This morning, excellent basketball writer Rob Mahoney published a thought-provoking piece on the New York Times’ NBA blog, Off the Dribble, exploring a potential plan for the Hornets. The strategy that he presents for the team to consider is geared towards, not so surprisingly, convincing Chris Paul to remain in New Orleans beyond next season, when he is able to opt out of the final year of his contract. His idea, in a nutshell, is to basically wipe the entire roster clean and subsequently give Paul the keys to reconstruct the roster exactly as he chooses. Obviously, there is a ton of risk involved, and a new owner would be a necessity before this idea could begin to take shape, but I believe that it may be the best option for the Hornets. After the jump, I explain how it would be possible, and why it could be in the team’s best interest to pursue this course of action.

First things first – how can the Hornets’ front office magically make everyone currently on the team disappear? The easy answer is that they can’t just by snapping their fingers, but with a lot of work in addition to a little help, it would actually be possible. Besides CP3, the Hornets have just 4 players under contract – Paul’s backup Jarrett Jack, starting small forward Trevor Ariza, his second year backup Quincy Pondexter, and starting center Emeka Okafor – along with one restricted free agent to whom they have made a qualifying offer, starting shooting guard Marco Belinelli. Out of these players, the Hornets be able to cut ties with both Pondexter and Belinelli after this season (teams will be able to make contract offers to pry Belinelli away from the Hornets before this season starts, but I don’t think anyone will offer him a multi-year deal in order to do so). Jarrett Jack has just one season left on his deal after this year, but is paid relatively fairly in comparison to his talent level anyway, and could likely be dealt. This leaves Ariza and Okafor; both are accused by many as being overpaid, and both are under contract through for this season and two more after that (Ariza’s final year is actually a player option, but he’s not going to turn down $7.25 million). Thanks to the new Amnesty clause in the new labor agreement, however, the Hornets could unload one of one of these two players from the team and his entire contract from their team salary (they’d still have to pay him the money, it just wouldn’t count against the salary cap). I would expect that if the team opted to take this route, they would choose Okafor, who is owed an average of $13.5 million per season over the duration of his contract. This leaves just Ariza and his average salary of about $7 million throughout his contract, and while his shot selection is atrocious, his defense is stellar, which could be reason enough for a team to be interested in dealing for him. So, while it wouldn’t be the easiest roster in the world to gut, it could absolutely be done; now, why should the Hornets do something so extreme?

The new CBA that the players and owners have just agreed to is much better for small markets than the one before; check out my post from yesterday for more details on that front. That being said, it doesn’t come anywhere close to achieving the kind of competitive balance across the league, regardless of how much cash a team has at its disposal, that small market teams truly coveted. At the end of the day, there still isn’t enough incentive for the league’s biggest stars to refrain from fleeing to the bright lights and earning potential of places like New York, Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles. As a result, smaller city teams have very few ways to build a consistently successful franchise, habitually losing their top guys to flashier locations. Every now and then, you’ll land a guy like Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant who exhibit the kind of loyalty that any team and fan base would dream of, but they’re undoubtedly the exception, not the rule.

My point is this – too frequently, small-market teams get saddled in mediocrity for years, never having any real chance to improve their rosters. Because it’s not as easy to draw  big-name talent to these locations, they have to rely on the only avenue for acquiring top-tier talent that they have left – the NBA draft. By assembling a fringe playoff team, you severely limit its potential for long-term success. The most frequent result for teams like this is a draft pick between 10-20, which is good for basically exactly the same kind of player these teams already have on their roster – good, but not perennial all-star caliber. Want proof? Look at franchises like the Bucks, Bobcats, and Pacers for the past ten years. Each of these teams have routinely been either right on the cusp of the postseason, or victims of a quick first-round playoff exit. They build their teams through the draft, sure, but you’re very rarely going to get a franchise-lifting star in the slots that they will likely be selecting.

It is that inevitable outcome which is the reason why the Hornets should follow the route that Mr. Mahoney so astutely suggested. There are really only two possible outcomes from this scenario:

  1. Chris Paul builds the team that he wants from a deep 2012 free agent class
  2. Chris Paul decides to bolt, leaving the Hornets with close to an empty roster

If the Hornets’ plan succeeds, the hope is that the team instantly becomes deep playoff contenders for the next few seasons, which would be a very reasonable expectation. If he opts not to go along with this plan and leaves, the Hornets are left with tons of room to completely rebuild their identity. Knowing the kind of person that CP3 is, I’d be willing to bet that he agrees to an extend-and-trade after the season to allow the Hornets to get something in return to help with this process, likely in the form of draft picks. Regardless, without CP3, being stuck paying Okafor and Ariza a combined $20 million per season in 2012 and 2013 and still trying to compete without their star point guard is just asking for the same mediocre results as those Bucks, Bobcats, and Pacers teams have experienced. The best chance for small-market teams like the Hornets to try to win a championship is the same exact way they were able to land Chris Paul in the first place – start from scratch, land a top-5 draft pick or two, throw in a little luck, and the foundation for future success is created. This plan gives Chris Paul the incentive to remain a Hornet, but even if he chooses not to do so, there is still light at the end of the tunnel for New Orleans.

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