot. The Hornets wound up taking Indiana PF/C Noah Vonleh, an 18 year old prospect with a tremendous amount of potential. The comps to previous CLT developmental bigs like Alexis Ajinca and Bismack Biyombo are way off, Vonleh enters the league with a much higher skill level and an actual feel for the game.
That’s not to say he’ll help Clifford’s cause immediately, he’s still an 18 (!) year old rookie with some raw mechanics and little knowledge of the NBA game. But if all goes well, the Hornets won’t be selecting this high again for a long while and bigs with Vonleh’s skills rarely escape the Lottery. Great long-term value play for Charlotte.
ROLE: 14-18 minute per game developmental power forward.
REPLACES: Anthony Tolliver, D.J. White
ADDITION: P.J. Hairston, SG
First Round | 26th Overall Selection
Rich Cho swapped late first rounders with Miami for some extra assets and wound up taking former UNC shooting guard P.J. Hairston with the 26th pick. From a skills standpoint, the pick makes a ton of sense. P.J. can stroke it from deep and Charlotte was desperate for three point shooting last season. But Hairston comes with character baggage that he didn’t take long to unpack. Punching a guy during a pickup game is hardly an earth-shattering offense but stringing together the subsequent Street Fighter combo of bone-headed decisions is. For a guy who will likely top out as an eighth or ninth man this season, he had better be worth the distraction.
ROLE: Either 20 minute per game bench shooter or end of bench distraction.
REPLACES: Chris Douglas-Roberts or Jeff Taylor.
SUBTRACTION: Brendan Haywood, C
Traded to Cleveland
He was due over two million in salary and didn’t play a minute last season due to a foot injury so Charlotte salary dumped him to the Cavs, using their 2nd Round pick as a sweetener. Interesting side note: as Mark Deeks reported, Haywood’s amnesty’d contract bumps up to an unguaranteed $10m again next season, giving the Cavs all sorts of interesting cap possibilities should they pursue another marquee free agent.
REPLACED BY: Charlotte still needs to add a third center, TBD.
SUBTRACTION: Josh McRoberts, PF
Unrestricted Free Agent | 4 years, $23 million
This one stung (pun intended). Making just $2.7m last season, McRoberts might’ve been the best value in the league. A smart, multi-talented glue guy, Josh is an elite passer and was often the team’s de facto point guard in the half court last season. As an added bonus, McRoberts hit over a hundred threes to keep the paint open for Big Al. His stats may have looked meager, but there are only a handful of bigs in the league who can do what Josh does and those things were all absolutely vital to Charlotte’s Playoff run.
For his efforts, Miami offered him a full four year midlevel deal at $5.75m per. The Hornets balked and instead committed $7m per over two years to the next guy on our list. Given Josh’s fit with his old team and the subsequent departure of Lebron James from the Heat, both sides may regret not meeting on some sort of 3 year, $21m compromise.
REPLACED BY: No one can replace The Basketball Jesus but his duties will be distributed to both Cody Zeller and…
ADDITION: Marvin Williams, SF/PF
Unrestricted Free Agent | 2 years, $14 million
Unlike McRoberts, who had no history of hitting threes on the reg until last season, Williams has been stretching the floor for years as a combo forward. He’s become a very good defender (though the on/off court numbers don’t scream “lock-down”) and has a rep as a solid lockeroom guy. Don’t surprised if he finishes games this season as Clifford’s lone veteran power forward, stretching the floor without giving up much at the other end.
His two year, $14m deal is certainly on the high side but the years are non-threatening and he gives the Hornets flexibility down the road once Zeller or Vonleh develop. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that McRoberts was a no-name veteran castoff who blossomed under Clifford. Cross your fingers that it happens a second time.
ROLE: 26-30 minute per game part-time starter and full-time finisher.
REPLACES: Josh McRoberts, Anthony Tolliver
ADDITION: Brian Roberts, PG
Unrestricted Free Agent | 2 years, $5.5 million
Here’s the deal: Kemba Walker plays a ton of minutes and rarely gets hurt. So if you’re going to spend a bunch of money on a backup point, it better be for a bigger guard who can suck up minutes playing alongside Walker in the backcourt. The Hornets reportedly went after two guys like that (Shaun Livingston and Kirk Hinrich) but couldn’t get a deal done so turned to Plan B: an inexpensive Kemba-clone.
That’s not a one hundred percent accurate comparison, Roberts is the purer shooter and Kemba is an ankle-breaking lightning bolt but you get the idea. Both are score-first lead guards with slight, frisky builds. At 6’1″, 173, Roberts isn’t going to over-power anyone in the paint and he has tendancy to get bullied fighting through screens but he can score and hit distance buckets, most importantly from the left side of the floor – and we all know who likes camping out down on the left block.
In fact both Roberts and Marvin Williams excel shooting from that side – ironically, the side of the three point line Charlotte struggled from last season considering Al Jefferson’s presence. As @DCWLN pointed out on Twitter, Clifford often cleared that side once the entry pass was made and Al would usually score through double teams anyway. Signing Roberts and Williams gives the Hornets another spacing wrinkle however; a way to punish the league’s better defenses who can diffuse Al & Kemba’s inside/out game.
ROLE: Backup PG, 18-20 minutes a game. Also an insurance policy in case Kemba misses any time.
REPLACES: Luke Ridnour’s corpse.
ADDITION: Lance Stephenson, SG
Unrestricted Free Agent | 3 years, $27 million (third year team option)
In June it was inevitable. By mid-July it was unlikely. CUT TO: LAS VEGAS, The Evening of July 15th. Michael Jordan, Rich Cho and Steve Clifford came to terms both financially and psychologically with Lance Stephenson as their new starting two guard. It was news Charlotte fans around the globe were waiting for (I had tweets from Hornets fan sites in Spain, Japan and Canada queued up in my mentions) and it was finally here. Born Ready is a Hornet.
This is a huge signing for Charlotte, yet another signal that Jordan, Cho and Clifford have finally turned Bob Johnson’s once sinking ship around. Lance is 23 and has played in two consecutive Conference Finals, the last of which he may have been his team’s best player. He led the league in triple doubles last season with five – which I believe surpasses the total number of triple doubles in the Bobcats ten year history – and, as ESPN pointed out, Lance was the youngest guard to average 7 RPG & 4 APG since Magic Johnson did it in ’83.
After McRoberts bolted for Miami, the Hornets were desperate for another playmaker to allow Kemba more off the ball opportunities and steady the second unit as a lead threat. Lance basically played that very role offensively last season for the one-seed Pacers. Unlike Josh, Stephenson is a reliable second or third scorer who can pick up the slack when Kemba has an off night or when opponents key in on Big Al. He’s turnover-prone (1.7 assist to turnover ratio, McRoberts notched a 4 by comparison) and Clifford isn’t going to enjoy watching Lance go off script at the wrong times but some of that may have been due to the Pacers’ moribund offense and personnel. We’ll have a full offensive breakdown of Lance in a future post but in the meantime, rest assured that this is likely a major upgrade from both a talent and fit perspective over Gerald Henderson.
And defensively? Let’s just say that an MKG/Lance/Marvin Williams/Jeff Taylor wing rotation has a chance to the best perimeter D in the league. Lance is strong, has good size and length and we know he won’t back down from any assignment. For better or worse, he basically demanded to guard Lebron in the EC Finals and held his own more often than not. Again, we’ll have the full scouting breakdown of Lance soon but rest assured, he should be great at both ends.
Finally, there’s the character concerns. Some say Lance’s antics cost him $6m per season. I say it saved the Hornets $6m per season. Charlotte’s getting a potential max-salary type player for a massive discount just because he’s an occasional idiot. Cho’s masterful manipulation of Stephenson’s market, combined with the organization’s cohesive recruiting effort led to the Hornets getting a similar and potentially superior player for around $36m less than they offered Gordon Hayward – who’s never even won a Playoff game mind you, much less sniffed a Conference Finals. Thank you Utah!
It’s that last point I find most important. You can argue teams and situations all you want, but if you want to build a winning culture, you gotta bring in guys who’ve won. Who have been there and performed. The advanced stat guys will hate that statement. You can’t boil it down into a metric. But hoops intuition is real. Kemba has the big game gene. MKG has the gene. Lance has the gene. Those guys are bulldogs who want the pressure; the high stakes. Michael Jordan knows a winner when he sees one. This one was Born Ready.
ROLE: Starter, 36-38 minute per game.
REPLACES: Gerald Henderson, Josh McRoberts’ playmaking.
With Stephenson’s signing, the Hornets co-captain and incumbent starter is suddenly the odd man out. The team now has four other guys under contract who play his position either most or part of the time. Some folks on twitter have imagined a move to sixth man for Hendo but I’m not buying it. His game doesn’t really translate to that role and it’s unlikely he’d take the demotion well given that he’s just entering his prime. Gerald’s $6m per year salary is a bargain compared to what the market’s been paying out this summer and he could very well opt out of his player option next July, making his contract an even more attractive expiring deal. Chances are that Henderson will be starting somewhere this coming season and it’s not going to be in Charlotte. Keep an eye on this situation, especially if the Hornets make a play for…
Fellow Blue Devil and former Bull Carlos Boozer was officially amnestied just a few hours after the Lance signing and there have already been a few rumors linking him to Charlotte. If the Hornets hold off on signing Brian Roberts*, they should still have around $4m in cap space (counting Lance, Williams and rookie/roster cap holds) to place an amnesty bid. But I don’t think that will cut it. Atlanta and a few other teams with $8m+ cap space have been rumored as potential suitors. If Charlotte truly wants Carlos in teal next season, they’ll need to dump salary and they’ll need to decide fast. Teams have 48 hours to place a bid. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
*As pointed about by Grantland’s Zach Lowe, Brian Roberts’ contract fits nicely into the Hornets’ bi-annual exception should the team use the remainder of their cap space first. Rookies can and generally do sign for as much as 120% of the rookie scale but only count for 100% of the scale until then.