Darren Collison’s Emergence
First-round draft pick Darren Collison was supposed to spend his rookie season watching and learning from the league’s best. But when Chris Paul went down with a left knee injury on January 29, Collison was prematurely thrust into a starting role for the New Orleans Hornets.
The short and slender guard has responded in a big way. Collison is just 6’0″ and 160 pounds but he plays much, much bigger than that. During New Orleans’ last 12 games, Paul has been sidelined in a suit and tie. In that time, Collison has averaged 20.6 points (on 48% shooting), 9.7 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 42 minutes per game.
The agile ball-handler with exceptional quickness has strung together a variety of highlight-worthy plays lately – everything from blow-by lay-ups to tough running floaters, breakaway dunks, clutch 3-pointers and pinpoint alley-oop lobs. His explosive first step and deep shooting range have caught the attention of many GMs around the league.
He does remain prone to rookie mistakes. Collison has turned the ball over 58 times during the 12-game stretch. But given how aggressively he plays and the fact that he’s just 22 years old, it is certainly something that can be tolerated and improved upon.
Collison is proving he’s capable of leading a team and being a full time starter in the N.B.A. But when Paul returns at the end of the season, his minutes will decrease greatly… particularly given the emergence of fellow rookie guard Marcus Thornton. Thornton was drafted in the second round by the Heat before being shipped off to the Hornets. On Tuesday night, he rang up 37 points in a loss to Cleveland (including a franchise record 23-points in the second quarter).
Having a surplus of good players is a nice problem to have, and one the Hornets may seek to parlay into success next season. Miami would be foolish not to take an interest. But, as Heat fans have so painfully learned, desire does not equal ability.
With the trade deadline now passed, nothing can be done until the offseason. In any Collison trade scenario, the Hornets will be looking for a combination of talent, draft picks and/or cap relief. New Orleans has a solid core in place with Paul and David West. A defensive-minded perimeter threat would be fit nicely. But they also have 10 players on next season’s payroll at a combined salary of $71.8 million – which means they are facing at least a $7 million luxury tax bill. The luxury tax is a penalty paid by high-spending teams. Teams pay one dollar for each dollar their payroll exceeds a predetermined tax threshold.
Talent. The best, and perhaps only, SG/SF that will remain on the Heat’s roster after the July Moratorium – a short period during which all activity is suspended while the upcoming salary cap and luxury tax threshold are determined – will be Daeqaun Cook. So, short of a Dorell Wright sign-and-trade agreement, talent is something the Heat is not in a position to offer.
Cap Space. The Hornets are in desperate need of tax relief, and the Heat has mountains of available relief to offer. New Orleans will look to package him with one of its several bloated contracts in any salary dump transaction. But, poised to add a maximum contract player, the Heat has precious little cap space to spare. It would be difficult to rationalize a purely salary dump-type trade for the Hornets anyway. Despite next season’s huge salary commitments, more than $28 million is projected to come off the books the season thereafter.
Draft Picks. That leaves draft picks. The Heat project to have three tradable first round picks in the next two N.B.A. drafts. Cheap young talent could be of strong interest to the financially-strapped Hornets but, in and of itself, would increase – not decrease – New Orleans’ upcoming tax bill.
Darren Collison has been playing splendid basketball for the Hornets. He is emerging as an outstanding point guard in the N.BA, and could be a solid fit alongside Dwyane Wade in the Heat backcourt. Finding a way to acquire him, however, will require a great deal of creativity.
There are several reasons why Collison should remain a Hornet. His salaries are $1.27 million this season and $1.36 million in 2010/11. New Orleans has a team option for 2011/12 at $1.46 million and another team option in 2012/13 on Collison for $2.32 million. They appear to have a high-quality point guard at a bargain (in NBA terms) price. Short of being offered a trade GM Jeff Bower simply cannot pass up, my guess is that he will.