Rich Cho sits at his desk in his office. It's morning, but the room is dark with the blinds shut, and the only light comes from the TV in front of him. Taped to the office walls are spreadsheets filled with names and statistics of every active basketball player, amateur or pro, playing around the world. He looks at his phone -- no new missed calls, no new messages. It's been six hours since he left a message for Larry Bird at two in the morning. Doubt has begun to creep into his mind.
"Maybe I shouldn't have included Maxiell in the deal" he thinks, and he pulls out a note pad. On it, he writes, "Hornets Trade: Lance, Biz, maybe a 2nd rd pick." Next to it, he writes, "Hornets Get: Eric Gordon" and then immediately crosses Gordon's name out.
"His knees, Rich, remember his knees."
He drops the note pad on his desk and rubs his eyes.
"How do I fix this team?" he asks aloud. There's no answer, only the sound of a car honking from the street below. Then, a knock comes at his door.
"Yes? Come in!" In walks his secretary, who hands him a large vanilla envelope.
"What is...?" but his secretary says nothing, and walks out, closing the door.
Cho stares at the envelope. No return address, only the words, "To the desk of Rich Cho" written in chicken scratch in the middle. He hesitates, and then tears it open. Revealed is a letter, hand written in almost illegible cursive. Stapled to it is a document formatted as if it were a college English paper.
"Who still writes in cursive?" he wonders, and then he begins to read.
Dear Mr. Cho,
You may know who I am, you may not, but my name is Nick Denning, and I am a writer for At The Hive. We have covered the Charlotte Hornets for a number of years, since before you even set foot in this building. Trust me when I say, we probably know what we are talking about.
You are probably wondering, "How can I fix this team?" You after all, helped build it, therefore you have the power to fix it. But the choices will not be easy. Attached is a copy of a post I will be submitting for At The Hive. Please review it. If you agree with what is said, I want you to draw a red 'A' outside your office door. If anyone asks why, explain that you recently read, "The Scarlet Letter," and really identify with Hester Prynne. I await your answer.
Cho, confused by what he had just read, slowly flips over to the next page to the copy of the article. He sighs, and begins reading again.
Despite considerable efforts to improve the roster this offseason, the Charlotte Hornets significantly regressed. A number of factors contributed to this -- player departures, injuries, bad roster fits, and an overall lack of execution at times -- to name a few. The season isn't quite halfway over yet, but for the Hornets, accomplishing their preseason goal of making the playoffs is likely out of reach, despite playing in the Eastern Conference, where a losing record is realistically good enough to make the playoffs.
Yes, Charlotte is only four games back of the Miami Heat for the eighth playoff spot, but aside from a four game win streak, their play has been unconvincing for a team that wants to make the playoffs. The month of January does offer a glimmer of hope, as eight of their 14 games are against teams with losing records. They've started off 1-1 this month, so if you project the Hornets will lose both home and away games to the San Antonio Spurs, along with their road game against the Toronto Raptors, a best case scenario would be going 10-4. However, that is highly optimistic prediction even if Al Jefferson was healthy, and it's unlikely he will return until late January at the earliest.
Even if the Hornets were to have a strong month of January, they would still be far under the .500 mark as they enter February and near the trade deadline. Since Rich Cho has been general manager, Charlotte has been active during this period, and while the trades made in the past were minor on the surface, they impacted the team in positive ways.
Two seasons ago, the team traded for Josh McRoberts, who surprisingly became a vital component of the team's playoff berth last season. Last February, the team traded for Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour, who both (but more so Neal) provided needed outside scoring off the bench.
It is likely the team will once again be active up until the trade deadline -- the recent Lance Stephenson trade rumors confirm that. Stephenson however, will not be the only player shopped, as the likes of Bismack Biyombo, Gerald Henderson, and Neal all have expiring contracts after this season (though Henderson has a player option). The question then becomes what kind of move will the Hornets make at the deadline? Will it be one to press on for the playoffs, or will they concede this season and look to improve themselves for the future?
All that depends on how the month of January goes. If the Hornets are able to finish the month with a winning record and draw closer to the eighth seed in the East, it's likely Cho will look to improve the roster for a playoff run. Consider that by February, the team should be fully healthy, given no additional injuries occur. Jefferson and Stephenson will be back in the lineup, and both players should theoretically play better injury free. However, Stephenson is an odd case given just how poorly he played before the team shut him down, but I'm sure the organization's hope is that he will play more like they player of last season, rather than one who appears to have lost any of the talent he ever had.
A strong January could seemingly be enough evidence for Charlotte to want to stay in the playoff race. Many of the teams in front of them have been far from convincing as well, including the Heat, who are 3-7 over the last ten games. Plus, none of the non-playoff teams in front of Charlotte have a winning record in the past 10 games either. All it would take is one strong month, and the Hornets would be realistically back in the playoff picture.
On the other hand, the reality is that despite all of this, the Hornets have shown nothing in recent weeks to suggest they will be able to make a strong run without Jefferson. Against the Milwaukee Bucks last Monday, the Hornets came back from a large deficit with Jefferson sidelined, only to turn the ball over on the potential game winning possession, and then get run out of the gym in overtime. Friday, against a Cleveland Cavaliers team missing Lebron James, the Hornets squandered multiple leads, and had to come back once again to only to be beaten by Kevin Love in what looked like a return to Minnesota form. Even Saturday against Orlando the Hornets managed to squander a big lead more than once in the second half, and won by only eight points.
The Hornets are one of the worst teams in the league offensively, and are a shell of their former defensive selves. To think they can string wins together even with the easier schedule is asking a lot, so come February, if the team is further back from the eight seed, Cho and the front office could look to deal for the future.
In either case, Stephenson's name will continue to be linked up until the deadline, even if his play turns around. From what's been reported already, the problems extend beyond the basketball court. If he's causing problems in the locker room, the team could look to send him elsewhere, even if it means cutting their losses for the sake of clearing up cap space. Henderson could be another player moved since it is likely he will accept his player option. Henderson is a solid player, but he doesn't operate well off the bench for this team, and the Hornets need a much better outside scorer playing at his position.
Note that making deals for the future does not mean this team will blow it up. The rebuilding process is over, and while this season has likely been lost, the organization will still view itself as a playoff team, and could look to make a deal that could make them one next season. With the re-branding of the Hornets, and the significant increase in season ticker holders and nightly attendance, the team does not want to put out a team rebuilding for the future. A re-shaping of the roster will be the more likely plan.
The Hornets should look to deal for a starting caliber wing scorer that can be depended on to score consistently every night. They spent this offseason acquiring "shooters" but Brian Roberts, Marvin Williams, and P.J. Hairston are only role players, meaning they aren't good enough to be relied on every night. They are fine players to have on your bench, but if there isn't a legitimate scorer in the starting lineup, the bench's role turns into attempting to shoot the team back into games, which they've tried to do often this season, to only marginal success.
Stephenson was meant to be the starting caliber wing scorer, but so far he is far from the type of shooter they were looking for, with a field goal percentage of 38.6 percent and a 3-point percentage of 15.1. He scores most effectively when driving to the hoop and creating his own shot, which doesn't fit well when playing Walker and Jefferson, who both also create most of their shot attempts themselves. When the three of them are on the court together, ball movement is non-existent at times.
If the Hornets make a trade for a wing scorer, it has to be a player who is more of a catch-and-shoot player. Trading for another ball-dominant guard will not solve their backcourt problem. Finding a shooting guard that can co-exist with Walker is key.
Even if the Hornets are looking to get better, they don't necessarily have to trade for a big name. The McRoberts trade seemed so insignificant at the time, yet McRoberts made an impact immediately, and the following season really showed how important he was to the roster. Finding a player that fits well with the team's strategy and roster could have larger impact than taking a gamble on a high profile player that may or may not work out. Whether the Hornets are still looking to make the playoffs or not, they need to be patient, waiting for the right trade rather than the one that will create the most hype.
Cho has tough decisions to make, but February will offer a clearer picture as to the direction the team should take. Whether the Hornets shoot for the playoffs or look for next season, any potential trade should be approached the same way Cho has approached the last two trade deadlines, with patience.