Second-guessing goes with being a sports fan like salsa goes with tortilla chips. There’s rarely a moment in sports that doesn’t come with a question of “what if?”
With my hometown Charlotte Hornets, there are plenty of what-if moments, dating back to the franchise’s days as the Charlotte Bobcats. And a few of those points in time stick out enough to me that I argue they changed what would be a solid path to an NBA championship for a small-market city that has never truly experienced professional sports glory.
Let’s highlight those key moments from most important to least important.
No. 1: Charlotte loses the NBA Draft Lottery to New Orleans in spring 2012
When the ping pong balls didn’t bounce Charlotte’s way in the ’12 Draft Lottery, the trajectory of the Hornets franchise was altered more than at any other moment. The No. 2 pick card displaying the Bobcats logo that night immediately meant we would not get prized Kentucky big man Anthony Davis. And it meant that any other player pick (it became the solid swingman with a horrid jumpshot Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) would be a disappointment in comparison. Charlotte had won 11 percent of its games in the previous shortened 2011-12 season (7-59), and the team deserved a shot at a destined turnaround more than, arguably, any other franchise in the league’s history. Without Davis, what became the Hornets has become a perennial middle-of-the-pack roster, not terrible but nothing to get excited about. With Davis, the Hornets would have become a contender for years to come, especially on a roster with another low-post threat (Al Jefferson) and one of the league’s better young point guards (Kemba Walker).
No. 2: Charlotte picks Cody Zeller in the 2013 NBA Draft
The Hornets left exciting potential on the board when passing on Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore and Michael Carter-Williams. But more importantly they left a highly discussed European “project” on the board in Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who at the No. 15 pick to Milwaukee has turned into a more solid swingman than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been as a No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft a year earlier. The Hornets took Cody Zeller at No. 4 in 2013, and while he has been a solid and improving young big man, Cody is an illustration of what has held Charlotte back at times in competing in the NBA. Yes, the city isn’t a market that will draw top talent like New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and others will. But a team can make a major difference in its destiny by pulling off a major draft victory against the odds. Am I right, New York Knicks and Kristaps Porzingis? Give the Hornets Antetokounmpo here instead of Zeller and, on top of having Davis instead of Kidd-Gilchrist, you transform the team’s front line and overall roster.
Those moves alone would enable a starting five of:
Center Al Jefferson
Power Forward Anthony Davis (not Marvin Williams or Cody Zeller)
Small Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (not Michael Kidd-Gilchrist)
Shooting Guard Nicolas Batum
Point Guard Kemba Walker
No. 3: Boris Diaw‘s relationship with the Hornets sours in 2011
Whatever actually happened between the franchise and the player, Boris Diaw and the Charlotte Bobcats became disenchanted with each other in the 2010-11 season, and he ended up moving on to the San Antonio Spurs (then coming back for a stint and then returning to the Spurs). Diaw averaged 15, 11 and 11 points in his main three seasons in Charlotte. Those aren’t all-star numbers, but he was a solid and versatile player who made the Hornets better. And he’s proven via his time in San Antonio that he’s a winner and can sit the bench until he’s needed, even if that’s just for a playoff run. For me, Diaw is an example of the title-ready role players the Hornets haven’t had on their roster since the days Stephen Curry‘s pops Dell was Charlotte’s sixth man. Instead of enjoying the benefits of having such players, we’re seeking them year in and year out. Add Diaw to the bench and rotation of a roster with the athletic Davis and Antetokounmpo already in the starting lineup and you really start to put a contending product on the court. But the string of events has just not panned out that way.
Thanks to NBA 2K16, I can make my Charlotte Hornets whatever I like. And I have, exacting the same roster moves I suggested above, as well as a few more.