The old man places his grandson on his knee. “Child, let me tell you about the good old days. The days filled with happiness and excitement. Our team had just drafted a nineteen year old kid – a freshmen, just out of college. Boy, you shoulda seen that kid’s upside.”
The child looks up at his grandfather, puzzled. “What’s ‘upside’?”
The old man gets a twinkle in his eye. “Why, upside is – well, it’s hope. It’s the feeling that eventually this young man will be very good and lead us to the promised land.”
The boy is sharp. His mind sorts out the logic. “Well did he? Did he turn out good and lead us to the promised land?”
“No. No that never happened. But man, you shoulda seen his upside.”
It’s the day of the Draft. Fans are obsessed with potential. It’s fun. For a while. And then it’s not. We want to see results. Fans will not reminisce into their twilight years about Steph Curry’s upside. They will reminisce about his MVP season, his championship season. In fact, Curry never really had any upside as a junior coming out of Davidson. He was a physically limited combo guard who could really shoot. Crazy measurables? Hardly. Now he’s a champ.
The Hornets haven’t won 50 games since the late ‘90s. I remember those teams but I’m also closer to forty than thirty. So many younger Charlotte NBA hoops fans have never known what it’s like to cheer for a winning team. Michael Jordan has decided that it’s time to change that. Immediately.
Nic Batum can pass and shoot. Two things the Hornets struggled with mightily last season. A team starting Kemba Walker at point guard needs a wing compatriot who can facilitate in the half-court and defend. A team with Al Jefferson at center needs a wing compatriot who can stretch the floor, complete entry passes and keep his man from running free into the paint. Batum checks all of these boxes. All of them. I posited a Batum trade two weeks ago for these very reasons. If Charlotte is intent on building around Kemba and Al, then adding a player like Nic is non-negotiable. The system simply won’t work without one.
This trade is impossible to grade until you know two things: A.) Noah Vonleh’s realized upside and B.) Nic Batum’s next contract. Noah was a consensus Lottery pick last year for a reason. He’s a physically gifted (if non-athletic) big man who can score in a variety of ways. He can rebound and block shots. He might be a star. We don’t know. Coach Clifford rarely played him last season and immediately after the trade there was some chatter that Charlotte found his inability to grasp basics of the NBA game worrisome. He’s still only nineteen years old so it may take several more years before we know exactly what the Hornets gave up.
In the meantime Batum is on an expiring contract. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent next season and can walk freely. Sure, Charlotte will have his “Bird Rights” but given the landscape of the new CBA, that really doesn’t mean anything. Perhaps Rich Cho and Nic’s people have some sort of understanding in place – sell Batum on Charlotte this season and reward him next July – again, we shall see. Hopefully Nic enjoys the Queen City more than the last French baller – Boris Diaw – who was so miserable in the South that he transformed into Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
All this said, it’s worth the risk. Batum and MKG on the wings is the East’s best defensive perimeter duo. Nic did wonders for Damian Lillard’s career as a secondary pick and roll ballhandler and he’ll do much the same for Kemba. Big Al has an underrated pick and pop shot out to around eighteen feet and Batum can run similar plays with Jefferson that he did with LaMarcus Aldridge. If the proposed Jeremy Lamb trade goes through, Clifford will almost certainly trot out MKG/Batum/Lamb/Kemba small ball lineups with either Spencer Hawes or Cody Zeller at center. The sort of ball movement and shot-making these lineups produce will leave Hornets fans confused, wondering if they’d mistakenly tuned into a Western Conference team instead.
Finally, they’re not finished. The Draft is tonight and the Hornets love making trades. Expect the unexpected. Draft Frank Kaminsky? Why not. Trade him to the New York Knicks? Why not. Trade him in a package for Carmelo Anthony? At this point, why not. Michael Jordan wants his team to win games and make this city proud again. Unlimited Upside? Defiantly no. The Upside of Winning is so much sweeter.