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Adding to the Darren Collison Intrigue

With free agency set to begin next week, the New Orleans Hornets’ ownership transfer delay could hamper the team’s ability to improve its roster, even though George Shinn has continued to reassure fans of his commitment toward winning.

What else is he going to say? The cash strapped owner needs to sell season tickets.

But the situation in the Big Easy has led to widespread speculation that more than half of the league’s general managers have taken great interest in. The Hornets remain a league-wide curiosity because, even after last season’s virtual giveaways of Rasual Butler and Devin Brown to avoid paying luxury tax, New Orleans is back in tax territory with a projected payroll of more than $73 million in 2010/11.

What do you do when your loss-making team’s two best players play the same position?

One answer, and the easiest, is to trade one of them this summer. There are only 48 minutes available to a point guard, and the Hornets have more pressing needs at hand. Both Chris Paul and Darren Collison would demand a major return on the trade market. The Hornets could move Paul in return for a bevy of solid, young talent and draft picks that could shore up several positions of need. They could also move Collison with a bigger contract to pad his outgoing salary. The Hornets unfortunately have multiple overpaid declining parts still locked up for at least another season.

Rival executives continue to try to convince the Hornets to make Paul available in trades, pointing to the fact that new head coach Monty Williams can simply slide the promising Collison and his modest $1.4 million salary into that spot. When those teams get shot down, they come right back and suggest the Hornets’ make Collison available, conditioned upon a willingness to take back the cap-clogging contracts of Emeka Okafor, James Posey or Peja Stojakovic.

It has always been assumed that the Hornets will trade away one of their two star point guards to get under the tax threshold. Recent history suggests that smaller market teams will do just about anything – even the decidedly stupid – to drop below that magic line. Last season, the salary-dumping Utah Jazz jettisoned the promising rookie point guard Eric Maynor to Sam Presti, perhaps the best young general manager in the league today, and his Oklahoma City Thunder, in a package deal that included the retiring Matt Harpring.

Owner-to-be Gary Chuest has continued to emphatically suggest Paul will not be traded. But he has been much more noncommittal in regards to retaining Collison. And it has the backup guard on edge. “I don’t know if I’m going to be a Hornet,” Collison recently said. “I like it here, but things don’t work out that way. This is a business, and I’m starting to understand it.”

Things got decidedly more interesting on draft night. Shortly after Collison described how Cole Aldrich’s defensive presence in the post would be a big help for the Hornets in the coming season, it was announced they had traded the 11th pick in draft to the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with guard Morris Peterson, for draft picks Craig Brackins and Quincy Pondexter. This was yet another decidedly one-sided trade the Thunder took advantage of, after previous such dealings with the Jazz and Heat.

But what does it mean for the Hornets?

It may suggest that the salary-dumping mindset in New Orleans could be nearing an end. The move, which cannot officially be completed until July 8 for salary cap reasons, will drop the team from at least $5.4 million into the tax threshold to as much as $72,747 under it, in which case the Hornets would no longer be a tax-paying team.

Despite its obvious financial benefits, the trade was certainly puzzling for a team that also needs to be thinking about how to rebuild. So where should the team have turned in terms of improving?

The Hornets may have saved the franchise by drafting Collison and found second round gold in Marcus Thornton. But if Gary Chouest was thinking about his future team’s future, trading Collison may have been the better way to go.

There are presumably any number of teams – perhaps including the Miami Heat – that would have gladly been willing to take on Darren Collison, even if it meant being saddled with the onerous 4-years and $53 million remaining on Emeka Okafor’s contract. Such a trade would have freed up the single worst salary obligation the team currently has outstanding – with an obvious replacement for the overcompensated center already in hand, in Cole Aldridge.

Consider what the Hornets core could have looked like had it instead pursued the trade suggested. Chris Paul, Marcus Thornton, James Posey, David West and Cole Aldridge represent a solid, if unspectacular, core that would have cost just $32 million against the projected $56.1 million salary cap to come – with the contracts of every other player on the roster set to expire after the coming season.

This appears to be one of the more short-sighted trades in recent history.

But was it the last one for the Hornets?

Interest in Collison remains high.

Last week, he thought he was traded to the Indiana Pacers after receiving a voicemail message from a reporter seeking comment about the rumored trade. He quickly called his agent, who told him he was still with the Hornets. Collison, who was the Hornets’ first-round pick in 2009, had a fabulous rookie season, averaging 12.7 points and 5.8 assists in 76 games, starting 37 in place of injured three-time All-Star point guard Chris Paul.

It seems safe to assume that trade talks will continue. Darren certainly thinks so.

  1. Max
    June 27th, 2010 at 15:59 | #1

    If the heat do take on okafor’s contract as well, would they still be able to afford two max free agents? If they can’t why would they even think of doing this trade?

  2. June 27th, 2010 at 16:13 | #2

    @Max
    While I am not suggesting it, a hypothetical trade of Darren Collison and Emeka Okafor for Michael Beasley (or separate trades providing the same result) would leave the Heat with more than $20 million of cap space after re-signing Wade.

  3. lucas fb
    June 27th, 2010 at 19:26 | #3

    to just lose bledsoe for nothing, you gotta be intrigued by what pat will do regarding the pg spot. i say that because he never ever should’ve re-signed cook!

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