The following is a response to Chris Bernucca's article entitled Stern & NBA have made a mess of Hornets. It appeared yesterday on Chris Sheridan's (formerly of ESPN) new NBA website. This response was co-authored by Mason Ginsberg of Hornets247 and myself. It was emailed directly to Mr. Sheridan, who, to his credit, messaged both Mason and myself regarding negative comments we had made about the article on Twitter. It will be posted here and on 247 for everyone to read.
We appreciate your interest in our issues with Mr. Bernucca's article on David Stern and the Hornets. Below you will find the specific problems we have with his article and the reasoning behind our concerns. We hope you and Mr. Bernucca will find the information useful in future discussions involving the Hornets. We will quote Mr. Bernucca's article in bold.
"When it comes to running franchises, David Stern is doing a great impersonation of Ted Stepien. Stepien owned the Cleveland Cavaliers in the early 1980s and spent most of his time firing coaches, overpaying mediocre players and trading away so many draft picks that the NBA instituted the "Ted Stepien Rule," which now prevents teams from trading first-round picks in consecutive years."
Has David Stern done any of those things? Where is the comparison? Since the NBA took ownership of the Hornets, zero coaches have been fired, zero players have been overpaid for a long-term deal and the only draft pick that was traded was a second round pick for Xavier Henry, a former lottery pick with only half of a season of NBA experience. How are the two situations similar in any way?
"It vetoed a trade of superstar Chris Paul that would have netted four rotation players and a first-round pick while making the Hornets a legitimate playoff contender. Then it approved a second trade of Paul that landed empty assets - highlighted by an unsigned Eric Gordon - that could mire the Hornets in mediocrity for years to come."
If by legitimate playoff contender, you mean "habitual first round playoff exits", then sure. The Lakers/Rockets trade was basically just a way to delay the inevitable. The Hornets very well could have fought for a playoff spot for the next 3-5 years with a Martin-Scola-Odom lineup. More importantly, however, they would have also likely been stuck in the 6-11 seed range. With so many pricey veteran contracts and no top-10 draft picks, it would be incredibly difficult to substantially improve the team with core players all on the wrong side of 30 after just one season. That sounds to us to be the definition of a move that would "mire the Hornets in mediocrity," as opposed to a 23 year old budding star, a 21 year old unproven lottery pick, and a large expiring contract. Those are components of a rebuilding project on the court, not on balance sheets.
Furthermore, to call the return in the Clippers' trade "empty assets" is absurd. Does the trade look less inspiring now than the day it was completed? Sure; the Minnesota 1st round pick is looking like it will be closer to 15th than 5th, Aminu has struggled, Gordon has been hurt, and Kaman hasn't been dealt yet. However, judging this deal based on two months of basketball is nonsensical. This move was about the future of this franchise, as all rebuilding moves are. The true results of this trade will not be determined for years to come. Stamping it as a failure based on half a season of injury-plagued basketball misses the point.
"The Hornets are at the bottom of the league in both performance and attendance as they continue to ask a dispassionate fan base to be patient. At the same time, they have been somewhat less than forthcoming about the state of their team and players."
The Hornets are at the bottom of the league in neither. They're 27th in attendance per game and 19th in terms of percentage of the arena filled; besides, the team's attendance historically is better toward the end of the year. Per Joe Gerrity, writer at Hornets247.com and operator of the the Hornets' most popular forum (HornetsReport.com), fans are impressively optimistic about the team, given the circumstances. What is the evidence that the team's fan base is dispassionate? Accusing a fan base of lacking passion has nothing to do with the size of the fan base and everything to do with how dedicated those fans are, and we therefore urge you to reconsider that accusation. The Hornets sold more tickets during the lockout than any other team in the league. We question the branding of the fan base as "dispassionate" when a team in one of the smallest markets in the NBA sold more tickets than any other team, at a time when there was significant doubt as to whether or not an NBA season would even take place.
"Had the first deal been approved, the Hornets would have landed four proven players in Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Lamar Odom and Goran Dragic, plus a first-round pick from Houston."
Again, for what benefit? A decent team for now that would ultimately regress to poor in 2-3 years, with no positive future in sight thanks to more mediocre draft picks? The best - not to mention second youngest - player in the rumored deal is the 29 year old Kevin Martin. Martin is a great player, but not someone you build a team around as Sacramento and Houston have already discovered. Also, at 29, he is not helpful for a team that is going through a rebuilding phase, taking up valuable minutes and cap space for a team that should be developing young talent. The Lakers trade would have sentenced the Hornets to three years as a perpetual 6-10 seed, the worst kind of NBA purgatory. The Hornets would be too bad to seriously challenge the upper echelon of the Western Conference, and too good to obtain any meaningful talent through the draft. New Orleans is not a go-to destination for free agents, and has had to overpay to lure veterans time and time again. This is not the way to build a successful franchise.
"But what may be attractive on paper forces you to look away when it is on full display. Instead of being in position to seriously contend for a playoff spot, the Hornets are by far the worst team in the Western Conference and headed for 50-plus losses in a 66-game season."
Why should the Hornets' main focus be to "seriously contend for a playoff spot?" If contending for a playoff spot was synonymous with contending for a championship, that would be one thing, but in the NBA, that is clearly not the case. Instead, the Hornets chose to acquire an overall younger package which would be worse now, with the chance to be much better later. So, even if the Hornets became "by far the worst team in the western conference" in the short term (which it absolutely would not be if not for the many injuries that the team has suffered), it was a move made with a long-term vision, not a short-sighted one that may have preferred the vetoed deal. The only way to truly rebuild in the NBA, outside of a few fortunate franchises, is to be very bad. Put simply, the Clippers trade allowed the Hornets to be a bad basketball team this year, as well as supplied a legitimate future building block in Eric Gordon. We understand why Dell Demps and Monty Williams may have wanted a more competitive team on the court this year, what with a new owner to impress, but a ground-up rebuild was the right move.
"This was the starting lineup for the Hornets in Monday's rare win over the Jazz: Trevor Ariza, Gustavo Ayon, Kaman, Marco Belinelli and Greivis Vasquez. Off the bench were Aminu, Xavier Henry, Lance Thomas and Donald Sloan. This could have been their lineup: Ariza, Scola, Ayon, Martin and Dragic, with Odom, Belinelli and Vasquez off the bench. As a fan, GM or prospective buyer, which lineup would you rather see on the court?"
Again, that is a short-term outlook. Neither team is contending for a title, and isn't that the ultimate goal? Instead, the question should be "Which team can contend for a title first?", a question that cannot be answered by merely looking at potential starting lineups concocted at a time when the Hornets are missing arguably 4 of their 5 best players.
"Stern has said that a local individual or group would come forward by mid-season. That's next week, folks. Sperling was at practice Monday and twice referenced a "new owner" to local media but had no specifics. Meanwhile, there is a collective plea to a dispassionate, disenfranchised fan base to remain patient while being disingenuous on several fronts."
Instead of twisting quotes from Stern and Sperling to support a thesis, might we suggest doing some simple research into the team's ownership search? There is plenty of news coming out of New Orleans concerning the leading candidates to purchase the team, including New Orleans Saints' owner Tom Benson, former minority owner Gary Chouest, and former player/coach/GM Mike Dunleavy Sr. Among various Hornets staff members, it almost seems to be a foregone conclusion that the team will be in the hands of a new, locally-oriented owner well before this season's trade deadline in March, and possibly even by the end of this month. We realize that this information was first reported by Hornets247 and that not everyone frequents team blogs, but just one day before Mr. Bernucca's article was published, the very same information was reported by the Times-Picayune, the only major newspaper in New Orleans. The article mentions "confidentiality agreements regarding sales discussions" signed by all interested parties and the Hornets, which sounds like a quite plausible explanation for the lack of "specifics" about which Mr. Bernucca was concerned. Commissioner Stern and the Hornets are legally bound to refrain from mentioning any of the involved parties.
"And if you want your fan base to remain patient, it might be a good idea to not mislead them. Kaman was acquired because of his attractive cap slot, but the Hornets gave him a forced vacation for six games while it explored trade possibilities. Finding nothing overwhelming appealing, they returned the big man to active duty. What exactly was the purpose of that? Were the Hornets looking to trade Kaman for players who could provide immediate help, which the first Paul trade would have done? Or were they looking to deal him for another expiring contract, which we like to call ‘trading sideways'?"
What about option C, an obvious one that Mr Bernucca almost certainly avoids mentioning in order to support his main point? The Hornets were likely looking to move him for either a young asset or a draft pick, didn't get an offer that they were happy with, and so they pulled him back. Hornets' General Manager Dell Demps is no fool; he knows that time is on his side. Michael McNamara, another writer for Hornets247.com, explained this point magnificently in a post earlier this week. By waiting to trade Kaman, the team accomplishes three main goals. First, he can be traded in combination with more Hornets players due to new CBA rules. Second, if the Hornets were to receive a trade exception in exchange, it would be much more valuable as its expiration date wouldn't likely occur until after next season's trade deadline. Finally, he makes the obvious point that teams get more desperate as the trade deadline nears, inherently making Kaman more valuable. What's wrong with testing the market early when they know they can pull him back and try again later? Bringing Kaman back into the fold gives the Hornets a greater degree of leverage in future negotiations, after they were likely low-balled by potential suitors who knew that the Hornets were determined to trade Kaman while he was shelved.
"The handling of Gordon has been even worse. One of the NBA's best young shooting guards, he was clearly the centerpiece of the return package for Paul and the foundation of the team's rebuilding plans. He could have been signed to a contract extension that would have shown fans that the plan is under way. Instead, GM Dell Demps - with input from the NBA, of course - refused to give him a maximum four-year, $62 million deal. If you really want the guy, you don't nickel-and-dime him - unless, of course, you know more about his knee injury than you have told your fans. Gordon has been limited to just two games this season due to what was originally said to be a bone bruise but ultimately required surgery."
"The Hornets already have refused to max him out once; it is not outside the realm of possibility that they could pass on him again should he receive a huge offer from the Mavericks or his hometown Pacers. Or he could sign a qualifying offer, spend one more season in the NBA's self-made purgatory and be free as a bird come 2013."
What businessman of even marginal intelligence would decide to pay $60 million for a given asset today when he or she could wait 6 months and pay anywhere between $50-$60 million for that same asset? Doing so is basically what is being suggested here. Could the Hornets end up giving Gordon max money? Sure, but why not see what the rest of the NBA thinks he's worth when he becomes a RFA? While we're on the subject, what would be the point of lying about Gordon's injury? Knowing that the market will in all likelihood be setting his value after the season, what do the Hornets have to gain by playing down the problem with his knee? If the team knew it was serious, wouldn't they go public with that info knowing that doing so would likely drive down his asking price as a restricted free agent? Based on precedent alone, the odds of Gordon taking the qualifying offer to become unrestricted in the 2013-14 season are incredibly slim. He knows that he'll get offered a lucrative long-term deal by someone, and you can be sure that the Hornets will match it. They aren't going to let the best player on their team walk for nothing. Year after year, prominent NBA scribes rake teams over the coals for not allowing the market to dictate the price of retaining their own players, yet Mr. Bernucca believes the right move was to immediately offer a max contract to a player who has suited up for two games this year.
"So to sum up, here is what the Hornets now have to offer a prospective buyer, thanks to the smartest guys in the room:"
- "A truly awful team in a city that has a history of difficulty in supporting it."
I believe we have already addressed the benefits of spending a season or two as a cellar-dweller as opposed to first round fodder, as well as the degree to which the city has supported the team up until this point.
- "Aminu, the eighth overall pick who has shown next to nothing compared to other recent No. 8 picks Brandon Knight, Rudy Gay and even Channing Frye. He is better than Joe Alexander, though."
It is interesting that Mr. Bernucca chose to mention the three most successful 8th overall picks in the last 10 years and failed to cite such perennial All-stars as Rafael Araújo, Jordan Hill, and Brandan Wright. We can cherry-pick as well. In all seriousness, Aminu is still a very raw player who has proven to not be a consistent contributor on the NBA level. He is also 21 years old, freakishly athletic, and possesses a prototypical body for a NBA small forward. We believe the Hornets would not be the only team in the league willing to take a chance on his development.
- "Gordon, whose next game probably will be in late October 2012, possibly will not be with the Hornets, who have some serious damage control to do with their prized possession."
A review of what exactly restricted free agency is could be in order here. It made almost no sense for either party to sign an extension for Eric Gordon by the deadline. Gordon and his handlers are well aware that at least one team this offseason will offer him a max or near-max deal, hence there is no reason for him to sign with the Hornets for a discount. The Hornets, on the other hand, should not rush to give Gordon everything he desires, when they can simply wait a few months and let the market decide what he is worth. The risk of such a move is practically nil. A player with Gordon's injury history and also set to sign his first big NBA deal is not going to turn down a guaranteed contract on the restricted free agent market. His alternative would be to take the qualifying offer and play for just north of five million dollars on a one year deal because of some perceived slight due to the Hornets making a smart business move. Also, no matter who comes along and no matter what their offer to Gordon is, the Hornets have the right to match it. As we said before, there is almost no risk, and the Hornets are avoiding doing what many teams painfully do: bid against themselves to retain their own players.
- "Kaman, whose cap slot of $14 million almost certainly will have to be spread among multiple players or used to overpay a middling player. No established star in his right mind would want to be part of a team whose purse strings are in the firm grip of the folks at Olympic Tower with a massive rebuilding plan on tap."
As the new owner is expected to be announced before the season ends, we doubt NBA ownership will have much impact on potential free agent decisions. Also, it still remains extremely likely that Chris Kaman will be traded before the trade deadline for an additional pick, young talent, or both. Though Mr. Bernucca was puzzled with the decision to bring Kaman back to the team, his recent play has surely boosted his trade value among playoff teams, and the thought of receiving a late first round pick for him is not a whimsical one.
- Minnesota's unprotected first-round pick, which isn't going to be anywhere near the top of the draft and could actually end up being worse than Houston's pick. Even if the Timberwolves were as bad as the Hornets, a duo from the collection of teenagers Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Harrison Barnes would still beg a tremendous amount of patience."
First of all, the pick in the rumored NOH-HOU-LAL trade was the New York Knicks' first round pick, not Houston's. Despite the improvement of the Timberwolves this year, we sincerely doubt that their pick will end up being worse than that of the Knicks, who play in the extremely top-heavy Eastern Conference. Secondly, the fact that the Hornets immediately went into rebuilding mode the minute this trade was executed seems to escape Mr. Bernucca. There is not a player on the Rockets, Lakers, or Hornets that we would not trade straight up for some combination of Anthony Davis and any of the names mentioned above. This team does not need or want a 30 something All-Star; it needs young talent, even if that talent will not have an immediate impact.
We understand the difficulties of writing about a team that is yet to be featured on a national broadcast and is rarely mentioned by the mainstream media. That being said, we hope that Mr. Bernucca or anyone who writes for your site in the future will ask any of the writers of At The Hive or Hornets247 for any details they are having trouble with, or for any insight we may be able to provide about the Hornets. We would be happy to help, as we enjoy seeing the Hornets featured on outlets that cover the entire league, as long as the information featured is accurate and complete. We relish the opportunity to talk about the Hornets with anyone, and we do so daily. Please do not hesitate to contact us regarding anything having to do with the Hornets and the great city in which they play. Thank you for taking the time to read our reply.
Mason Ginsberg, Hornets247
Will Hibert, At The Hive