Happy Hump Day everyone! Just wanted to start things off by saying I am thrilled to be joining the At The Hive team and I look forward to being a part of the great Hornets coverage we are going to provide in this incredibly exciting season for Hornets basketball.
There is no shortage of love for Dell Demps on this site or in the rest of Hornets nation, and for good reason. Much has been made on the moves he has made in his time in the Big Easy, most of which have been met with positive responses from the fan base. What we should include in our judgment of him as roster shape-shifter and cap magician is how he was able to make the moves he made with a different vision for what the team should be. In a little over 2 years he has adapted the roster to fit three different objectives (appease superstar point guard, stay competitive, and finally a complete blow-up and rebuild) and I feel he has done each one in about the best way possible, considering the financial and personnel restrictions he's had to deal with. We'll take an in-depth look at this, after the jump.
2010-11: The Swan Song for New Orleans and Chris Paul
Entering the 2010-11 season, the Hornets were a team in limbo (to say the least) with the uncertain ownership situation, Chris Paul entering the final 2 guaranteed years of his extension, and a new coach in Monty Williams taking over after the tumultuous Jeff Bower experiment on the bench. After making it to the West Semis in 2008 and getting bounced by Denver in the 1st round in 2009, the Hornets took a step back in 2010, finishing 37-45, good for 11th in the West. It was clear that Demps' task was not only to build a competitive roster, but one that would appease Paul and make him want to stay in the Big Easy. The Carmelo to New York trade in mid-season of that year would only be the first of many dominoes to fall in the large-market migration of superstars, and many feared Paul would be next.
So Demps made a few savvy moves that served the purposes I just mentioned. Gone went Darren Collison, the soon-to-be sophomore point guard who had an impressive rookie campaign in Paul's absence; along with him went James Posey, the overpaid sixth-man who's contract was one of many that "Dealer Dell" would expertly dump on his path to our current roster. In came Trevor Ariza, a very good perimeter defender and athlete at the small forward position, something that incumbent starter Peja Stojakovic (my favorite Hornet btw) had never been able provide, especially since his back troubles worsened. Out went 1st-round pick Julian Wright, a bust in almost every sense of the word; coming back from Toronto was Marco Belinelli, a talented but also underperforming shooting guard who showed flashes of being a quality NBA starter but never achieving any sort of consistency. And finally a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers: where Dell shipped forward Darius Songalia and first-round pick Craig Brackins (acquired from the Thunder in a draft-day trade) for shooting guard Willie Green (best of luck in LA Willie btw) and forward/center Jason Smith (aka J-Smitty as he is affectionately known in Hornets Nation).
In terms of strictly basketball reasons, all of trades above made "basketball sense". Paul didn't have to look over his shoulder at the emerging Collison; this was his team and Demps was saying to him that they wanted HIM to stay and remain the face of the franchise. He now had an athletic defender at one starting wing, and a 40% 3-point shooter at the other. And as Jason Smith would prove later, he was much more than just a 4th or 5th big on a mediocre team, providing quality minutes and even getting a few starts along the way. During the season Dell continued to shake up the roster, adding pieces meant to put Paul more at ease. Out went Peja and his expiring contract (single tear), along with the 20 game rental known as Jerryd Bayless (who I really liked btw); in came one of Paul's best friends in Jarrett Jack (along with David Andersen and a stay-at-home Marcus Banks, but neither factored at all with the team going forward). Jack's acquisition, along with the Carl Landry at the deadline for Marc...I'll just stop right there because I feel like its till too soon for some Hornets fans. But Jack and Landry would both play huge roles for the team late in the season and in the playoffs, especially with David West tearing his ACL against the Jazz in what would prove to be his last game as a Hornet.
Still the team won 46 games during the regular season, good for 7th in the West, and were it not for a bad matchup against the long and deep and long frontcourt of the Lakers, perhaps CP3's last hurrah in New Orleans would've lasted longer than 6 games. But alas that first-round playoff exit, along with West's injury and impending free agency, as well as the limited financial flexibilty the Hornets possessed, signaled the end of an era. Paul requested a trade, and the Hornets obliged...now a moment in silence please.
2011-12: Staying Relevant in the Post-CP3/Owned by the NBA Era
In December of 2010 the NBA had bought the Hornets from owner George Shinn for around $300 million. It was widely reported that California businessman Larry Ellison had offered to buy the Hornets from Shinn for a reported $350 million, with the caveat that he would move the team to San Jose. The NBA (and Shinn, bless his heart) did not want this to happen, especially after the Seattle Sonics fiasco with Clay Bennett buying the team, promising not to move the team, then setting sail to Oklahoma City soon after. So the NBA league office (essentially Stern) became the final decision maker for the team. The first controversial move the team made was the acquisition of Landry from the Sacramento Kings the season before for Marc....ok I'll stop. To make the move the Hornets increased their payroll by a little over $2 million (the difference in the two players' salaries), a move owners such as Mark Cuban did not appreciate.
Then came the big one: the nixed trade of Paul to the Lakers in a three-team deal also involving the Houston Rockets, which would've landed the Hornets the Lakers' Lamar Odom (who would've almost assuredly been waived or traded) as well as Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and Goran Dragic of the Rockets. The implications of this non-trade would be felt around the NBA 3 gazillion times over, with the Hornets almost assuredly not being at the bottom of the league (thus decreasing their chances of landing the number one overall pick in the lottery, aka our new franchise player) and being stuck in what I like to call the "NBA middle-class", and the Lakers not being able to make a trade for a certain franchise-center a year later...quick aside-kudos to Magic GM Rob Hennigan for going with the move that HE wanted. He is following the Sam Presti (dare I say Dell Demps) blueprint to building a team. Bottoming out, building a team around guys that WANT to be there and that he wants on the team, and to hell with what everyone else thinks.
But back to us-after the Lakers deal (and then the original Clippers proposal, which was another blessing in disguise becasue it was Eric Gordon-less) was squashed, we get the haul that put us in the position to be where we are today; Gordon, Aminu, Kaman, and the Minnesota pick (aka Austin Rivers!) for CP3. West, Banks, Andersen and Green's contracts come off the books (totaling around $18 million). Demps re-signs Jason Smith to a 3-year, $7.5 million deal (more than reasonable IMO), Landry to a 1-year $8.5 million contract (great for both sides), and Belinelli comes back for his qualifying offer of $3.3 million. Trades for Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez (both acquired from our division-foe Memphis Grizzlies interestingly enough) for only the price of Quincy Pondexter (whose minutes were going to Aminu anyway) and a 2013 second-round pick were low prices to pay for young players who can only get better. Acquiring Gustavo Ayon from Mexico at such a low price would prove to be an adept move, not just for 2011-12 but in the future as we would see later (Andersen!!!).
The point of reviewing all of these moves is that there is no $30 million+ deal for Drew Gooden or Chris Kaman extension or any move that would hamstring the franchise going forward. Had this team stayed healthy it may have competed for a low playoff seed in the West; but at the very least Demps compiled a competitive team (unlike our Anthony Davis hunting rival Charlotte Bobcats) while not sacrificing long-term flexibility. The problem going forward were the long-term deals still owed to Okafor and Ariza; solid role players (and legit NBA starters IMO) whose place on a CP3-led team legitimately competing in the Western Conference was not questioned, but sucking up $20 million+ in cap room on a rebuilding team being a different story. The Hornets closed out the lockout-shortened season at a dismal 21-45, tied with the Cavaliers for the 3rd worst record in the league. Boy this whole rebuilding thing would be a whole lot easier if we had a REAL owner AND could somehow land Davis in the lottery.....
2012-13 and Beyond: The Future
YESSSSSSSS!!! Call it a conspiracy, call it dumb luck or good fortune or whatever you want; the bottom line is the Hornets landing the first overall pick (and thus Davis) along with having a real ownership group who kept the team in New Orleans has VASTLY affected our status going forward. Our growth into a championship-contending team (and thus Demps' legacy as a title contender builder) was accelerated ten-fold by landing the Unibrow; but by no means does that mean that Demps' job was finished there. Kaman and his $14 million came off the books, and as fun as the Chewbacca sound in the Hive sounded, it was happy trails to the Big D for the Caveman. Jack and his expiring $5 million deal were an attractive chip, and Demps wasted no time in shipping Captain Jack (who this Hornets fan will miss) to the Bay in essentially a salary dump. Vasquez, Henry and Aminu are all still on rookie deals and their options will be dealt with soon, but their salaries are not big enough to worry too much about. Thus the two remaining decisions were Eric Gordon's restricted free agency and the Okafor-Ariza contract dilemma.
The latter was dealt with almost as perfectly as a GM can manage. Demps somehow wrangled Washington GM Ernie Grunfeld into taking Okafor and Ariza off his hands (defensible pairing those two with Wall, Nene and third-overall pick Bradley Beal as their starting five....I guess) for Rashard Lewis' partially guaranteed contract and a second-round pick (aka Darius Miller). Granted "partially guaranteed" for Lewis still equaled burning $13 million in waiving the veteran, but the long-term savings ($9 million this season plus over $22 million for 2013-14) was well worth the sacrifice.
The former was a bit trickier, especially with Gordon's not-so-nice-words for New Orleans and the organization at the Team USA camp, and his expressed desire to play in Phoenix, who signed him to that 4-year max offer sheet. But that whole episode was overblown IMO (as previous examples of players wanting to get paid have shown), and Gordon getting his money will help smooth over any poor feelings of his of the Hornets front office. He is here, he is part of our core going forward, and now he can focus on just playing basketball, which he has said he can't wait to start doing.
Every other move Demps has done this offseason (and there have been quite a few of them), has been tactically brilliant. Turning Ayon (we will miss you Goose) into Ryan Andersen (whose 4-year $33 million deal is an absolute steal) was genius. Turning the cap space created by trading Jack to Golden State into Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick's expiring contract (via first acquiring, then shipping out Brad Miller's partially guaranteed contract to Phoenix) brought in the backup center the Hornets lacked on the roster for only one guaranteed year at $5 million.
So in conclusion, Demps turned CP3 into Aminu, Gordon and Rivers; Ariza and Okafor into Andersen (through the cap space acquired); and Peja into Jack, which turned into Lopez. Only Gordon, Andersen, Davis and Rivers' contracts are guaranteed going into 2013-14. Four guys! That's it! Two years ago this team had some of the worst contracts in the NBA on it, and ask the Knicks how hard it is to shed contracts without raffling off draft picks. Now we have a solid young core, incredible versatility and flexibility going forward, and one of the sharpest young coaches and GM's in the league running the show. Time to open up the checkbook Tom Benson-these guys NEED to be here for the long haul. They've built the foundation for a dynasty; they deserve to see it played out to fruition.