Numerous roster moves and roughly seven months later, the Charlotte Hornets are not that much different of a team than they were when their 2015-16 season ended abruptly at the hands of the Miami Heat on a Sunday in South Beach. Tied for third in the Eastern Conference and looking up at the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers, this is a very familiar position for Steve Clifford's guys.
So what gives? Why can’t the Hornets take the next step? Well, as we all know by now, the modern NBA is fueled by superstars. You either have them or you don’t. The Hornets, despite touting a better-than-ever version of their Mighty Mouse point guard, Kemba Walker, and a healthy (at least at the very moment I write this) Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, simply do not have the heavy duty star power to consistently threaten the remainder of the Eastern Conference.
I’ve seen comparisons of the current Hornets team to the Mike Woodson-led Atlanta Hawks of the late 2000s. You remember them: consistently pretty good, but consistently not quite good enough. Led by a primary offensive leader (Joe Johnson) and often very entertaining on the court (especially when Josh Smith started launching heat-check 3-pointers), Atlanta never made it past the East semis.
Fast-forward to November 2016 and the Hornets, led by their own offensive leader in Walker, would make their deepest run in franchise playoff history if they even stepped foot on the court in the East semis. That’s not a slight to this Charlotte team, but moreso an indicator of just how far the Hornets really are from true playoff contention.
So if the Hornets need a superstar (or two) to really become a perennial threat in the East, how can that happen? One possibility is the draft, but that route typically requires tanking and the current Charlotte roster is way too good to bottom out like that (nor do I expect Air Jordan to allow that to happen). Another option is free agency, which is also tricky given the smaller-market nature of Charlotte, North Carolina (unless of course the reigning two-time MVP decides to come home next year).
The last real possibility for the Hornets to drastically improve their overall talent would be through the wheeling and dealing of a few trades. If GM Rich Cho doesn’t want to wait half a decade to secure a high draft pick, nor believes the Queen City can lure the cream of the crop in free agency, then nailing a few blockbuster trades could be the answer.
Below are a handful of potential, yet admittedly unlikely, trade scenarios that would land the Hornets a much improved lineup, and potentially catapult Steve Clifford’s group into the top seed in the East when the playoffs roll around.
*Author’s disclaimer: despite each of the below scenarios being founded on nearly zero factual evidence or any actual rumor of substance, each has been carefully curated based on team need and deemed “successful” from a salary implication standpoint by the ESPN Trade Machine. Enjoy.
- Jeremy Lamb, Spencer Hawes and Marco Belinelli for Klay Thompson
Why would the Hornets do it?It could give Steve Clifford the flexibility to start a small-ball lineup of Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller. If they wanted to matchup bigger they could always move Zeller to the four and bring MKG off the bench, which would add depth to the second unit. Oh and Klay scored 60 points in 29 minutes a couple weeks ago, which I heard is pretty good.
Why would the Warriors do it? Well they probably wouldn’t, haha. But, a glimmer of hope is the fact that under the new collective bargaining agreement it is very unlikely Golden State will be able to retain all of their “Big 4” (Green, Curry, Durant, Thompson), and there has been noise that Klay would be the odd man out. Lamb, Hawes and Belinelli give the Warriors some immediate depth off the bench, mending probably their biggest Achilles heel.
- Frank Kaminsky, Spencer Hawes and Jeremy Lamb for Demarcus Cousins
Why would the Hornets do it? “Boogie” Cousins is a monster who plays with a chip on his shoulder. I can’t think of any reason why the Hornets, who have occasionally gotten pushed around by more physical teams (see: 2016 playoffs vs. Miami Heat) wouldn’t want an angry monster scoring machine on their team.
The former Kentucky Wildcat has been stewing in Sacramento for the first six years of his career, putting up video game numbers for a franchise that’s going nowhere anytime soon. He would immediately cure the age-old interior scoring deficiency of the Hornets and provide much needed physicality on both ends of the floor. As far as keeping his well-documented attitude in check, I think Clifford could be the perfect guy for the job.
Why the Kings would do it? Sacramento desperately needs a reboot from their much-maligned superstar center, and perhaps more importantly, need way more assets to build into the future. The Kings brass hasn't exactly proven themselves to be gurus at this whole trade thing either, which is why it wouldn't be totally inconceivable if they ended up shipping out Cousins for a couple role players and a toaster oven. It’s time to cut bait and start over if you are GM Vlade Divac. Promising seven-footer Frank Kaminsky wouldn’t be a terrible consolation prize, either.
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller for Anthony Davis
Why would the Hornets do it? Are you serious?
Why would the Pelicans do it? They wouldn’t. But a guy can dream, can’t he? Never say never, though, as rumors are already swirling involving Davis joining Mr. Triple Double, Russell Westbrook, in Oklahoma City next year. Anything is possible, right Kevin Garnett?
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Spencer Hawes for Blake Griffin
Why would the Hornets do it? Blake Griffin is really good at two things: scoring in the paint and filming Kia commercials. The Hornets would ask Blake to do one of those things, and it doesn’t involve four-door sedans. Landing Griffin would provide instant offense to the Hornets frontcourt, and instant Kia Sonatas to the Hornets parking garage. That’s a win-win, folks.
Why would the Clippers do it? Have you ever felt like you’re stuck beneath a glass ceiling in your job, unable to break through to new heights? Well that’s how the Los Angeles Clippers feel, and that ceiling is the Golden State Warriors. Let’s be real though, with Durant now in tow, that ceiling is more like Teflon than glass. Simply put, the Clippers are really good at playing basketball, but probably not good enough to dethrone the Dubs in the West. And I didn’t even mention Kidd-Gilchrist, the exciting swingman who lives and breathes defense. MKG would fill in nicely at small forward for LA, a position currently filled by a guy with four names and another old enough to be my dad.
Christopher Kreider | @krydr1