Can Kupchak Provide the Direction Charlotte Needs?

I feel like front office executives and coaches in the NBA are subject to more unfair scrutiny than their equivalents in any other sport. More than any other sport, one player in the NBA can directly impact the game and success of a franchise that other individuals, whether its baseball, football, etc, just can’t match. And in the era of the NBA super teams, very few franchises have a legitimate shot to win a title and small market teams like the Hornets have a very hard time jockeying for position to be among the elite. It truly is a very hard job for both a GM and a coach.

As hard as the job is and even though we understand the challenges attached, you can’t be complacent or settle for mediocrity. That’s why at the end of the 2017/2018 season, both Rich Cho and Steve Clifford were relieved of their duties as GM and Coach respectively.

Replacing both of those guys was the right move for the franchise. Both Cho and Cliff had some nice moments, but ultimately, each had flaws that made them too much of a liability to keep going forward. With Cho, his saving grace was his ability to make trades. The only trade that I truly believe he lost was when he dealt Spencer Hawes and Roy Hibbert for Miles Plumlee. To go through everything that was wrong with that deal would take a separate blog post and frankly, no one needs to relive it. Even if that was Cho’s low point in the trade game, he was able to rectify it by dealing Plumlee away a couple months later in a deal that got Dwight Howard in return.

While Cho’s trademark as the Hornets GM were the trades he was able to make, the reasons as to why he had to make trades to remain competitive were the reasons he was fired. Cho wasn’t able to draft well and he handicapped himself with bad contracts. He’s going to be remembered for two things during his time here. One is that he only drafted one all star and two starters in seven drafts and the second is that he signed Nic Batum to a 5 year/$120M contract. Ouch. For all of the things Rich might have done that were positive like signing Big Al Jefferson or drafting Kemba Walker, those two things will make up his legacy here in Charlotte and that’s just brutal.

Fans are definitely hoping that Mitch Kupchak will be able to stabilize this franchise and eventually build a roster than can compete and go on a deep playoff run in the Eastern Conference. For an organization that hasn’t won a playoff series since the 01-02 season with Baron Davis, this seems like a tall order.

The immediate focus of Kupchak needs to be the upcoming NBA draft next week and based on his activity watching prospects at their pro days and the slew of prospects that have worked out in Charlotte over the past few weeks, I’d say that he’d agree with me. Given the atrocious cap situation that Kupchak inherited, getting this pick right at 11 is critical. There won’t be any spending room in free agency you can’t just depend on trades to present themselves to you. So in order for Kupchak to build this team while weathering this cap storm, he will have to capitalize on opportunities to acquire young controllable assets via the draft at pick 11 and frankly, at pick 55 as well.

A successful draft will certainly help ease Mitch’s time in free agency where he won’t have hardly any money to spend. If you’re confident that whoever you draft at 11 can come in and contribute right away, then you can take your time in free agency and find potential bargain deals or wait on potential trades to formulate.

This is where having a guy with Kupchak’s tenure will really help. Kupchak has been around long enough that he’s seen most every situation that the league has to offer and he’s made his fair share of mistakes working through them. Granted, operating in a gigantic market like LA compared to small market Charlotte is very different. The pressure to win in LA is much greater, but the pressure to deliver on a lottery pick has much more impact in Charlotte given that it’s not a desirable free agent destination. Trades and signings will certainly impact the direction that Kupchak wants the Hornets to head over the next few seasons, but this pick at 11 is the key into putting that plan into motion.

It’ll be interesting to see how Mitch plays this summer out for the Hornets, but having a guy who is a 10 time champion in the league as a player/executive, I have more confidence than ever, that this team will begin to trend forward. Excited for the journey.

Hornets Offseason Primer

It’s early June and the NBA season is winding down to a pretty anti climactic halt. For the 4th year in a row, we are watching a Warriors vs LeBron series, that the entire world saw coming as early as last June after part three of the same series ended. However, for the Hornets, the NBA season unceremoniously ended almost two months ago. It was an ending we all knew was coming. That stretch from Thanksgiving to New Years was brutal. In 19 games over that span, Charlotte was only able to total 5 wins. The writing was on the wall, but optimism reigned because in the back of our minds, we knew the schedule got much easier starting in January. The feeling that a run was in this team was possible, but at the end of the day, delusion and truth prevailed. An outcome of mediocrity and sub par have been the norm for this franchise more often than not and as fans, we should know better by now.

To the Hornets credit, since the season ended, the organization has been up front in admitting that change is needed and while other teams were in the playoffs chasing a championship, the front office has been active in taking steps forward.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be summarizing and giving my takes on the Kupchak and Borrego hires as well as previewing and recapping any Hornets activity relating to the draft, trades and free agency. It should be interesting to see how the Hornets operate given the fact that there is very little wiggle room with the salary cap and they hold a number of cumbersome contracts on the roster. That being said, it should be a fun few weeks.

 

 

Panthers Trade Daryl Worley for Torrey Smith

The NFL is on fire right now. We are a week out from the new NFL calendar year and free agency starting, yet teams are making trades and signing released players like they’re the MLB. I’m not sure I remember this many moves made this close together before. Not saying it hasn’t happened, but I just don’t remember it, if it did.

The Panthers and new/old GM Marty Hurney got themselves in on the action this afternoon:

The trade is now about three hours old as this post is being written. I have seen plenty of hot takes on the internet and most of them feel like the deal favors Philadelphia. Me personally, I never hated the deal. Initially I was probably in the middle, but the more I think about it, the more I actually like the move. I’m not naive to think Torrey Smith is the same guy he was with Baltimore, but I think he brings Carolina more positives than negatives.

The main positive here, is that Torrey Smith checks a couple of boxes when it came to WR needs for Marty Hurney and Ron Rivera. Hurney mentioned, shortly after he was hired permanently, that he wanted to add speed to the skill positions and just last week, Rivera expressed his desire to add a veteran to the WR group. Smith is both a veteran WR and has speed to stretch the defense.

Smith haters are going to point to the fact that he hasn’t put up 1,000 yard stats in several seasons and that what the WR group really needs is a true number one. My response to that is that getting a “true” number one is much easier said than done and financially, Carolina isn’t set up to just go spend big money on a WR in free agency with the amount of holes there are on the roster currently. Carolina could still draft a WR with number one potential, but it’s unrealistic to expect a rookie to carry that type of load from day one. From a locker room stand point, Smith is a two time champion and a WPMOY nominee so not too shabby there.

The other player in the deal obviously is Worley. Wasn’t the biggest fan of his. Thought he was really solid in run support as a DB, but his pass coverage was leaky at best. It felt at times during last season that Worley might not be in long term plans for the team. Between the occasional sub tweets to the team and being benched from time to time by the coaching staff, the writing was on the wall in my opinion.

Should be interesting to see how it plays out.

Should the Hornets Trade Kemba Walker?

Trading NBA superstars hasn’t been an uncommon practice across the league in recent years. Hell, this past offseason saw Cleveland and Boston swap Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas respectively and Indiana got in the action by shipping Paul George to Oklahoma City. In the current NBA landscape, the era of the super team, the only way for stars to compete for titles is to join up with other stars on contending teams and the only way for non super teams to compete for titles is to ship stars out for draft picks and tank for more in hopes that they can build around a new young star and attract others in to compete.

From a team perspective, the process is arduous and not a guarantee to yield quick results or even work entirely. Philadelphia, LA Lakers and Minnesota are all teams that have embraced tanking with bad teams and while none of these teams are considered contenders, the amount of young talent on their rosters is obvious. In other words, the future is bright for each franchise. Here in Charlotte, the future is neither bright, nor bleak and that is the problem.

Sitting in the middle in the NBA with a roster not built to content or be bad is the absolute worst place you can be. Continuity in the league is a good thing and can allow you to play into May in most cases, but there comes a point where you have to blow it up and reset. Most Hornets fans will tell you that the time to blow it up and reset is right now. The team, as it’s constructed, will never contend for a title and aren’t even a safe playoff pick so you may as well reset with new young talent and see what comes of it. Fans on the other side will point to the disappointing history of the Charlotte franchise tanking before. Whiffing on draft picks and forcing bad contracts to try and be competitive will help with that perception. Fans that are anti tanking will say that tanking doesn’t guarantee anything and in 6-7 years we will back where we started with nothing to show for it. Neither side is wrong.

The one constant over the course of this current Hornets era has been Kemba Walker. He’s the one draft pick over the seven year stretch that he’s been with the team that has legitimately been a success. His all star appearance last season was the first for a Charlotte player since Gerald Wallace went in 2010. Kemba’s presence on the team alone, has kept the Hornets from completely falling off of a cliff into despair. If not for him, this team would have reset a long time ago.

Friday morning, the future for Kemba in Charlotte finally showed signs that it may be coming to an end.

Yikes.

Hornets fans have begun having the whole “should we trade Kemba Walker?” discussion since last season went down the toilet, but I’m not sure those fans were actually prepared for the discussion to have real legitimate merit. Make no mistake, trading Kemba would be a franchise altering move signaling that the Hornets are prepared to reset and rebuild and it certainly would have a ripple effect throughout the fan base.

Charlotte Hornets fans deserve NBA success arguably more than perhaps any other franchise in the league. They are one of only three teams to have never even appear in a conference finals much less a NBA final. They share that distinction with the LA Clippers and the New Orleans Pelicans who were the Charlotte Hornets before relocating in 02-03. The Clippers are in a similar situation to Charlotte in that their star players from the past few years have either moved on or have expressed interest in moving on. However, the franchise just went through their most successful stint in franchise history with the Paul, Griffin and Jordan trio that saw several top four finishes in the West and multiple first round series wins. The Pelicans are an extension of the Hornets, but they at least have one of the top 10 players (regardless of position) in the NBA to build around in Anthony Davis who is still only 24. They’re future is at least somewhat bright for them.

Then there is Charlotte who is only NBA elite at being mediocre. Charlotte broke into the NBA in the late 80’s when the NBA expanded and added the Hornets along with Miami, Orlando and Minnesota. All three of those teams have experienced a substantial amount of success when compared to Charlotte. Miami has three NBA titles, Orlando has two conference titles and Minnesota has one. That leaves Charlotte with zero.

All Charlotte has are great seasons from star players like Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson, Glen Rice, Baron Davis, etc. The one thing that all of these players have in common? They were traded away by the Hornets. Mourning and Johnson were both traded away in consecutive offseasons after they proved they couldn’t share the team as stars. Glen Rice came to Charlotte as a result of the Mourning trade and after two of the better statistical seasons in franchise history. Baron Davis technically left Charlotte when the franchise did, but the Hornets traded him to Golden State in 2005.

This brings us full circle back to Kemba Walker, who has vaulted himself into the conversation of all time Hornets greats during his tenure here and is now on the trade block. This, of course, is all circumstantial as it wouldn’t be surprising that teams would be interested in Kemba given how good of a player he is. The question really is, are the Hornets seriously trying to shop him? Woj comments that the Hornets have a ton of bad contracts and that packaging Kemba with one of them would be the only way to quickly shed some of that cap space. Michael Jordan had an interview earlier this week stating that he doesn’t want to trade Kemba and if he did, it would need to be for another All Star. Neither scenario seems like a likely option so my guess is that Kemba won’t be moved at the deadline.

But should Charlotte trade Kemba? The franchise cannot win or compete as currently constructed and what are you doing if you aren’t trying to compete and succeed at the highest level? Charlotte isn’t a market that is going to attract marquee free agents and while Kemba is talented, he isn’t on the level of someone like Russel Westbrook or Anthony Davis who are MVP caliber players in a small market that could legitimately carry a team to the finals with the right piece or two. The best way for Charlotte to get that type of player is through the draft and your best chance at doing that is with a top 3 pick. Charlotte isn’t bad enough to have a top 3 pick and likely won’t be that bad unless Kemba is traded away.

Then again, the draft is not a guarantee. Charlotte has proven with their MKG and Cody Zeller picks that even if you pick in the top 3-4, the talent evaluators in the front office are more likely to whiff than hit. That’s the real dilemma. Why give away the most proven commodity on the roster when there is no history of the team being able to get it right during a reset.

If it were up to me, I wouldn’t trade Kemba. The value is too high for me to do that right now and emotionally, the city and fans need him. There will be a time where it makes sense to move Kemba. Perhaps it will be as soon as this summer, but it’s not now. Keep Kemba.

Making Sense of the Kelvin Benjamin Trade

The NFL trade deadline passed yesterday and it was about as active of a trade deadline as I can remember the NFL having in some time. Maybe ever. A number of trades went down, or almost went down in the case of the Cleveland Browns and the Panthers were one of the teams involved.

It was a pretty quiet day for Panther fans overall. The team has a history of making some trades, but most of the time they are limited to draft day trades of picks for other picks and trades for guys towards the end of the preseason when rosters are getting shaped. Marty Hurney’s most famous trade was the Greg Olsen for a third round pick, but that happened over the summer during the middle of the 2011 offseason. Dave Gettleman traded for Jared Allen in 2015 about three weeks in, but neither GM has made much of a splash at the actual deadline before. Most fans were really hoping the Panthers would spring for a guy like TY Hilton or Vontae Davis to help propel the team forward towards a playoff push, but deep down, most fan’s expectations were pretty anchored down that the front office would likely stand pat. It was a pretty safe bet.

What ended up happening took everyone by surprise. Around 4:12 pm, twelve minutes past the 4:00pm deadline, Adam Schefter dropped the bomb:

Wait…..what?!

My friend Josh and I kept making jokes during the day, that the Panthers had just made a trade for (fill in the blank here), but we obviously never took each other seriously. I happened to pull Twitter up a minute or two after the news broke and did a double take. At first, I thought it was a fake tweet because there was just no way the team would make a move like this.

Reality set in pretty quick.

Alarm bells went off for me. First thing I did was lean over to Josh’s desk to tell him. I made sure to clarify that this was NOT a drill, but my tone and face pretty much told the story. The news spread throughout the rest of the office like a virus in the jungle. Push notifications, alerts and word of mouth sent the entire floor into a state of disbelief. It was wild. There were so many questions that people had and just not enough answers. Why did we do this? What did we get in return?

The return question was answered pretty quickly:

The why came shortly after:

My immediate reactions were really heavily skewed towards hating the trade and everything about it. I was very upset in the moment and I didn’t want to write about it without more perspective so I made a conscious decision to sleep on it. Now that I have had the opportunity to do that and listen to the reasoning from various people, I’m happy I made that decision and I’m much more prepared to offer a balanced take.

Here are my main thoughts and takeaways

1. The timing is weird — My initial shock/outrage of the move almost had everything to do with the timing of the deal. Sure, some of my anger came from my emotional attachment to Benjamin as a fan. You never like to see players your team drafts and develops just get shipped out without warning, but you really don’t want to see your team ship out the #1 WR on the roster when you’re in the thick of a playoff race and your offense is struggling. The player’s reactions were all pretty telling once the deal was made. KB was clearly well liked in the lockerroom and the move certainly took everyone by surprise. Shaking things up isn’t always a bad thing, but risking the chemistry by trading away a big weapon halfway through the season is a bold move

2. It makes sense financially — Kelvin was in the last year of his rookie scale contract. Dave Gettleman did exercise his 5th year option that are available to front offices for first round draft picks. That option was picked up back in March and is valued at $8.5 million for 2018, but after that expires, Kelvin was set to be a free agent. It just so happened, that Devin Funchess’s contract was set to expire after the end of 2018 as well which meant the organization had a decision to make. It was unlikely that the team would extend or retain both players and since extensions are handled the majority of the time before the final season of said contract starts, those conversations would have needed to been had a few short months from now. Marty Hurney opted to keep Funchess who arguably has higher upside and carries a cheaper price tag next year. That made KB expendable and Hurney went ahead and got something in return for later.

3. Does it improve the team? — From a talent perspective it does not. Funchess might be younger and have higher upside, but I do think that KB is the better player right now and the best receiver on this team. Taking away the best player at a position on your team is questionable, to say the least, for a team firmly in the thick of a division race. Personnel wise, I understand the reasoning. KB and Funchess are very similar players and neither one of them are taking the top off of a defense. The Carolina offense has been built to win games with great running and chunk plays in the passing game and right now, teams are matching up one on one with KB and Funchess because they know neither will beat them deep. They may keep one safety back to help in coverage, but defenses are routinely lining up 8-9 guys in the box to pressure Cam and stop the run game. Carolina has speedy guys in Shepard, Samuel and Clay that aren’t seeing the field because KB and Funchess have been dominating the snaps. Samuel, in particular, needs more snaps because his upside is so high and he has a 4.31 40 time to boot.

At the end of the day, I think the team got less talented in a pretty critical time of the season. The silver lining we can lean on is that Carolina has had a lot of success without Kelvin Benjamin and removing him for different types of personnel may help the team down the stretch. And hey, we get Brenton Bersin back again so.

 

Panthers Just Made the WTF Roster Move of the Season

Who ever said Mondays were boring???

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, my Monday was still boring as shit up until about 7:00pm EST tonight. That’s about the time that I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and found this little gem from Max Henson:

Let’s keep this 100 real quick. This is a nothing football move and the fact that this all of a sudden made my boring Monday “less boring” should show you exactly how boring my Monday was. That being said, when you look at the reasoning behind why Marty Hurney made this move for Carolina, there are a ton of interesting layers behind it.

First let’s add some context. QB Gilbert in the tweet is referring to Garrett Gilbert, a quarterback that Dave Gettleman signed in the offseason to add some depth to the position for camp and OTA’s while Cam’s shoulder was recovering from surgery. Gilbert showed enough during camp and his preseason appearances that the coaching staff decided to keep him around with one of the team’s 10 practice squad spots. Dez Southward is a safety that was brought in (under similar circumstances to Gilbert) to compete for a spot and provide depth to his position. Southward initially was on the practice squad, but was called up to the active roster a couple of weeks ago to fill in for some injured guys at his position. DL Purcell is some guy I’ve never heard of and wasn’t aware he existed until this tweet so he is irrelevant.

Another thing to remember with this, is that the positions the players play matter more than the players themselves. Both guys are either backend roster guys or technically not even on the roster to begin with. The NFL is cruel SOB for players in that position and turnover happens regularly with those types of players.

OK, let’s take a deep dive here.

The big picture of the move is that the result leaves the Panthers with FOUR quarterbacks on the active roster. Not one, not two…..four. Historically, most teams break camp/preseason with two quarterbacks on the active roster. It’s ironic in a sense that that’s the case since the position is the most valuable one in sports, but given how little you rotate in quarterbacks mid game and the fact the only one plays at a time, coaches find that two QB’s is sufficient and keeping more depth at skill positions or lineman is more valuable than stashing more guys at QB that won’t sniff the field.

The Panthers have been routinely keeping three QB’s on the roster over the past couple of years which isn’t as common. Sure, multiple teams do it every season, but it’s a very small percentage. Joe Webb stuck around Carolina a couple of seasons, because while he was solid depth at QB, he was also a stand out special teams player and could fill in at wideout in a pinch. His flexibility made him too valuable to drop. Another scenario as to why a team like Carolina would keep three QB’s is what they are doing currently. During roster cut day, Carolina claimed Brad Kaaya off of waivers from Detroit because he felt like there was value in having a young QB in the pipeline. Derek Anderson is in the last year of his deal and Carolina hasn’t drafted a QB in some time. Kaaya was a late round pick in the most recent draft which shows that he has value and potential. Teams that don’t have immediate use for guys like that typically use a roster spot on them in order to protect them from other teams.

When Carolina promoted Gilbert up to the roster, instead of cutting Kaaya, they cut Southward, a safety. So now, the Panthers are currently holding four QB’s on the active roster. No one keeps four QB’s on the active roster.

My immediate reaction is that a trade is potentially forthcoming. Teams like Green Bay and Tampa saw their starting QB’s get injured over the weekend meaning there could be a need for one of them (or some other team) to add depth to that position while they wait for the injury to heal.

Would one of these teams (or another team) be interested in acquiring one of Carolina’s quarterbacks perhaps? Let’s look at the likelihood of this.

Derek Anderson — We obviously won’t include Cam in this scenario because that’s our guy and in no sane universe would there be a scenario that we trade him. That leaves Anderson as the highest guy on the depth chart. The only conceivable reason that DA could get traded is because he’s a free agent at the end of the season and the Panthers aren’t looking to resign him. I’m not sure if that last part is true or not, but either way it’s a long shot. Given that Cam isn’t fully healthy still from his shoulder surgery, having a “reliable” backup like DA around isn’t something you can trade away. Likelihood: 1/10

Brad Kaaya — This is the most intriguing side of a potential deal because Kaaya is still fresh enough out of college and the draft that some team that liked him a lot during the vetting process, but passed on him in the draft to address greater needs, etc may really be tempted to give up a pick to get him away from Carolina. If Kaaya were to get traded, he’d still be the backup, but his “ceiling” could be enough to convince teams that he’s worth having around as insurance for this year with the potential to grow into much more going forward. Likelihood: 5.5/10

Garret Gilbert — If you’re comparing Gilbert to Kaaya at face value, Kaaya is the more attractive player. Gilbert had a nice preseason, but he stuck around on the Panther practice squad for a reason. Teams can sign guys off other team’s practice squads at any time so there is definite vulnerability for a team to have a guy that they like on a practice squad with no formal protection of his rights. Gilbert was never signed away from Carolina. Possibly because teams didn’t have a need for him, or possibly because teams felt like he didn’t present enough of an upgrade to what they already had. That’s why this move is so interesting because he was promoted to the active roster without taking another QB’s spot. Perhaps the Panthers got wind of another team’s interest of him and protected him enough so that they could get a draft pick back? There isn’t much of another explanation out there. Likelihood: 7/10

The other scenario is that Hurney promoted Gilbert up without cutting another QB purely to protect him until teams like Green Bay and Tampa address their QB needs. Once those teams do, he will turn right around and release him back down to the practice squad and replace him with a player from another position. That would be the ultimate troll job and a total move the Panthers WOULD execute. For my sake, I hope that’s not the case. I’m craving a trade!

*Update*

Marty Hurney is officially a troll.

 

Sunday’s Game is Crucial for the Offense

After Sunday’s game against the Patriots, Carolina will have successfully completed a quarter of their season. Logic says that a trip up to Foxboro to take on Tom Brady will result in a loss and a subsequent 2-2 record. Being .500 after four games in the NFL certainly isn’t a death sentence, but with the way other teams in the division (namely the Falcons) are playing, the margin for error is pretty thin going forward.

If there is anything that Panther fans can lean on for optimism going into this week’s game, it’s that the New England defense is absolutely awful. New England’s defense ranks at the bottom of the league in most major statistical categories and are on pace for a historically bad season. They lack the personnel to get good push up front and there simply aren’t enough to playmakers on the backend to compensate for the difference. The Pats have been especially vulnerable when it comes to defending backs like McCaffrey who can dice you up with receiving yards out of the backfield or in the slot. Carolina and Shula have proved to be unafraid to feed CMC the rock early and often so I expect he will be pretty involved throughout the day.

The problem though for Carolina has been their inability to capitalize on scoring opportunities regardless of whether they’ve played a bad defense or not. Cam Newton is clearly not 100% coming off his shoulder surgery. Even if the shoulder itself is healthy, his timing and reads that he’s making are behind, off or completely nonexistent. As much as we can pass some blame around to Shula for lackluster play calling, the offensive line for lack of protection, etc. Cam has and deserves a decent amount of criticism. He has missed multiple plays that, as a starting QB in the NFL, you should never miss and more often than not, those misses would have either been scores or a big gain down the field.

As good as the defense is, they’re not invincible. Drew Brees proved that last Sunday as he picked them apart for four quarters. Rivera has often relied on the defense to win games for him during his tenure, but frankly, if Cam and the offense can’t get points, then the pressure on the defense to perform every time out is too much.

I’m as concerned as anyone about Cam’s performance this season. I’m still firmly on his bandwagon because the guy is simply too talented to not rebound at some point. However, if Rivera is insistent on limiting Cam’s running opportunities to protect him, but his shoulder isn’t fully back from rehab then it’s going to be hard for Carolina to outscore their opponents on a weekly basis.

Losses in the NFL typically spark overreaction so the Saints game may end up being an anomaly, but fans will definitely need to see strides from the offense against an absolutely awful defense. Even if the team loses, but the offense proves they can score, then we should feel better going into the second quarter of the season. If Carolina continues their trend, then there will be some hard questions to answer on Monday.