Prior to the epic awesomeness of the Spurs game on Saturday, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a "Chalk Talk" with Hornets GM Dell Demps and about 25 season ticket holders. We sat in the second row, about 4 feet from Dell, which turned out to be a blessing when I realized I should probably record this if I wanted to write about it later. Dell was introduced by a VP of Something or Other and gave us a greeting and thanked us for being season ticket holders. He said he could just give us updates but would rather take our questions, because he likes to gauge what the fans are thinking. Before I start with the questions I do want to say that I was very impressed with the quality of questions asked by the assembled fans. All of the questions I had lined up to ask were all asked by others within the first five questions. I must say that my opinion of the average fan walking around the Arena is much higher than it was prior to this event. I will attempt to cover all the questions Dell answered (or at least the ones that weren't woefully dumb), but I was limited to a cell phone recorder and my pre-three-or-four-beers memory for this exercise. Questions are after the jump and special thanks to snavetrebor for hooking me up with a seat.
The first question was submitted by mW_, who was also able to attend. He noted the flurry of front office moves that were made and asked if we could expect to see any more, or if Dell was satisfied with its current state.
- Dell answered by giving us a brief summary of some of the new staff members, mostly referring to scouts. Dell said he was flying to Chicago to meet one of said scouts on Sunday to watch Wisconsin play Northwestern. He said they are getting ready for the draft, but are also part of the brain trust that evaluate any potential trades or free agent signings. Dell said that many of the staff members play basketball together regularly to build trust and such. He said he was very happy with the staff so far, and though he didn't specifically state it, I doubt we'll see any more major shakeups in the front office. Dell has his guys now.
The second good question (which I believe came from these guys, go read their summary as well) was whether or not the Hornets would be allowed to go into the luxury tax to acquire a player, given the NBA ownership of the team.
- Dell explained that the Hornets are 5 million under the luxury tax right now, saying they had a lot of "wiggle room." He said that in order for them to go over the the tax, they would have to sign a player who made more than 5mil a year, and a player who makes that much would be "a really good player." (I disagree, as there are many terrible players who make more than this, but I digress). He went on to say that certain players are "Home run hitters," which he described as a top-15 player. He said that he does not anticipate one of these players becoming available, but if an opportunity arose to get one of them, that he would not hesitate and not be hindered by league ownership. (This sounds great, but I wonder if this topic has truly been brought up with the people in charge.) Dell added that, more realistically, with the expiring contracts and trade exception, they can make a move to get as close as possible to the luxury tax without going over, and that is the plan as of now. Dell then reiterated that if an opportunity came up to obtain another All-Star, they would seize it.
Dell was then asked about the emergence of Emeka Okafor and to what does he credit Mek's improvement from last year.
- Dell praised Emeka for his hard work and noted that much of what Emeka does goes unnoticed in the box score. He brought up Okafor's toughness, and said he was hoping for a way to get him into the All-Star game. Dell cited Emeka's well-documented stretching routine and his games-played streak to reinforce the point that Emeka takes great care of his body. He said that Emeka uses his own doctors for specific treatments and has even provided the Hornets with a list of doctors, including chiropractors and physical therapists, that the team has since started using. (I guess he never really answered the question, but some interesting stuff anyway.)
What he would like to add to the team at this juncture in the season:
- Dell did not hesitate and said he would like to add "a dynamic big," which he described as an active, big-body rebounder and defender. He said that he would prefer more of a proven guy at this point, and said they feel they have a lot of young guys trying to prove themselves (Smith and Gray I suppose), but would like a more veteran presence as another backup big. He also said that he was happy with the quality of the perimeter bench players, and mentioned Marcus, Willie, and Quincy specifically.
Obligatory Carmelo question:
-I would normally just skip this, but I wanted to get down that Dell did say that early on in the Melodrama, they contacted (indirectly I'm sure) Carmelo's representatives to gauge interest and were informed that he would only sign an extension on the East coast and therefore never really got into the sweepstakes.
The next question was about how concerned the Hornets were with the possibility of a lockout and the new CBA and if the expiring CBA was influencing his decisions or causing him to be less aggressive, knowing that current salaries may be a burden with a new CBA.
-Dell stated that the Hornets have hired an attorney whose only responsibility is to study the CBAs of other sports and come up with likely possibilities in order to help the Hornets with long-term planning. Dell then said that he is aggressive by nature and does not like to sit back and wait. He said that if an opportunity presents itself and they do not believe it will damage the team long-term, they will not hesitate. Dell said he will not be impulsive, but if they think an opportunity will improve the team, they will act on it.
Someone next to us then asked a question about how to bring more parity to the league in the upcoming labor talks.
-Dell said rather flatly that the current environment of the league is not a level playing field. He mentioned that a better revenue-sharing system will help, as well as bringing player salaries down as well. He mentioned the disparity between the Hornets' payroll and that of the Lakers and Orlando, and that under current rules, the Lakers could potentially add 5 million more dollars to their payroll, while the Hornets would probably have to remain relatively the same.
Whether or not any other teams have attendance clauses in their leases:
-Dell said he did not know of any other teams that had a similar clause, but that there is a good possibility that the lease will be renegotiated without an attendance clause in place. He said that he does not like having fans feel like they must attend games or face the threat of losing the team. He wants fans to want to come to the games. He said that when people do come to the games, that they are loud and the atmosphere is great. He said that he believes the Hornets do not win 5 or 6 games this season without the fans getting into it.
On Marcus Thornton possibly making the starting lineup (I expected this one much earlier):
-Dell said that is the biggest question he gets right now and that he was waiting for it. He said he and Monty have certain "non-negotiables." There are certain things they expect the players to do on defense, and "if you don't do them, you don't play." He said there were a couple of instances of Marcus not doing these things and that hampered his ability to get on the floor. Dell cited the tough learning curve for Marcus, and that his defensive instruction last year was very different from what Monty put into place, and what he expects from everyone on the court. He said that they tried to get all of the younger players in town during the summer to get them acclimated to the system and put them a little bit ahead of the curve. Dell said that Marcus chose not to come to these sessions (no excuses for this in my opinion, as Marcus presumably lives in LA year-round, though we do not know his side of the story, so I'll reserve too harsh a judgment), and that certainly contributed to his struggles on defense. He said that this did not influence the decision on the early season rotations however, and that the starting and backup spot were open in training camp, and not solidified as of the preseason. He cited Marcus' horrid preseason (under 20% from the field) and the relatively solid performances of Belinelli and Green as reason why Marcus started the season buried on the depth chart. Dell said that during the 11-1 start, they were hesitant to make changes to the rotation, "if it's not broke..."
He went on to say that as the season has gone on, they recognize that they need Marcus to be a good team. He said they believe he is at his best coming in with the second unit, where he can get a lot of shots without taking shots away from CP and West. He made the obligatory Manu and Jet references, and said that Marcus has made big strides on the defensive end and is not making the same mistakes that were getting him yanked early in the season. He said that he believes this ordeal will help Marcus in the long run and praised him for being a professional throughout it, when he had ample opportunities to "take shots" or complain when repeatedly being asked questions about his playing time by the press. Dell said that those types of comments can really hurt a team and said that he personally thanked Marcus for handling it the right way.
On the TV situation:
- Dell said that he is not directly involved with the talks with CST, but he does know that they are working on a deal with Direct TV right now, but cannot say when a deal might be completed.
On David West's contract situation and what the market for West might be in the offseason (West can opt-out of his contract at year end and become a free agent, all signs point to him doing just that):
-Dell said his hope is the David never hits the market. He said extension talks are complicated because of the nature of David's current contract. West's contract was descending from the year he signed it, and would drop down to 7.5 million next year of he did not opt-out. NBA rules state that you can only offer an extension based on the last year of your current contract. Dell said they are attempting to figure out a way to stay within the NBA rules and still pay David what he is worth (Possibly a back-loaded deal could accomplish this?). Dell said he has told David he wants him to retire a Hornet and have his jersey in the rafters. (This is a different take than what has been portrayed recently in the media. A Yahoo! report said that an extension was on the table, with West not wanting to sign it. A recent report from the Times-Picayune seemed to corroborate this version of events, however Dell made it seem like they were still working on coming up with an extension that would entice West to sign. My take? I'm thinking West did not want to sign the first extension that Dell presented him with and decided to play out the year and figure it out this summer. Dell is now working to come up with a better extension in order to lock West up before other teams can get into his ear.)
On the NBA finding a local owner:
-Dell said if the state gives the team a deal that will make it more profitable for the team to stay here, that there are locals with the ability and desire to own the team. He said the threat of the team leaving can help these negotiations and spur the state to give the team a similar deal to ones that are becoming common across the country. He said that negotiations with the state will be going on right now, even though a sale is not likely until after a new CBA is in place. He said that meeting the attendance benchmark was a big step in the right direction. He also stated the he just bought a house here, so he really hopes it works out.
On whether the New Orleans Arena needs significant upgrades:
- Dell said he does not view the Arena as one of the worst in the league, but is not one of the best either. He said there are definitely some smaller improvements that could help both its usability for the team, as well as its profitability.
Overall, I think Dell was pretty forthcoming and honest with the collected fans. He came across as a really sharp and nice guy. This was certainly more informative than I expected. It made for a great experience, especially walking past one of the training rooms and saying "what's up" to an emerging Buckets (snave beat me to a fist bump). If any season ticket holders get an opportunity to go to one of these, I highly recommend it. Hope you enjoyed reading.