Are the Hornets' financial woes overblown? Or, in the famous New Orleans style, is George Shinn simply throwing caution to the wind and saying, "Laissez les bon temps rouler!"
The Associated Press is reporting that the Hornets will send fragile center Tyson Chandler to Charlotte for Emeka Okafor, forever the four-man playing out of position. The trade has many NBA followers scratching their heads, wondering what the Bobcats are thinking.
It's been widely thought that New Orleans has long wanted to shed some serious payroll. Dealing for Okafor actually saves money in short term. He's due $10.5 million next year, while Chandler is on the books for $12.3 million. However, Chandler's deal is much shorter at one more year plus a player option, which would surely be exercised. Okafor, meanwhile, has four more years plus a player option to go on the pact he signed with the Bobcats last summer.
The short-term savings is not insignificant. Before the deal, New Orleans projected to spend around $78.9 million for 13 players, assuming second-round pick Marcus Thornton makes the squad and gets a typical non-guaranteed deal for his draft slot. That puts the Hornets $9 million over the cap and the overall expenditures up to $87.9 million after the luxury tax.
That's seems like a lot for a franchise thought to be teetering on the edge of insolvency, no?
With today's trade, the Hornets shave $3.6 million from their projected payroll and tax expenditures. They are now $7.2 million over the tax threshold and have expiring contracts in Antonio Daniels ($6.6 million) and Devin Brown ($1.1 million). With a little luck, Jeff Bower may be able to save Shinn from the tax this season. Before the deal, that would have been nigh impossible.
Or perhaps Shinn doesn't care about avoiding the tax as much as we think? When David Stern announced the line of credit the NBA established to aid struggling teams last season, New Orleans was one of the takers, accepting an $11.6 million marker from the league. At the same time, team president Hugh Webber suggested that the loan was merely a contingency and was "not needed."
The Hornets ranked 19th in attendance last season, though according to the story linked to above, they filled smallish New Orleans Arena to 98.7% capacity. That satisfied the terms of the Hornets' lease, which contains an out clause for the team should attendance drop below a specific level. It also kept the team from having to accept a state-funded subsidy as per terms of the lease, which in these times and in that region is definitely a positive, particularly from a public relations standpoint.
Rumors of the Hornets' financial woes have plagued the franchise ever since they moved to New Orleans, especially since Hurricane Katrina. The Big Easy is the smallest market in the league so the assumption is that the Hornets cannot be viable in that region over the long haul. However, that simply may just not be the case. According to Weber, in this piece from the Hornets' official Web site, the Hornets' money problems are a misperception stemming from the struggles of New Orleans as a community.
Still, Hornets fans had to deal with the faux trade of Chandler to Oklahoma City last spring in exchange for Joe Smith, Chris Wilcox and the rights to DeVon Hardin. That trade stank of a salary dump, with Smith and Wilcox both set to become free agents. The deal didn't seem to do much for the Hornets in a basketball sense, either. So while the team says it's doing just fine, their actions weren't exactly backing up those statements.
Then we enter the offseason and the Hornets seemed paralyzed by their own roster. Peja Stojakovic still has another year and a player option left on his bad contract. Chris Paul is entering the second year of his extension, which gets gradually more expensive each year. David West has two years and a player option. There seemed to be little hope for a second-tier team to improve itself with the luxury tax monster stalking down the middle of Bourbon Street.
Suddenly, by taking on the $60 million or so Okafor will be earning over the next five years, perhaps those claims of solvency by the Hornets' brass don't ring so hollow.
On top of that, not only does Okafor earn less than Chandler over the next two seasons, the consensus is that he's a better all-around player. The consensus is also that New Orleans has improved itself on the court while primping up their short-term fiscal outlook. The chorus sees an opposite scenario unfolding in Charlotte.
Let's look at a "Before" and "After" comparison of these team's projections, keeping in mind that Okafor and Chandler, both 26, were born four days apart, which means that they theoretically should follow similar career paths.
Team W L Age Pace oEFF oRNK dEFF dRNK eMarg Rank cRNK Payroll OverCap? Pay w/Tax
Bobcats 42 40 24.4 87.2 108.6 15 108.0 18 0.6 15 7 $60.1 Yes $60.1
Hornets 56 26 27.7 86.4 111.8 5 105.8 9 6.0 6 4 $78.9 Yes $87.9
Team W L Age Pace oEFF oRNK dEFF dRNK eMarg Rank cRNK Payroll OverCap? Pay w/ Tax
Bobcats 48 34 24.4 87.2 107.2 19 104.6 7 2.6 12 6 $61.9 Yes $61.9
Hornets 47 35 27.7 86.4 109.9 10 107.5 13 2.4 13 7 $77.1 Yes $84.3
Hmmmm. Not what you expected, is it?
Here's a look at the projected ratings for the pair, given their new environs:
Player %MIN oUSG dUSG PC100 PA100
Chandler 61% 10% 14% 184.3 103.9
Okafor 60% 16% 17% 125.9 118.9
Okafor is a more well-rounded offensive player than Chandler is. He has a better post-up game, which is to say he has one, and he shoots a high percentage. Chandler is pretty much relegated to dunking alley-oop passes and scoring on putbacks. He's no doubt benefited from playing alongside Paul, but he was already ascending to his current level of efficiency in his last year in Chicago. Given his work ethic and high-energy style, Bobcat fans can reasonably hope for Chandler to maintain his high degree of efficiency even when playing off of D.J. Augustin and Ray Felton. That's assuming he recovers completely from the surgery on his left toe, an assumption that Larry Brown, Rod Higgins and Michael Jordan were apparently willing to make.
The key to this deal for the Bobcats is the apparently wide chasm in defensive ability in favor of Chandler. Based on what I've read, I think the perception is that the pair are both good defenders and there really isn't much difference between the two. My system sees otherwise.
In NBAPET, centers on average usually put up between a 15% and 16% defensive usage. So Chandler's apparent ability to limit opportunities is huge. On top of that, opposing centers create 15 fewer points per 100 possessions against Chandler.
POINTS ALLOWED PER 100 POSSESSIONS
Year Chandler Okafor
2006 100.4 124.5
2007 98.3 113.1
2008 107.9 123.8
2009 121.0 124.9
(LEAGUE AVERAGE CENTER = 124.9 PA/100)
You can see the slippage in Chandler's game last season as he struggled with his ailing toe, but given health, he is a markedly better defender than Okafor, who admittedly is the slightly-superior shot blocker and defensive rebounder. The defensive edge Chandler enjoys in this comparison is enough to move the Bobcats from a projected 18th in defensive efficiency all the way up to seventh. Conversely, the Hornets drop from ninth to 13th.
Charlotte still will struggle to put the ball in the basket, which would have been a problem with or without this trade. Let's face it, Okafor is no Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in that regard, but he does score more often than Chandler does. In the projections, the Bobcats drop from 15th to 19th in offensive efficiency. The usage rates of Augustin, Raja Bell, Gerald Wallace and Boris Diaw all will edge up playing alongside their new center. With the increased possessions, efficiency will drop. The key, though, is to outscore your opponents. Brown will have the Bobcats playing at a snail's pace and there will be lots of games in the 80s, or even lower. According to my system, though, it's a winning style for the Bobcats.
On the flip side, having a higher usage center playing alongside Paul, West and Stojakovic could be a hindrance. The Hornets will still run the pick-and-pop with Paul and West a billion times; West's steady stream of 15-foot jumpers won't be impeded by the lost-post presence of Okafor. However, it remains to be seen whether Okafor will be able to run the pick-and-roll with Paul with nearly as much effectiveness as the more athletic Chandler. Overall, NBAPET sees Okafor skimming away a few possessions from the rest of New Orleans' first unit, but using those possessions with far less efficiency than Chandler did. So even though Okafor is a better offensive player than Chandler is, the Hornets' offense still projects to drop just a tad.
It's not just the names you write into your lineup, it's how they fit together. There was a special chemistry in the Paul/West/Chandler mix that may be lost in this transition. However, and this is an important consideration, there is a very real chance that Paul's ability to draw defenders to himself will turn Okafor into a more efficient offensive player. Since he's already pretty proficient, that could lift him to Chandler-like levels on that end and the Hornets won't be any worse for the wear.
At the same time, it's difficult to envision the Hornets' defensive ceiling not being lowered by this deal. Certainly, measuring defense is an inexact science, but we're talking about a pretty big difference here. Just as a sanity check, here's how Dwight Howard has fared against Charlotte and New Orleans the last three years:
TEA GP PPG FGA FG% P/FGA
CHA 12 21.7 11.6 .625 1.871
NOH 6 16.3 10.3 .580 1.582
Certainly, these numbers aren't an argument finisher, but they do support a little bit of what I've been suggesting. Howard has had to work harder for shots against the Hornets/Chandler than he has against the Bobcats/Okafor and has been less efficient on a per-shot basis. Small sample caveats apply, but a 5.4-point boost against the game's best center is nothing to sneeze at.
I have a feeling I'm going to be a lone wolf in the wilderness on this trade. Some are going to see the swing in projected records and say, "You're suggesting that Tyson Chandler is nine wins better than Emeka Okafor?" That's not what I'm suggesting at all. Teams are a delicate concoction of basketball elements and when you shift things around, particularly when dealing a starter for a starter, the new mix is a lot more volatile than people want to realize. I think the new mixes created by this trade favor the Bobcats. It makes them one of the league's best defensive teams, playing for a defensive coach, without taking away that much offense.
For the Hornets, you can certainly undertand their rationale for making the trade, both from a financial and basketball standpoint. However, once things shake out, I think they'll find that their new potion won't taste quite as sweet. That may send many loyal Hornets fans scurrying for Hurricanes in the Quarter. Which doesn't sound so bad, after all.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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