Nic Batum was coming off his worst NBA season. Jeremy Lamb had accomplished little in Oklahoma City. Spencer Hawes’ one season with the Los Angeles Clippers was a failure.
Those were the critiques after the Charlotte Hornets made a series of trades in June. And now?
Now the Hornets are 12-8. Batum could end up in the All-Star discussion. Lamb could be a candidate for Sixth Man and Most Improved awards. Hawes has added size and savvy as the Hornets’ backup center.
These trades made the Hornets roster bigger, more versatile and, most importantly, dramatically better on offense. Based on the standard measure of offensive efficiency – points per 100 possessions – the Hornets are tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for second in the East at 103.9 points behind Toronto (104.1) through Monday’s games.
Coach Steve Clifford and general manager Rich Cho both emphasize there was nothing haphazard about the four deals the Hornets made over 10 days just prior to the draft. This was about studying the traits of the NBA’s best teams and then heavy research on players who were available in trade.
“What we were able to do is look at the league and say, ‘What’s winning?’ We added not just shooting but skill and size for their positions,” Clifford said.
“That’s the way the league has gone – to versatility and skill. But in order to win you still have to be good defensively and that starts with size.”
After these trades, the Hornets drafted rookie big man Frank Kaminsky and signed free-agent guard Jeremy Lin. These five players have made the Hornets deeper and far more skilled at the offensive end. They have lightened what was a considerable scoring burden on point guard Kemba Walker and center Al Jefferson.
And, in the opinion of at least one Eastern Conference coach, the roster makeover made the Hornets a contender.
“There are four teams, maybe five, that are top 10 at both (offense and defense), and Charlotte is one of them,” said Stan Van Gundy, coach and president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons.
“Those teams in general are capable of making deep playoff runs. If you just look at the numbers, you have to look at Charlotte as being a true contender in the East.”
It should come as no surprise that the Hornets went the trade route. Ever since the Bobcats’ inception in 2004, this franchise has been about trades – 34 and counting.
If you splice together the four trades made between June 15 and 25, the Hornets effectively exchanged Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh, Lance Stephenson and a future second-round pick for Batum, Lamb and Hawes.
The Portland Trail Blazers got Henderson and Vonleh. The Clippers got Stephenson. The Oklahoma City Thunder got the second-round pick and freed up a roster spot. In order to make that happen, the Hornets traded Matt Barnes to the Memphis Grizzlies for Luke Ridnour’s nonguaranteed 2015-16 contract.
Those were a lot of moving parts. Cho said this entailed a detailed plan and plenty of background research.
“We made a concerted effort to improve offensively, improve our versatility and find more skilled players,” Cho said.
“I knew Nic from (working in) Portland; we knew Spencer had tremendous basketball IQ and could shoot the ball and spread the floor.
“Jeremy was someone we pursued for a long time. We liked him in college and saw him play a lot of games in the NBA and the D-League.”
The Hornets expanded their scouting staff on Cho’s watch, and he said that was a key factor in making this series of deals with a sense of confidence. The other factor was Clifford concluding after last season that having a great defense, but mediocre offensive talent with little 3-point shooting, wasn’t sufficient.
“You’ve got to have a variety of things in your offensive package,” Clifford said. “As we do that, with our skill level and shooting, we can keep getting better.”
No one is happier with these changes than Walker, who no longer has to be a scoring leader and the primary ball-handler every game for the Hornets to succeed.
“Offensively, they’ve been great. They help us with our pace and take so much pressure off myself and Big Al,” Walker said. “We can just play free. When Nic or Jeremy Lamb gets the rebound, they can initiate the offense and I can run free.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell